Mike Fromowitz
Jun 6, 2013

A minority opinion: The message is the medium

John Hegarty, the worldwide creative director and co-founder of the London-based agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty has a modus operandi: When others are zigging (being a sheep), he zags.

A minority opinion: The message is the medium

One of the world’s most awarded and respected admen, John Hegarty has been at the forefront of the creative advertising industry from his early days at Saatchi and Saatchi to Bartle Bogle Hegarty, the global company he runs today.

Through more than 40 years in the industry, he and his agency are known for some of the most famous campaigns in British advertising, from helping to revive Levi's to current work for Axe and Johnnie Walker. In recognition for his services to the ad industry, he will make his annual pilgrimage to the Cannes advertising festival, where he will receive the first-ever Lion of St. Mark award. The honour coincides with the publication of Hegarty on Advertising: Turning Intelligence Into Magic.

Sir John Hegarty was in Canada recently giving a presentation to the Institute of Communications Agencies’ Future Flash Conference held at a resort in Ontario’s Muskoka region. He later gave an interview to the Globe & Mail newspaper's Susan Krashinsky and talked about why marketing is having a heyday – and how it is falling short.

I think most of John Hegarty’s words are golden in this interview, especially when he speaks about multimedia. For certain his view on things should not be missed by anyone in advertising and marketing.

Here’s the best of it.

You said you think this is the best time to be in marketing. Why?

There are so many tools at your disposal. Really now, it’s all in the power of the idea. I turn that Marshall McLuhan line around – the medium is the message? No, the message is the medium. If you have a great idea, it gets picked up by the audience, and transmitted. That’s free. We’ve just done a piece of work for a soft drink in the U.K., with a very limited budget. It now has 1.5 million hits on YouTube. ... Better it gets out there, for free.

Your work for The Guardian newspaper was almost counterintuitive for the digital age. You made something cinematic, and long, at a time when we’re told digital is making people’s attention spans shorter.

There is absolutely no empirical evidence at all that shorter is better. What there is empirical evidence of, is that boring is bad. Young people today … turn things off quickly when they’re bad. But we all did. The idea that we sat around in the 1960s saying, “It’s really boring but I’ll keep watching it” – we didn’t. We stopped watching, or started chatting. Our brains switched off. We can now physically switch off. But I think people are driven by things today that are really really good. TV is having a golden age. Game of Thrones, The Killing …. What was this about shorter? The Killing – 22 episodes long and it was about one killing. It was about quality. ...

When a new piece of technology comes out, it’s driven by the technologists. .... Gutenberg was the Steve Jobs, Sergey Brin, Mark Zuckerberg of his day. It wasn’t until a group of creative people came along that you had writers and a publishing industry. The Lumière brothers invented the camera; they didn’t invent the cinema. Les Paul didn’t invent rock ‘n’ roll. I think we’re coming out of this idea that it’s all about the technology.

Video for Johnnie Walker

My big, big criticism of our industry, unlike almost every other creative industry, is that it doesn’t look to its past. If you’re an architect, a painter, a musician, you know about what came before. In our industry, it’s appalling. It’s almost as though yesterday’s dead. But it’s not; it has a huge amount to show us about entertainment, about work that captured people’s imaginations. What’s changed, is my ability to spread the idea further. But the idea hasn’t changed. That’s what’s important.

You’ve said that you feel TV has reached a new height but the ads have gotten worse. Why?

Because people have lost faith in it. Our clients have lost faith in it. If you get up and say, “I think television’s fantastic,” you get a shrug. But I think it is having a golden age, and we’re not utilizing it. The other thing is, most clients want what they’re doing to be a science. It’s why there’s so much research and data, because it proves something. ... But we are instinctive individuals. All information goes in through the heart. We know research doesn’t work. But clients go on using it. Why? Because it makes their job easier and safer in the organization they’re in.

Some of the most popular TV shows - Great production quality

You are critical of the use of big data in marketing. But can marketers afford not to use it in a world where media, and your access points to consumers, are so fragmented?

Don’t get me wrong. Data are important, because it’s knowledge. But the idea that it has the solution within it, is wrong. Everybody’s reading the same data. If it has the solution within it, everyone will come to the same conclusion. We call that “wind-tunnel marketing.” If everybody’s looking at the same stuff, interpreting it in the same way, coming to the same conclusion, you’ll all be the same. And the point of a brand is to be different.

In your talk, you said marketers are doing promotion without persuasion.

They’re both important. You can’t have one without the other. But what we’ve seen happen over the last 10 years is, digital basically is promotion. Nike Fuelband – brilliant. I wish I’d had the idea. But it talks to Nike loyalists. If I like New Balance, you haven’t persuaded me that Nike is a great brand. It doesn’t persuade, it promotes. Which is important, but you can’t have one without the other. I think people have given up, to a certain extent, on persuasion.

How do you define persuasion?

Persuasion is taking a nonbeliever and turning them into a believer. Christ stood on the rock and he talked to the masses. He did not talk to 18- to 25-year-olds with a disposable income of 25 shekels and a preponderance to change. He persuaded – because of what he believed in. What does a brand believe in? You have to communicate that to a large audience.

