Advertising veteran Sir John Hegarty reveals the secret to being more creative than your rivals

John hegartyBBHBBH cofounder Sir John Hegarty.

Unless you work in advertising, you may not have heard of Sir John Hegarty; but there’s a fairly good chance you recognise some of the big campaigns he worked on.

From the 1980s Levi’s launderette ad, to penning Audi’s “Vorsprung durch technik” tagline, and “The Axe Effect” (or “The Lynx Effect,” if you’re in the UK,) Hegarty is the driving force behind many of the most memorable ads in the business.

Hegarty joined the industry in 1967 and he’s still very much hands-on at BBH, the global advertising agency he founded 34 years ago.

On a visit to BBH’s central London HQ, we asked Hegarty how he manages to stay ahead of his rivals when it comes to being creative.

Unsurprisingly, for an agency whose motto is “when the world zigs, zag,” it’s all about being different to the competition, according to Hegarty.

Don’t read what your competition is reading

The ad industry often obsesses over its trade publications — like AdAge, Adweek, and Campaign — to keep an eye on the latest work.

John hegartyBBHBBH’s motto is ‘when the world’ zigs, zag.’ It was created as a slogan for Levi’s to launch its black denim range. The ad saw a single black sheep facing right, in a flock of black sheep facing left. BBH also adopted the black sheep as its company logo.

Bad idea, according to Hegarty.

He’d rather pick up The Financial Times and The Economist.

“The reason I read those is I get amazing bits of information that other creative people aren’t getting,” Hegarty said. “I want to constantly see the world from a different perspective. That opens my eyes all the time.”

Take off the headphones

Hegarty gets “pissed off” when he sees creatives in his agency wearing headphones. He thinks they’re cutting themselves off from taking in the world around them.

He recalls a story from designer Paul Smith.

Smith was sat in Milan airport, waiting for a delayed flight. Rather than put on his headphones, sink into a book, or fall asleep, he had a stroll around.

On his walk, he happened upon a lucky charm that had fallen off a bracelet.

“20,000 shirts later, Paul Smith said: ‘I think that’s enough of lucky charm buttons on shirts.’ I think that’s a wonderful example of how you have to be constantly open and aware,” Hegarty said.

Stop chatting over Twitter and have real conversations

Lots of creatives peruse social media data to get ideas about what their clients’ audience is interested in. And many creatives chat all day long on social media, too.

But Hegarty encourages talking — in the real world — And lots of it.

“The great thing is that your conversation is unique. It’s the only one of its exact kind happening in the world. If I’m on a Twitter feed, thousands of other people could be looking at the same conversation. Here [at BBH,] when you arrive in the morning, yes you switch on your computer, but what I really love you to do is switch on that person opposite you because you’ll suddenly find they say something and you’ll light up … we’re missing that.'”

Hegarty says he’s not being old-fashioned in this line of thinking, but that people often place too much focus on technology when they want to be inspired.

“It’s just like the pencil: It’s an amazing thing, but it doesn’t have ideas. You have to pick it up, work it, practice with it. Then it’s a facilitator. And that’s what technology is.”

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