Dirt in discourse

British advertising icon Sir John Hegarty will deliver the keynote address at DirectDay 2023, and visitors can look forward to his usual trenchant, critical talk - as Sir John reveals in an exclusive pre-interview.

Bild: zVg. Sir John Hegarty
(Image: zVg.)

m&k: Sir John Hegarty, you've had an eventful few weeks: you were in Cannes and took part in a fireside chat in front of a large audience; you hosted a virtual "Summer School"; and you're preparing a new round of your online Masterclass, due to start in October. The common denominator in all your activities: It's always about creative excellence and how to approach it. So my first question is: How do you assess the status quo of creative quality in the marketing and communications industry?

Sir John Hegarty: Where should I start? (laughs) When I spoke in Cannes, I tried to make one thing clear to the audience: Our industry - you can count the agencies, but also the clients - is producing more and more mediocre, often really bad work. In our daily lives, we are confronted with thousands of snippets of information - consumers have no patience and no desire to deal with low-quality advertising on top. It may sound harsh, but: quite a few agencies, quite a few responsible persons in the marketing and communication industry hardly do anything else than pollute the discursive space. Unfortunately, I hardly recognize any efforts to change this. Instead, the frequency of advertising is ramped up in the hope that some of the nonsense will stick if only enough media pressure is exerted.

"Quite a few (...) do little other than pollute the discursive space."


A clear verdict. Do you also have an idea how the problem could be solved?

You anticipated my idea in your first question: We need a return to excellent, creative work. Now. Instead of wearing people down with bad advertising until they eventually give in, we need to convey messages that consumers actually want to hear and see. Sustainability is now on everyone's lips. This raises the question of why many agencies and clients have apparently not yet realized that they are not only wasting time and money with their advertising strategy, but also "real" energy. Let's assume that 99 percent of the content that is played out as advertising does not generate any impact - then this is not just intellectual pollution, but ultimately leads to "real", physical pollution.


An interesting thesis: "Creativity equals sustainability."

Exactly. The IAA recently suggested five measures agencies can take to reduce their environmental footprint - but promoting creative excellence is not one of them. That's unfortunate. After all, messages that are well received need to be played out less frequently and are therefore "sustainable" in more ways than one.

"We need a return to excellent, creative work. Now."


Where does it come from that today people seem to pay more attention to KPIs and clicks than to creativity?

We've already had a few conversations together, so you know that I've always considered creative work to be an endangered discipline. It starts with the upbringing and education of our children. We try to discourage them from creative thinking at a young age ... and not just yesterday, but for centuries. First, children learn through play; by imitating the people around them, by drawing pictures and letting their imaginations run wild. Then all of a sudden we adults come along with our idea of "proper education" and say, "You're ten years old now, stop playing and start counting - focus on math, focus on science." (laughs) I know that's putting it casually, but I'm getting at something: We're doing what we can to convince wonderful, curious, young people that everything in the world should be measured. Instead, we should also teach them about phenomena that can't be expressed in numbers - and teach them appreciation for them. After all, this is the beauty of life. Love, for example, cannot be described very well in mathematical terms. And yet it is omnipresent.

Kampagnen aus besseren Zeiten: Die ikonische «When the world zigs, zag»-Ad für Levi's …
Campaigns from better times: The iconic "When the world zigs, zag" ad for Levi's ...
… und der Audi-Slogan «Vorsprung durch Technik», jeweils erdacht und umgesetzt von Hegarty und Kollegen.Bilder: zVg. Levi's / Audi.
... and the Audi slogan "Vorsprung durch Technik," each conceived and implemented by Hegarty and colleagues. (Images: zVg.)

You once told me that the forced change of perspective via education can lead to a real "fear" of creative work.

Oh, yeah. Many people don't really understand creativity; they don't know how to get to a creative - and thus, if you will - "free" mindset. What people don't understand, they fear. Or at least reject it. Then they turn to other things that seem more tangible than creativity. "Let's leave that to the artists:inside," people say, forgetting that we are all creative by nature. As I mentioned, we are born with creative power, we may have just forgotten a few things "along the way." But we can remember, thankfully, if we dare. I have my own, somewhat silly way of illustrating this: Imagine that I give you a Ferrari ...


... I would take it! ...

... I know you would, but for now this is just a thought experiment. (laughs) Okay, so - I'll give you a beautiful red Ferrari. I'll have it delivered right to your front door and give you the keys. What do you do? Do you say, "I'm not a very good driver, certainly not behind the wheel of such a bolide" and send the Ferrari back? Or do you say, "I think I could learn to control the machine if I put in a little time ... and then I could have the fun of my life with it"? You see where I'm going with that comparison!? Creativity is the Ferrari. You can also put another make of car in the metaphor if you have preferences that differ from mine. (laughs)


Agencies like to claim that it was much easier to work creatively 30 years ago. You had to work on fewer platforms and pay less attention to asset diversification. Is there any truth in that?

With all the new technology being developed, I can understand the temptation to wait and see; à la, "We'll take a look at it in peace, and then we'll get creative again!" But that's not how it works. Technology is a vehicle, a vessel - not a purpose in itself, not content! The only place advertising needs to work is in the mind of the recipient. I realize that technology is a bridge to get there, but we don't need to glorify the bridge. Here, for once, the journey is not the destination. You know, people used to be fascinated by microphones, or radios, or TV sets. Does anyone still talk today about what a great invention the microphone is? No, but people talk about Sinatra, who used it very effectively. Storytelling and creative excellence are as important as ever. The means may have changed, but we humans haven't.

