John Hegarty On The Spot

The 59-year-old co-founder of Bartle Bogle Hegarty jokes that he’s had such a long career, “I now say I came into advertising round about the time that Gutenberg invented movable type.” The U.K. native was in design school when a teacher pulled out Bill Bernbach’s Volkswagen work and got Hegarty hooked on advertising. He’s still passionate about his work: “It’s the biggest ego trip in the world,” says Hegarty, who’s currently living stateside while he searches for a new creative chief for his New York office.

—Q. What would you be doing if you weren’t in advertising?

A. I’d probably be an architect. I love affecting people’s attitudes, the way they live. Partly that’s what advertising does. But architecture is a completely different art form. It’s like living sculpture.

What was your first ad?

My first ad that got into D&AD was in 1968. It was for El Al—a terrible corny line that said, “If you fly El Al, it serves you right.”

What’s the smartest business decision you ever made?

Getting two exceedingly good partners in John Bartle and Nigel Bogle. Because of their talent, vision and ability to work as a team.

What about the dumbest?

Waiting as long as I did to start BBH [in 1982]. But hey, that’s life.

What’s the biggest difference between European and American work?

I don’t think there is a difference as such. There are differences for agencies. In the States, it’s hard for smaller agencies to break through. Big is good here. Whereas often in the U.K., big is seen as being corporate and slow. For instance, within 18 months of Mother starting, they were working with Unilever. That would be very hard in the U.S.

Besides BBH, what’s the best shop out there?

I think we need more new agencies. It’s fantastic when Crispin Porter comes along, but we need more of that. I want to see the decline of the multinationals and the growth of interesting, creative-thinking agencies.

What advice would you give someone starting out in the business?

Money has a voice, it doesn’t have a soul. Too many creative people get tempted by money, and eventually it destroys them.

Why do you think awards are important?

We are driven by effectiveness, but we also like it to be award winning, and those two things aren’t reconcilable. We want people to see [our work], and we want it admired. It then acts like a magnet for other creative people, other account people.

Your photographs were included in a show at Ohio Edit last year. Can you explain them?

First of all, I did it because I like operating outside my comfort zone—you should always push yourself. I took 13 pictures of people walking under ladders and coming to a rather grim end. It was all about superstition. If you look in the dictionary, it defines superstition as “misdirected reverence,” which I love. In advertising, we’re all about superstition, creating brand myth. I love it as a whole subject matter.

Is photography a hobby?

Not at all. Having a good time is my hobby. Whatever it takes to have a good time—as long as it’s legal, decent, honest and truthful.

What is the most overrated campaign?

99.9 percent of them.

What’s the last ad that made you think, “I wish I’d done that”?

Honda’s “Cog.” It takes a very simple idea and comes at a thought about the way a car is constructed in such an original way that it captures your imagination—and it’s done with such élan and style that you want to see it again and again. It should have got the Grand Prix at Cannes. It got criticized about where they had got the idea from, which was a shame because that isn’t an issue for the jury. Everybody borrows from everybody else. There’s a great line: Originality is determined by the obscurity of your sources.

What’s your biggest fear?

That I wake up and I’m back at Benton and Bowles [Hegarty’s first job out of design school]. Because it was so truly dreadful—the work was appalling, everybody was at each other’s throats, the agency was in constant turmoil, and it was horrible.

What was your most recent creative coup?

Selling, just recently, some fantastic work for sanitary protection. It’s Libresse. I think we’ve changed the language of the market.

What’s your dream assignment?

Doing this job. You get paid a large amount of money to sit in a very nice office to have lots of crazy, wacky ideas. Then those ideas are sold to a client, who pays a large amount of money to take those ideas. And then spends an absolute fortune on telling everybody about your idea. Now isn’t that the biggest ego trip in the world?

What about your dream client?

Creative breakthroughs are made for people who do things on accounts that nobody’s really heard of or nobody’s really thought could do great work. Do I want to work on another sports-shoe brand? You must be joking. Go and do something that hasn’t had great work on it. That’s where the fun is.

Name one person you’re dying to work with.

Frank Gehry. I’d love to sit down with him and go, “How does your creative process work?” I think he’s a genius.

Give me three words to describe yourself.

Got very lucky.