Keep Walking

John Hegarty, the renowned chairman and worldwide creative director of Bartle Bogle Hegarty, will be presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2005 International Clio Awards in Miami in May. (The Clio Awards are owned by Adweek’s parent company, VNU). While the honor is certainly appreciated by the affable art director, he rejects the finality it implies. “I’m kind of thinking to myself, is this lifetime achievement award, is this the end?” he asks. “Is that it?”

With 40 years in the advertising business behind him, making brands like Levi’s, Audi, and of course his own critically acclaimed agency BBH famous, the 60-year-old Hegarty shows no interest in slowing down. “I’ve always said I’ll carry on until they carry me out in a wooden box,” he says.

As passionate about the business today as when he started, Hegarty is focused these days on shepherding the BBH brand globally, with the opening of its sixth office, in Shanghai, in a couple of months. “It’s an exciting time to be in advertising,” says Hegarty, who has been steering the agency in a non-traditional direction. For example, the shop is working on what he describes as a “very different” video for the WTA, a branded TV channel for Audi, and has been producing compilation CDs with leading soccer clubs. “If you say that my greatest goal is to make the 60-second commercial, you are going to be disappointed,” he says. “I used to be in advertising. I am now in the communications business.”

Hegarty’s career began in the mid-60s, when he joined Benton & Bowles as a junior art director (where he was briefly paired with copywriter Charles Saatchi). But his aspirations weren’t initially about advertising. Hegarty grew up in London and attended the Hornsey College of Art, with the goal of being a painter. After he was told he wasn’t going to become the next Picasso, Hegarty began studying graphic design at the London College of Printing, where his passion for advertising was ignited by Bill Bernbach and his seminal Volkswagen ads.

After a short stint at John Collings & Partners, Hegarty joined Cramer Saatchi, which later became Saatchi & Saatchi, where he became deputy creative director by the early ’70s. It wasn’t long before TBWA recruited Hegarty to help launch the agency in London in 1973. It was there that he met agency partners Nigel Bogle and John Bartle (now retired). “The first thing that struck me about John was how incredibly sane he was,” says Bogle, CEO at BBH, who thought Hegarty would be another “outstanding” creative with a primadonna attitude. “I was expecting John Hegarty to be that factor 10, and it was just the opposite. He was very unlike creative people I was used to.”

After nearly a decade at TBWA, when it became clear that ownership was not in their future, the partners struck out on their own as Bartle Bogle Hegarty in 1982. Within the first three months, the agency won Audi, Whitbread and Levi’s—all without presenting spec creative, a policy that BBH still holds today. A charismatic, good-natured man with a fondness for Paul Smith suits, Hegarty is a natural when it comes to pitching clients. “John has this ability to paint pictures for clients, what their future advertising might be like,” says Bogle. “He is a great communicator.”

The first ad that BBH did for Levi’s, introducing its black jeans, was all art direction: a single black sheep facing one way in a mass of white sheep facing the other direction with the line, “When the world zigs, zag.” The line became as much of a motto for BBH as it did for Levi’s, and the black sheep reappeared in the agency’s logo. His early admiration of Bernbach influenced not only his craft, but his management style—lead by example.

“He had a combination of creative ability, leadership ability and tremendous clarity in what he wanted to do,” describes Hegarty, characteristics that colleagues readily attribute to Hegarty as well. “The thing about John is it is very unusual to get the complete package in a great creative person,” explains Bogel. “He’s got a fantastic track record as a creative person and is also an outstanding creative director. He makes other creative people better.”

John O’Keeffe, ecd of BBH in London, who has been at the agency for 15 years, says Hegarty’s ability to see through a project’s complexity provides a “calming influence” on those around him, guiding with a statement that usually begins, “All we have to do is …” “He has this ability to deliver communication that is urbane,” he says. “It’s a rally to his flag. Everyone feels safer around him.”

Kevin Roddy, ecd at BBH in New York, who joined the agency last September, adds, “He motivates people from a positive place, which is rare. He’s the kind of guy you want to work hard for.”

As for the work he’s most proud of, Hegarty points to BBH classics like the Levi’s 501 campaign of the mid-80s (one of the agency’s first TV ads for the brand, “Laundrette,” featured a man who strips down to his boxers); the agency’s first Audi work for which Hegarty coined the phrase, “vorsprung durch technik,” or “progress through technology,” still used today; and his Boddington’s work, which includes a spot with a beautiful woman using the head on a pint of beer as face cream. As for more recent creative accomplishments, he mentions the agency’s global work for Johnnie Walker, featuring the line, “Keep walking.” That line is also another mantra lived by Hegarty, who says while there are lessons to be learned from the past, a creative person has to constantly look forward. “Yesterday is irrelevant,” he says, as he discusses the new communications pressures facing agencies today.

Ami Brophy, executive director of the Clio Awards, says the lifetime achievement honor is for Hegarty’s “ongoing” industry accomplishments. He has won 15 Clios, and his Levi’s work is in the Clio Hall of Fame. He joins past Lifetime honorees Lee Clow, Neil French, David Abbott and Tony Kaye.

Bogle says Hegarty rightfully deserves the award. “But one question I’ve always had is, why can’t such a brilliant art director draw?”