"Technology is a vehicle - no purpose in itself, no content!"


Some time ago, you spoke in a lecture about creative excellence being a locational advantage, and Europe needs one. At least if the continent wants to retain its importance in tomorrow's world. Is that still your conviction?

Yes, absolutely. We simply won't be able to compete against markets like the U.S. or China in the medium term. And then there's India, Indonesia, the Philippines ... these countries have resources, they're determined to develop, and they have access to an abundance of low-cost labor. I'm not saying that the latter is a good thing, but it is a fact. What do we Europeans have? We have imagination, culture and history. That is all. But that can be enough if we use the assets properly. We need to export our creative potential; to a world that is desperate for new ideas. This is the best chance we have.


When you left TBWA in London in 1982 to found Barton Bogle Hegarty, you and your colleagues took considerable economic risks - out of conviction. Do you think today's generation of young advertisers is just as willing to take risks ... or has the desire to fundamentally change the industry become generally weaker?

That's an interesting question. If we look at the great creative movements of the past - I'm thinking of Bauhaus, Pop Art, etc. - the driving force there was usually people who questioned the current state of affairs. The same may have been true of advertising agencies in the 20th century. Today, many probably lack the desire and the will to change something. Not only, but also in advertising. I sometimes wonder where the "hunger" has gone. At the same time, I have to come to the defense of the next generation: Technology has fundamentally changed the way young people work together in agencies. Fragmentation is much greater, the team culture is very different from what it was back then. The maxim is no longer, "Gather everyone around one great idea!" but rather, "Person A is responsible for social media, person B for activation, and person C for consulting." Outside of paced group meetings and pitches, there's less sharing. It's harder to realize that there are people around you who think as unrestrictedly as you do ... and with whom you could possibly start a new business.

Mehr ikonische BBH-Anzeigen: Die «Laundrette» für Levi's ...
More iconic BBH ads: The "Laundrette" for Levi's ...
...und «Keep Walking», der Claim von Johnnie-Walker-Whisky.Bilder: zVg. Levi's / Johnnie Walker
...and "Keep Walking," the claim of Johnnie Walker whisky. (Pictures: zVg.)

Advertising experienced its first - very successful - "creative revolution" in the 1960s. Do you think a second "creative revolution" is possible?

Once again, the methods and platforms may change, but creative excellence and outstanding storytelling will never lose their importance. I don't think we understand yet how to really translate these two virtues into the digital space. So I would encourage my younger colleagues to look into that. We've taken storytelling from newspapers to TV sets, found our own form for it, but have we done the same with social media? Or have we said - and again I'm deliberately using a simplification: "We're doing roughly the same thing as on TV, but we're just making the clips shorter, shorter, shorter"? There is a theory that the attention span of young people ends after one and a half seconds and that you either have to "grab" them there - or lose them. I can't refute that, but I can say that there are examples that point in a different direction. Do you know "The Killing"?


No, I have a knowledge gap there.

This TV show not only established the genre of Nordic noir crime series, it was also an enormous success in several countries, especially among younger viewers. I emphasize this for one particular reason: each season consists of twenty episodes, and there is only one murder per season. If that's not an extensive arc of suspense, then I don't know what is. (laughs) Despite this - or perhaps because of it - the series has delighted audiences. Maybe soon we'll be able to tell longer stories again, better stories, more complex stories on all platforms ... we just have to figure out how.

"Maybe soon we'll be able to tell longer, better, more complex stories again."


We've talked a lot about ad agencies, but when it comes to creative excellence, CMOs, CEOs and the like need to be held accountable too, right?

Most definitely, and that brings me back to the environmental footprint of advertising. I often hear from CMOs that while they'd like to dare to be a little more creative, they don't have the authority - and their CEO always wants "proof" that marketing "works." Okay, whatever. Maybe we need to introduce new metrics then? Metrics that marketers can use to prove that one campaign took half as much energy as the previous one to achieve the same result?! And all thanks to creative excellence and storytelling that stands out from the crowd. That should also make sense to CEOs.


Do you really think so?

Yes, and I've already been through every other argument. (laughs) But the C-level is often amazingly ... resistant to advice.


That sounded a bit cynical now.

I hope your readers will forgive me for this. I am simply convinced with every fiber of my being that we can't go on as before; that we have to stop this "advertising pollution" of the world. And I think a large part of the industry - on the part of the agencies as well as on the part of the clients - would at least quietly agree with me. All we need now is the courage to implement the alternatives.

Want to experience Sir John Hegarty - and other inspiring speakers:inside and workshops - live? Then secure your ticket for DirectDay 2023 now - there are only a few remaining tickets available. Go to the online store here.

Sir John Hegarty began his career in advertising as a junior art director at Benton and Bowles London in 1965. Two years later, he joined the consulting firm Cramer Saatchi, before co-founding TBWA London as creative director in 1973. Finally, in 1982, he founded his company Barton Bogle Hegarty, with which he realized numerous internationally acclaimed campaigns in the following decades; among others for Levi's, Audi or Lego. He won the world's major advertising awards, including the "Lion of St. Mark" in Cannes for his life's work.

This article first appeared in m&k extra! on DirectDay 2023.

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