Creative: If He Can Make It There…

Bartle Bogle Hegarty Takes on New York
Quick. Name a recent agency startup in New York that has met with success. Stumped? Now try to name a few that tried but failed. Those come easier to most. Next month, London’s Bartle Bogle Hegarty, having ventured outside its birthplace only once in its 16 years, will try to beat the odds when it opens an office in New York’s historic Flatiron district.
BBH is widely respected on both sides of the Atlantic as being highly creative, strategically smart and well-managed. The three partners, John Bartle, Nigel Bogle and John Hegarty, first met in 1973 as founding partners of TBWA in London. They left in 1982 to launch BBH and within a few short months won business from Audi, Whitbread and Levi Strauss–three clients still on its roster. Together, the three partners built an agency with a reputation for world-class creative: Its work for Levi’s, Boddington’s and Audi routinely dominates such awards shows as D&AD and Cannes.
Almost without exception, competitors and friends alike offer only positive remarks about the agency and applaud its success. Words like “principled” and “special” are common parlance in describing BBH. Chairman and creative director John Hegarty, who plans to move to New York for a year or so to nurture the startup, is often singled out as being an exceptionally “good guy.”
“John is just incredibly down-to- earth,” says Ty Montague, who just signed on to be U.S. creative director in the New York office. “He’s the kind of guy you would want to have a beer with, which is why clients and ad geeks alike respond to him so well. Success has not gone to his head.”
Fallon McElligott’s Bill Westbrook is even more effusive about the popular Brit. “In London, John Hegarty is Jesus Christ. He is a god. He is so revered and so respected. For many people, he is the face of London advertising.” When asked about BBH’s move to New York, Westbrook adds, “I’m thrilled. Anybody who loves great work has got to be thrilled that John Hegarty is coming to town. It’s good for the community.”
Producing good work, says Hegarty, is the result of running a disciplined operation. “We’re very buttoned-down. We have a fantastic production and traffic system. Some agencies run on disorganized chaos. We’re not like that.”
Despite its hometown success, BBH has resisted aggressive expansion, perhaps fearful of losing control over the creative process. The agency has one other office, in Singapore, which opened in October 1996 and now claims eight clients and employs 40 staffers. Overall, the agency claimed capitalized billings of $360 million in 1997 and gross income of $50 million.
So why now and why New York? “We feel BBH has enough knowledge to be able to come to America with something to offer, a level of creativity and sophistication. In our first 10 years, we wouldn’t have been ready,” admits Hegarty, who calls the U.S. one of the “toughest ad markets in the world.” The lessons BBH learned in Asia will be applied to the new office in the U.S. Rule No. 1, according to Hegarty: “You have to stick to your principles.” As an example, he cites the agency’s policy of refusing to produce spec creative for potential clients. “We will talk about the brand vision and where the advertising is going, but we don’t produce the work.” Asked if he felt that policy could prove disadvantageous here, Hegarty gets to the bottom line: “A principle isn’t a principle until its costs you money.”
Rule No. 2? “You don’t become all things to all people. We’ve never wanted to be the biggest; we always wanted to be the best.” Being both, according to the 54-year-old creative director, is an oxymoron. “You get sucked into compromise,” he says.
Following the blueprint used in Singapore, the New York office will be staffed with a mix of local talent and BBH veterans.
In addition to Montague, Cindy Gallop of the London office has been appointed president. Montague is looking for an art director partner, and the search for a planner continues. Hegarty prefers to hire an American but may search outside the U.S. He hints at already having a piece of business in New York, but he will not reveal the client.
Having sized up the competition here, Hegarty says, “I have a huge admiration for Fallon, Wieden and Goodby and a number of agencies. But I’m not necessarily looking to them for competition. It will come from all over the place.”
Interestingly, one of BBH’s would-be rivals could be minority shareholder Leo Burnett, which bought a 49 percent stake in the shop last December. The deal, driven by BBH’s need for a media partner, raised eyebrows from purists who felt it could tarnish BBH’s culture. Hegarty insists Burnett has had no such negative impact. “We don’t have a seat on their board. They don’t have people coming here.
I think the honest thing to say is that is why it’s a wonderful relationship.” The only connecting point is with media, he adds.
Burnett’s media arm, Starcom, attends pitches with BBH, as it did during the Levi’s review. “We have an agreement not to poach each other’s business, but we can compete against them,” says Hegarty. In those cases, Starcom would participate on behalf of both agencies.
Yet for all its good intentions and past successes, BBH’s fate in New York is far from certain. Take it from someone who has lived through the struggle. “It’s very hard to find clients who believe in work that tries to be really fresh,” says Cliff Freeman, who started his agency 11 years ago. “They don’t want to be the best-looking guy in the room.” Freeman says he built his agency one good ad at a time. “We had success with Little Caesars and were able to make it.” Hegarty and his partners are no doubt already looking for their own Little Caesars. –with Eleftheria Parpis

Levi’s Rough Cut
“Icons,” the Pan-European print and poster campaign for Levi’s Red Tab jeans, began running in the U.K. last year. The effort includes six executions, each focusing on a different jeans style and the people who wear them. But instead of promoting a lifestyle, the ads focus on the product. The campaign won a gold Lion at Cannes this year.
In one ad, shown here, a pair of gold Levi’s Cinchback jeans lay in a pile of ore to illustrate the line, “Worn by gold miners since the 1860s.” In others, various Red Tab clothes are shown made of wood, cement and steel.
To create the ads, the jeans were dipped in or carved out of the corresponding materials. To advertise Levi’s Slimfit Trucker jacket, “worn by truckers since the 1960s,” a jacket made of chrome is hung in front of a pile of tires. “Steel” shows a steel bootcut pair of jeans against a background collage of black leather boots, wrenches and pliers. For “Concrete,” the jeans were cast in concrete, while the Sawtooth Western shirt was carved out of wood.
The sculptures were created by Windsor Workshop in London and exhibited at Levi’s flagship store, also in London. Sculptors Steve Furlonger and Terry New consulted with specialists to ensure authenticity. –Eleftheria Parpis