‘COME ON FOR FUCK’S SAKE’: WHEN JOHN HEGARTY MET NILS LEONARD

By - CTL
October 30, 2018
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By Kate Magee

One of the UK most influential Ad Mag’s – Campaign – recently published a special issue which brought together Sir John Hegarty (one of Britain’s most celebrated creatives and co-founder of Bartle Bogle Hegarty and The Garage) and Nils Leonard (one of a new breed of creatives, who shook up Grey London and is now co-founder of Uncommon). On a cab ride through Soho, the pair sparred in an at-times testy debate about the future of advertising.

Has the creative game changed fundamentally or has adland devalued its key skill? Are creatives who don’t collaborate “fucking monsters” or is collaboration the enemy of a good idea?

They listened in…

NL: If you were starting an agency now, would you do what I’m doing?

JH: I would certainly look at the business model in a different way. What you’re doing at Uncommon is interesting because you’re trying to influence a brand at the very beginning of its existence.

I remember the great film director Roger Woodburn saying to me: “John, I spend most of my time painting over rust.” I think that’s so often what you’re doing in traditional advertising – making something marginally better through communications. The number of times I would sit in meetings and the client would say: “Sales aren’t going very well. Maybe our on-pack promotions aren’t working.” I’d be sitting there going: “Well, why the fuck don’t you make a better product?”

NL: The most depressing thing in the world is working with a brand that shouldn’t exist. When we launched, we tried to be ferocious about the type of brands we wanted to work with. I think that has marketed to a bunch of people who feel the same way. We’re not getting “can you uplift our sales by 2% please” briefs at the moment, which is good.

JH: That touches on one of the problems the industry has – the agencies themselves aren’t brands. When we started Bartle Bogle Hegarty, we said we weren’t going to do speculative creative work. Lots of people thought we were stupid but we were trying to stick to what we believed in and also be a brand. If you don’t have a brand, you just become a commodity.

NL: All our advice is for brands to find their purpose, but 95% of our industry have no fucking clue why they are in the world. I wanted to start a company that had a point of view.

JH: I think the industry has been slightly destroyed by a number of things. It has been challenged by digital tech, which has spouted a belief that the answer to everything is to be able to track it and get rid of waste. But define what you mean by waste. Then the globalisation of our industry has undermined its individuality and its ability to become part of culture, which is essentially what a brand is trying to do.

You have people coming in on the client side who aren’t very good at building brands. We’ve also elevated making money above all else – as opposed to belief – because we are now driven by holding companies that are only interested in the share price. We’ve lost direction. Interesting people don’t go to devalued industries. They go where they think there is growth and opportunity.

NL: At the end of my time at Grey, I saw a load of my best people leave. I had a massive crush on the guys coming out of Berghs [School of Communications] in Sweden but everyone said they weren’t going into advertising any more. I really got obsessed with the talent drain for a couple of years. But I realised they are not going to Google or Facebook, which is the rhetoric – instead, they are all starting up their own businesses. They are avoiding us completely. We are trying to encourage those people to work with us on a variety of stuff while they start up.

You see kids coming out of British colleges right now and they still have a leather portfolio with three ads in a row. Some of them are great but then you see the kids out of Berghs, who have fully built websites, 3D model case studies – they’ve already got ideas into culture that they’ve made famous. I think they have realised that with those skillsets they don’t need an ad job. I think that’s incredibly empowering and I’m desperate to work with them – they scare the fuck out of me.

JH: But I wouldn’t knock the person who wants to do the best ad in the world. I think we are suffering because we don’t have people who are really phenomenal at one thing. Be great at one thing, then you have real value. If you want to have a conversation about film and I offer you either Quentin Tarantino or someone who does a bit on Thursday afternoon, who are you going to choose? I want somebody who can say: “I have spent 20 years reducing complicated problems to simplicity.” Brilliant, you’ve definitely got a job.

NL: I don’t think the Berghs guys are devoid of a singular skill or craft, though. I just think they do more than that. And the game has changed.

JH: We’re a very diverse world. There’s space for everybody. But the danger is people going: “That’s all over now, this the future.” It’s not.

NL: I think forced choice is something of our age – I hate it. People often confuse our standpoint by saying we don’t love advertising. We do, but it’s not the whole thing any more.

JH: What frightens me is we constantly devalue what we are about. I got very upset when people started talking about crowdsourcing creativity. Wait a minute, you are taking the most important thing that we do and you’re saying anybody can do it? To a certain extent yes, we can all sing, but I’m not sure we’re going to entertain many people at Glastonbury.