With social media, consumers are able to speak louder than ever before. How do brands shift their communications in that context?

This idea of the consumer controlling the brand is seriously dangerous. Because one day they’re going to say, “Actually, I’m bored with you. I’m going over there.”… Great brands are two steps in front of everybody. ... That’s your job: tell me why it’s great. Because my life is worrying about my kids and the love of my life, and my football team and a thousand other things that are a damn sight more important than instant custard. This idea that we’re all sitting around talking about brands is delusional. And I think, as you did point out, there’s a kind of echo chamber to all of this.

You mentioned that it seems marketers have come back to the false idea that interruption is good. How can advertising still be relevant, helpful, or even halfway effective in this environment?

Make it engaging, entertaining, honest – all the things we were saying in 1965 when I got into advertising. … I can remember sitting in a presentation in 1982 and explaining to a client how many advertising messages people were exposed to in a day. It was a problem in 1982, and it was a problem in 1972. It will be a problem in 2022. Make it interesting and I might listen. It’s as simple as that. But very, very hard to do.

You suggest in your new book (Hegarty On Advertising: Turning Intelligence Into Magic) that all agencies are destined/doomed to go through cycles of being hot and then being not.

Absolutely. You're making something with emotion. You're creating magic. And some days the magic's not there.

With BBH as well?

Oh yes, we've been in down times, up times, down times. People often say to me when we're in a bit of a down time: 'Oh, what's happened to BBH?' It'll be alright, we'll come back. You can't sort of manufacture this, and you need the clients to kind of help you generate the work, and if you haven't got the clients at that particular moment, it's very hard. I mean, look at Crispin (Porter + Bogusky) right now, I think [they]are going through a bit of a tough time.

Axe "Angel"

Are clients more or less brave than 30 years ago?

I think clients have always found it difficult buying great work. I think the thing that's changed now is that more of the work we produce has a global component to it, and the people we're selling it to tend to be on the global stage, so to speak. And there are often lots of stakeholders. So I'm no longer selling just to one person, I'm selling to a group of people, and the group of people have to agree, and that makes it much harder. Yet you also have technology which allows you to do things with a very small budget.

You know, I always say that revolutions always start at the edges and work in. So you'll do something small at the edges and suddenly everybody can see it because of technology and they go - 'Wow, that's great! Why don't we do something like that?' I mean, our Johnnie Walker 'The Man Who Walked Around the World' is a wonderful example. That was originally done as just a sort of a PR film for Johnnie Walker, just explaining their history. That was the brief. They came to us and said, 'Just put a bit of film together and write a script for us about the history of Johnnie Walker so we can show it to, you know, PR people and we can use it as an instructional film about the company.' And we went, 'Wait a minute, there's a great story to be told here.' If we told the story like this, a walk - because it was all about walking - we could do something magical. And we did. And suddenly the client looked at it and went, 'Wow, this is fantastic!' And it went global. And that's what you can do today. Couldn't have done that 10 years ago.

Ad for Boddington "The cream of manchester."

You've becomes something of a celebrity in Britain, appearing on shows like Desert Island Discs and elsewhere in the media. Are we missing out on something here (in USA/Canada)?

When I went to the States and we opened up BBH in New York, I was quite shocked in a way to find the advertising industry and people in it were quite lowly regarded by industry at large and the public at large. I thought that was a shame, and I thought maybe it's just because there's so much of the stuff and it just gets in your face, and so much of it is not good. But it's just like every other creative industry - I always say that 95 per cent of advertising is crap. But I think that's the same with television, I think that's the same with movies, I think it's the same in virtually every other creative industry. Our problem is we jam it in front of people's faces, so there's a greater responsibility on us to make it better.

The Guardian's "Three Little Pigs"

One of the other differences between the U.K. and the U.S. is we [in the U.K.] tend to use the culture around us in our advertising. So we'll refer to things. We'll refer to something that's happening in the world outside, and we'll use that in our advertising to kind of help create a distinctive piece of work. Whereas in the States I tended to find that advertising just tended to reflect advertising. So as an example, I thought the 'Wazzup?!' (Budweiser) campaign was a fantastic campaign that took a bit of common culture and used it in advertising. But that's very rare in the States. And I think from that point of view, therefore, people view it was a separate industry, whereas here in the U.K. we use the culture around us, and we'll use famous people in ads, and we'll reference programs or we'll reference things and it makes advertising much more a part of everyday culture.

There's more of a dialogue.

There's more of a dialogue, and people can relate to it much more. Whereas I tended to find that advertising in the States was in this kind of world called Advertising.

About the Book:
Hegarty On Advertising: Turning Intelligence Into Magic

John Hegarty's book contains over four decades of wisdom and insight from the man who put Nick Kamen into a laundrette for Levi Strauss and gave Audi the immortal Vorsprung durch Technik, amongst many, many other highly successful campaign's for major brands.

The book represents the 21st century's answer to David Ogilvy's bestselling Confessions of an Advertising Man and provides both John Hegarty's advice on the elements of advertising, from pitching to the effects of new technology, and the story of his career from his early days at Saatchi and Saatchi to the global force that Bartle Bogle Hegarty is today.


Mike Fromowitz


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