Hegarty: What’s wrong with advertising

May 07, 2013  |  David Thomas  |  Comments

Our editor-in-chief David Thomas had a lengthy interview with Sir John Hegarty, creative director and co-founder of Bartle Bogle Hegarty, for the upcoming May 20 issue of Marketing. We thought you might like a sneak peek before the print issue lands on your desks.

Hegarty will be in town next week to speak at Future Flash, an annual event organized by the Institute of Communication Agencies.

One of the few remaining modern day ad legends, Sir John Hegarty is a maverick and a mad man, an author and vineyard owner. Best known, of course, as the creative director with partners John Bartle and Nigel Bogle, he helped make Bartle Bogle Hegarty (BBH) into one of the most respected ad agencies in the world, responsible for classic advertising like the Pregnant Man poster, campaigns for Audi, Johnnie Walker and, perhaps most famously, Levis. These days he’s winding down his agency responsibilities and has taken on a role as unofficial ambassador and standard bearer for an industry he feels is losing its direction and effectiveness in reaching the targeted space between a consumer’s ears. A black sheep by nature, he’s always quick to stir the pot with a good provocative quote, but don’t mistake him for a curmudgeon. In an interview with Marketing editor-in-chief David Thomas ahead of a much-anticipated appearance at the Institute of Communications Agencies’ Future Flash 2013 conference in Muskoka, Ont., Sir John reveals the spirit of a congenital optimist. Just don’t be surprised if he delivers that optimism with a sting when someone starts talking bollocks about Big Data or refuses to heed his wake-up call for creatives to lead an industry revolution to try and change the world.

What’s wrong with advertising today?
My theory about it is—and this is not just my opinion—there is empirical evidence from the audience we talked to that they feel the quality of what we are producing has declined. You can look back in history and you can see the same thing, when you have a significant piece of technology, a particular development like digital, what happens is there’s a sort of creative deficit as we deal with it. We’ve certainly had that for the last 10 or 12 years. I think we’re sort of getting out of that now.

Because nobody knows quite what to do with it, we become obsessed with the technology, so technologists rule the airwaves. And it isn’t until creative people begin to work it out and say ‘What you actually can do with it is this.’

Look at the Lumière brothers who invented cinema but didn’t know they had invented cinema; they invented a moving camera. It took another 15 or 20 years before somebody worked out you could write stories and film them. They, in fact, gave up on it. And Les Paul, the creator of the electric guitar, he didn’t make rock and roll. He was a technologist.

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So the deficit in quality isn’t about a lack of talent?
Nobody is to blame; it’s just a reality, it’s what happens. I think we lose confidence in things, we lose confidence in other media because all of a sudden people go, ‘Well, television is dead and it’s all over’ and ‘Print is dead and posters don’t matter anymore’ and all that sort of rubbish. And the focus, the concentration goes into this new medium until we work out what it’s delivering.

Has the industry started to eliminate this deficit?
I do think there’s the beginning of the reality [where we are recognizing] what digital technology can and can’t deliver. But people rush into these technologies without really understanding what they’re delivering, how they’re delivering, because they think it’s the new cool thing to do and if you’re not doing it, you’re kind of dead and old fashioned. Rather than saying, ‘What is it delivering? Can we measure what it delivers? Do we have any understanding of what it delivers? Do we understand how it’s going to work for us?’ none of that comes into force. So you have this focus away from things that we know have value, to things that we don’t know how to value.

And one of the other problems I have today is people have retreated to the edges of advertising. You know, they’re happy to do some small little campaign somewhere or they’re doing something on the net that hardly anybody sees and they’re getting awards for it and everybody’s cheering. But they’re not changing the way people feel or think.

There’s more! Check back at MarketingMag.ca for more from Sir John Hegarty. To read the full interview, check out the May 20 issue of Marketing on the iPad. Use your subscription number and download the issue starting May 7!

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