We have also lost our faith in the power of television. No-one is investing in it. I partly blame the award schemes. When I was the chair of the film and TV category at Cannes, despite it making up 49% of all advertising expenditure globally, it was one of 26 categories – you’ve just reduced its importance. As a creative person, I’ve realised I can win a Grand Prix by simply having someone jump out of a box in Leicester Square. So creative people go to where it’s easy.

NL: I agree that ads have got worse. The craft – the writing, depth and singularity – has gone missing. But I think creativity and our opportunities have become broader. Our scope has never been greater to make an impact for brands. I thought what the mobile phone company Boost did in the States, when it turned its stores into voting stations, was fucking unbelievable.

JH: It’s great, but that’s not turning Marmite – which is a fucking yeast spread – into a cultural phenomenon. Because that’s employing people and giving people a future. It’s a philosophical debate about what advertising is there to do. Advertising is there as a part of commerce to encourage people to select one brand over another. Of course, we can use our skills to stop people smoking but what we do is help build brands.

NL: How does that not help build a brand?

JH: Well, I think it can, but one of the most brilliant ways to a build a brand – and do it faster than anywhere else – is television.

NL: For sure. I’m not disagreeing with that. I really love film and I think it’s important. But the more our industry flogs itself about not being good at TV ads any more, the more we’re not being, as Dave Trott would say, predatory and looking for other ways to make an impact.

I’m going to be really honest: early on at Grey we didn’t have the talent – myself included – to go toe to toe with places like BBH. This is 10 years ago. You can think “we must get better people” or you can think “I can make an impact for a brand now in different ways.”

Like the British Heart Foundation can create The Angina Monologues at the Theatre Royal Haymarket. It aired on Sky 1 to seven million people and won a British Comedy Award. That’s an incredible brand idea. And I think if you were to stop most talent in the world now and ask “Would you rather be really good at writing a TV ad or have created a successful show?”, they’d say the latter.

JH: I disagree. How many people have heard of that? That’s the first time I’ve heard of it. I’m here to make people famous. I love commanding culture. It’s wonderful that – but it doesn’t interest me. I don’t want to be there. I want to be mass market.

NL: It ran on Christmas Day on Sky 1.

JH: Sky 1? Come on, for fuck’s sake. I don’t get out of bed for less than five million. We are withdrawing. The art of taking a complicated idea, reducing it to a 60-second ad and becoming a part of culture is a phenomenal talent and we’re losing it. We are less of an industry because of that, not more.

NL: It’s not an either/or choice.

JH: But we’ve walked away from the most powerful medium ever invented. The Angina Monologues sounds great but did my auntie in Harpenden see it?

NL: Yes.

JH: No.

NL: I agree with everything at the end of your statements – making culture, creating culture. I just don’t agree that TV is the only way to do that any more. And the truth is that people fucking hate most TV ads now. They really hate them.

JH: Of course they do, because they are shit. I hate them. I’m not disagreeing with you. But I’m saying I want to have an impact on as broad an audience as possible. That to me is powerful. And the broader the audience, the harder it is.

NL: One hundred per cent. There is a pretension around populism now. I think creatives would nod as they hear you speak but I don’t think most people would say they want to speak to everyone at all now.

JH: I went to art and design school. I could have stayed painting, and I might have got a show and spoken to 300 people. In advertising, you suddenly get a billboard in Old Street and are talking to hundreds of thousands of people. That’s the reason I got into advertising and it’s what excites me. Fine if you are excited by operating at the fringes – and I don’t mean that in a critical way, because all great revolutions start at the fringes. But there have only been two great advertising agencies – one was DDB because it invented modern advertising, the other was CDP because it took creativity to the masses.

NL: I genuinely believe it’s not “fringes” to look at other routes to market. It really isn’t. Look at some of the innovations within brands like Nike. I want to play there. I don’t want my remit to be this small bit here. I’d love to make great TV ads but I’d also love to make Nike an idea that revolutionises its business – because we can now. That’s what thrills me.

JH: I’m not saying I think what you are doing is wrong. But I think our industry should go back to what brands need. Our industry has got to have faith in creativity and be driven by creative people. We’ve got to get back to that and stop rabbiting on about collaboration, for fuck’s sake.

NL: I totally disagree. Collaboration comes with some dangers and a lot of bullshit but I genuinely used it as a tactile thing at Grey to make us better than people who had better people than us. Creatives can be fucking monsters if they don’t collide with people. They can be the enemy of brilliant ideas if they are not challenged, provoked and pushed.

