An evening with John Hegarty

My evening with John Hegarty started one cold November evening in the centre of Manchester and ended on the snowy slopes of Saas Fee in early Feb. What I thought would be a one night only thing snowballed into early morning meetings, train journeys, evenings on the sofa and even a quick 10 minutes over lunch.....

My evening with John Hegarty started one cold November evening in the centre of Manchester and ended on the snowy slopes of Saas Fee in early Feb. What I thought would be a one night only thing snowballed into early morning meetings, train journeys, evenings on the sofa and even a quick 10 minutes over lunch…..

On that late Thursday evening back in November, Julian Gratton, Managing and Creative Director of Red C, had double booked himself with a Pearl Jam gig or Bradford City game…  some unmissable ‘life or death’ type event. The only problem was he had purchased much-sought after tickets to an ‘Evening with John Hegarty’ held in Manchester’s art museum. After much agency squabbling I got the available ticket and accompanied our Head of Creative to Hegarty’s promotional talk about his newly released book, ‘Turning Intelligence into Magic’.

Not that the man needs any introduction, but just in case you have been living under a stone for the past 40 years, he is one of the most notorious creatives of our time. Before starting his own global agency, BBH, with business partners John Bartle and Nigel Bogle, Hegarty had worked for Saatchi and Saatchi and TBWA. He is responsible for Boddington’s ‘Cream of Manchester’ positioning, bringing Audi’s ‘Vorsprung durch Technik’ to a British audience, Barclaycard’s waterslide viral and a whole host of ‘brand reviving’ ads for Levi.

As I sipped on a white wine and listened to John detail the highs and lows of his illustrious career, make predictions for the digital future and discuss how a truly revolutionary piece of advertising takes a lot of strategic intelligence to create, I realised as an Account Handler this was a man I could learn a lot from. My next stop was the nearest Waterstones to purchase ‘John Hegarty: Turning Intelligence into Magic’ and that is when the love affair with the book truly began.

The book, much like the promotional talk, details his career, people who have influenced him (and people who didn’t) his thoughts on briefs, what makes a good Creative Director, the rise of BBH to global agency status and their revolutionary ‘no creative’ pitching process. However what really struck me, beside Hegarty’s fascination with the Church as a brand, was the influence the society around him had on the magic he produced. In the preface he muses over the place advertising has in society ‘look at advertising from any era and you get a unique insight at that time: its loves, fears, wants and needs. It has to capture the zeitgeist’. In fact this equilibrium of society and advertising is what makes BBH advertising great.

When the world zigs, zag

When Levi’s came a-knocking in 1982 they were ‘in the shit’, as Hegarty put it. After a catastrophic TV campaign depicting kids on a roadtrip in the US, UK advertising director, Peter Shilland, admitted that Levi’s had majorly lost touch with their audience. BBH, a young, advertising agency in the ascendancy recognised this straight away, ‘Punk in the mid 70s had blown fashion apart… Levi Strauss’s target audience were no longer looking at the world through a pair of stars and stripes shades’. In the minds of the British youth, US culture and what it stood for was becoming irrelevant. Against a backdrop of New Wave and New Romantics, jeans were no longer fashionable.

After much deliberating, BBH decided the strategy behind their Levi’s pitch idea was ‘rebuilding the brand’s values by reigniting youth’s love of their product’. Moving beyond fashion, in recession-stricken Britain functional garments with proven durability could sell. More importantly, BBH recognised a lack of belief within Levi’s, who was going to buy from a brand that had no confidence in who they were? BBH won the Levi’s account, as the underdogs, by recognising the changing fashion culture, remarketing the product and most importantly, making Levi’s fall in love with their brand again.

The Levi’s relationship was a success, pushing boundaries and creating award winning campaigns such as ‘When the world zigs, zag’ to promote Levi’s launch of black denim, ‘Bath’, Levi’s first BBH TV ad in 1986 and 2002’s fast-moving ‘Odyssey–Freedom to Move’ campaign.

Heard on the grapevine

As mentioned earlier, John Hegarty believes advertising campaigns are a snapshot of the time in which they are produced, but when an advert is really special, it can also become the influencer of popular culture and fashion. BBH’s Levi’s 501 1985 Laundrette campaign showed a sexy male stripping down to his smalls, discarding his Levi’s and waiting for them to be washed in a packed laundrette. Set to ‘I heard it through the grapevine’ the ad was ready to air when the spoil-sport censors decided the beautiful Nick Kamen was ‘too exposed’ in Y-fronts. So to protect his modesty and our delicate sensibilities, they put him in a pair of boxer shorts – an undergarment that hadn’t been popular with gentlemen since the 1940s. After the ad aired Hegarty recalls, the ‘sales of boxer shorts went through the roof and the once-ubiqutous Y-front underpants died a death’.

The Lynx Effect

BBH continue to look to society’s accepted norms when creating successful concepts today. When Unilever’s brand AXE (Lynx in the UK) came to BBH in the early nineties it had a successful, but somewhat tired brand image. The campaign BBH developed refreshed their image, catapulted the brand to huge success and was based, quite simply, on pubescent males desire ‘to attract hot girls’.  ‘Caveman’, BBH’s first ad for Lynx, depicted a caveman walking through rocky terrain attracting a hoard of wild, sexy, scantily-clad cavewomen with his irresistible scent. The ad ended with the tagline, ‘The Lynx effect’.

This series of ad campaigns coincided with a whole host of ‘coming of age’ films and TV series such as ‘American Pie’ and ‘Road Trip’. The 90s also saw the rise of Brit pop and ‘lad culture’ and The Lynx effect tapped straight into this. Sales saw a 20% increase between 2002 and 2010.

Use your intelligence

According to John Heggarty ‘intelligence’ is understanding the brand, who you are talking to, popular culture of the time, the customer’s fears, loves, desires, aspirations, what’s relevant, what’s not, what’s being talked about, fashion, music, politics, history and society. Brands need to be in touch, forward thinking and have stand out. The power of a good idea is fuelled by the world it sits in. That’s what can make advertising so tricky, just like the culture and society it taps into it is constantly shifting. Getting the intelligence right is vital for the magic… but if it all gets a bit much, just like the author, you could always choose to make wine instead.