Sir John Hegarty is a British advertising veteran, having joined the industry in the 1960s and helping build brands like Levi’s and Audi with ads placed on what are now thought of as “traditional” media that are still instantly recognisable decades on.
Almost everyone thinks they could easily be an advertising creative, but very few can actually build a successful career out of it. Hegarty has a poster on his wall at Bartle Bogle Hegarty (BBH), the London-based agency he cofounded in 1982, with his own quote emblazoned on it: “Advertising is 80% idea and 80% execution.”
Few people have the craft and consistency of Hegarty, who, at 71-years-old is still very hands-on at BBH, which counts Axe, Samsung, Tesco, KFC, and Google among its clients.
Leaning back in a chair inside his office, Hegarty looks comfortable, but he’s not content. And the thing he’s not content about is content.
As digital media has become ubiquitous, advertisers have turned their attention toward producing content (like videos, articles, games, and social media posts) to compliment their spend on traditional forms of advertising, which consumers are increasingly going out of their way to avoid or block. Spend on content marketing is set to soar 186% to €2.12 billion in Europe alone by 2020, according to research from Yahoo and Enders Analysis.
That worries Hegarty, who sees the genius of advertising in a time-starved world as taking complex ideas and reducing them into precise, short, ads that are memorable. Think slogans and 30-second TV ads rather than 5-minute long branded content videos.
“I can say ‘Vorsprung durch Technik’ and you instantly know what I’m talking about [ — it’s was the ad slogan Hegarty devised for Audi back in the 1980s.] That came out as a 60-second TV ad and there we are, 35 years later,” Hegarty said.
“We seem to have lost a desire to do that … Can anybody tell me, in the last 10 years, a piece of content that people remember and can quote back?”
We mention BuzzFeed’s 3-and-a-half-minute-long “Puppyhood” video for dog food brand Purina, which has been viewed more than 11 million times on YouTube.
“Nobody I’ve ever spoken to has ever said: ‘Have you seen the BuzzFeed puppy?'” Hegarty responded.
“I used to always say I want my auntie in Harpenden to say ‘John, did you do that?’ That’s when I know I’ve cracked it. Sadly she’s no longer around as she was always my measure: ‘Did you do that Hovis ad, John?’ ‘No, sadly I didn’t.’ ‘Oh, it’s a really good one, you should do more like that.’ That’s when you’ve cracked it.”
The much-lauded Oreo “Dunk in the Dark” Super Bowl tweet is a “piece of s—-!”
Hegarty says people advocating content (paid-for or otherwise) instead of traditional campaigns need only look at the real numbers and those real conversations that happen about great ads outside of advertising circles — “Not when it’s big in Shoreditch. F— Shoreditch, I’m not interested in that.”
One of the most-lauded examples of “real-time content” comes from back in 2013. The power went out during the Super Bowl, plunging the stadium into darkness, prompting cookie brand Oreo to send out this tweet:
That single tweet won two highly-coveted Cannes Lions awards and countless other accolades from the media. But Hegarty points out that when marketing columnist Mark Ritson ran the numbers, he estimated the tweet only actually reached around 150,000 people — less than 1% of Oreo’s target market.
Hegarty scoffed: “F— off! I don’t get out of bed for less than a million. I mean, please. What business are you in? And it got awarded all over the world as ‘this is fantastic’. Not it’s not! It’s a piece of s—-!”
The 1980s Levi’s launderette ad couldn’t just be crowdsourced
The democratization of media means almost anyone can replicate Hegarty’s job — they could simply upload an ad to YouTube and send it to a brand or agency in the hope it gets picked up. Agencies — including BBH — have even experimented with “crowdsourcing” creative ideas.
Hegarty said it was a “bloody disaster.”
One of Hegarty’s most famous ad campaigns was for Levi’s, announcing its first pair of stonewashed jeans in 1985, at a time when the brand had lost its lustre with youth and was associated with being the kind of pants your dad would wear.
A then-unknown model, Nick Kamen, strides into a launderette, removes his sunglasses and empties a bag of stones into the washer. He strips off his shirt and his jeans until he’s down to only his boxer shorts and plonks himself down on the bench next to a fat man. The ad is set to Marvin Gaye’s hit “I Heard It Through The Grapevine.”
Hegarty reminisces that the idea was so ludicrous on paper he had to convince his client that it was going to change the brand — and you can’t crowdsource daring ideas like that.
“That revived not only a brand, but a music genre, and created a market for boxer shorts, and changed fashion. That’s the power of execution. If you don’t understand that, you don’t understand advertising,” Hegarty said.
“The idea that the creative director could be 100 people: Why is that necessarily better? It’s that world we’ve got into; the power of the crowd. No, the power of the crowd soon turns into a mob.”
Read more from our interview with Sir John Hegarty later this week at businessinsider.com/advertising
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