JH: Of course.

NL: Well, you say “of course” but…

JH: But that’s not collaboration, that’s challenging. And I agree with you – you challenge. But the idea that six people in a room can have a better idea than two people is a nonsense.

NL: I don’t sit down and categorise the moments when an idea came from one person or lots of people. I’ve been continually and openly dependent on brilliant people around me for all sorts of stuff.

JH: Yeah, of course.

NL: But what’s a briefing – is that collaboration? What’s a conversation at someone’s desk saying: “Is this shit or not?” Is that collaboration? Probably.

JH: No, they are challenging you.

NL: Then maybe collaboration is a just fuzzy word. You probably won’t recognise this because you are at the top of your tree, but a bigger problem in our game is the egos and closed walls of creative leaders – “my fucking way is the way”.

That’s good if you are good but if you are not that good, or you’re tired, then you’ll make crap work. The only way to change that is to allow that process to be pushable from the bottom as well as the top.

JH: Yes, but all that happens to those people is that they lose their job. And that’s fine, that’s fair.

NL: But who has got the time to wait for that?

JH: I’d much rather have that situation than go: “Let’s all collaborate.” We are a bunch of lunatics. I employ lunatics, I love them. They are fucking mad. And ego is very important. Ego is your point of view, what you believe in.

NL: And it should be challenged.

JH: Of course. Anybody could challenge me, I didn’t mind. But if I believed in something. I pushed it through and I was more often right than wrong. And that’s why I stayed there. And if you get it wrong, you’re out.

NL: But for every one of you, there are 25 much less good egomaniacs and I don’t have time to wait for those fucking people to lose their jobs.

JH: Then get rid of them.

NL: Of course. Or you could change your culture so everyone is able to fire in at people, you remove all those preconceptions, everyone is quite scared and challenged in a good way. They still get their point of view, they still run the idea.

JH: I think that we’re probably saying the same thing now.

NL: BBH for me was an incredible story. Aside from the work, you were also a talent magnet. At one point, if you dispersed all your people, you could have run London. It killed me because I thought you have to be of a certain pedigree for all those egos to get over themselves just to stay there.

JH: We made people realise that the only thing that mattered was the work. If you wanted to be a hero at BBH, you made the work great and it didn’t matter what your title was.

I always used to think about great newspapers and the great journalists who worked on them. They weren’t all trying to be the editor, they were trying to find and write the best scoop they possibly could and, in doing so, they became the heroes. In a way, that’s how we ran BBH and it became a sustaining culture.

But as an industry we have to regain our skill of taking a complicated message and telling it memorably in 60 seconds. There’s a delusion – it’s a kind of madness – that seems to have overtaken our industry. We always seem to want to make everything longer.

NL: Most executive creative directors in London completely wouldn’t understand that. But talk to most US creative directors and they’ll be where you are. It’s a weird indulgence that we have allowed ourselves here.

JH: I think this is the most brilliant time to be in our industry. That’s the thing I think is frustrating. Today what you can do is phenomenal, which I think we should be celebrating. So why’s the work so bad?

NL: Some of it isn’t. I look at our industry and go: fuck me, there has never been so much permission to mess with stuff outside our industry – and that’s a creative pleasure.

I agree with you that some of those skills have gone missing, but we’re also learning how to do stuff that wasn’t even on the radar.

JH: Well, you say that but, when I was at Cramer Saatchi, 50 years ago in 1968, we were inventing products. We got Alan Parker and David Puttnam going in the film industry. But, in the end, we thought we’re really good at advertising and there’s a great need for it commercially, for it to be done brilliantly and to make it admired. And I think we achieved that.

In the 1980s we made it an industry that people thought: “Wow, that’s great, I love the work.” In my very first speech at a Campaign conference in 1979, I said the only reason the ad industry will be accepted is not because people understand its value, or what it does, but because they love it.

NL: OK but people looked forward to the ads as much as the TV shows in the 1980s and 1990s. Now we’re in negative equity, where we’re being skipped. Making slightly better TV ads now is not going to sort that out.

JH: I disagree. There is nothing creativity can’t solve.

NL: Of course, but that’s a totally different point.

JH: But that’s all it is. Nobody says: “I watch ads.” They say: “I watch stuff that’s good.” You’re not making good stuff. The only thing I’ve constantly learned is you’ve got to decide what you are bringing to the industry and invest in that. In the end, both of us are bringing creativity and I genuinely believe there is nothing that creativity can’t solve.

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