Image courtesy of Johnnie Walker Espana.
“Do not go gentle into the good night but rage, rage against the dying of the light”
Sir John Hegarty’s thoughts and memoirs, packaged together in Hegarty on Advertising (Thames and Hudson), must be amongst the most eagerly awaited stories from the world of advertising. This is a man who, in a career spanning nearly 50 years, has given us some of our most loved and successful work, helped build immeasurable value into numerous brands from Levis to Audi and created what is undoubtely the most respected advertising agency on Earth. He is also a bridge. A bridge between the increasingly mythical world of late 20th adland – the adland of Bernbach, Collett Dickinson Pearce, the Brothers Saatchi, and today’s advertising landscape with its 21st Century angst, technological tsunami and procurement misery. So when Sir John, an art director by trade, puts pen to paper a degree of expectation is created and a degree of respect is due, which I offer in spades. But all in all this is a curious work.
Hegarty on Advertising is a book in two parts which is strange in itself, either suggesting that the story of his professional life from Art School to head of the BBH Empire was not thrilling enough for the publishers or that his musings on subjects like creativity, ideas, brands and technology were not suitably substantial to make a business book in its own right. This is rather a shame because for people in ‘the business’ the story behind a legend like Hegarty is mesmerising, a reminder to all of us to get off our collective arses and raise our game. While for people simply in business the first section offers a perspective on issues that face any organisation from a man who they won’t know of but with whose work they will be intimately acquainted.
So who is the book targeting? Adlanders or a wider audience?
The truth is that adlanders will love the second section because it documents the cut and thrust of creating a legendary advertising brand (even if some of it is a bit airbrushed at times), not to mention an impressive collection of stories about a formative career. I particularly love the story about Charles Saatchi getting a picture of his creative department on the back page of the Times in 1972 because he had them insured for £1m and had instituted a transfer fee if any other agency tried to poach them.
But my guess is that what I’m sure should have been the meat, the first section will leave agency people a little cold. While Hegarty’s point of view on ideas, brands and audiences, agencies, creative directors, briefs, pitches, storytelling and technology are undeniably both right and important they seem very familiar. Reading them felt as if I had already absorbed what he had to say and this was a little like déjà vu. And then I realised that I had. Indeed it is impossible to have spent any length of time in the advertising business and not have taken on board John Hegarty’s perspective on these issues, such has been his profound effect on all of us whether we are aware of it and whether we live up to his ideals or not. What you and I know and feel to be true about our work at its best – the combination of intelligence and magic in advertising (the book’s subtitle) – in many ways we know and feel to be true because of the influence of both Sir John and his agency. If any of what he says seems old hat that’s because it’s his hat.
And what are we left feeling about the great man? That he is a great man, a little doting about the agency he gave birth and life to but then what parent isn’t and a perfect gentleman. Indeed the irony of Sir John invoking the spirit and words of Dylan Thomas when talking about the need to fight mediocrity is that, within these pages at least he rages against very little. That is with the exception of two things. Two issues seem to rile Sir John so much that the mild mannered man falls away just twice as he erupts into powerful and visceral loathing.
Firstly about tissue meetings. Let us all agree right now that we hate tissue meetings, while created (by Jay Chiat in the US and HHCL in the UK) to help introduce and sell in more brave, interesting and difficult work once they were hijacked by the intermediaries that govern our world and act as the single most powerful means to dumb down work the advertising industry has ever invented.
This is Hegarty on the wretched tissue meeting “Have you ever had to suffer a tissue meeting? All of us in advertising have at some point, haven’t we? For those that don’t know what I mean, count yourself lucky!…Whoever came up with the completely stupid idea of tissue meetings should be taken out and shot. They are the invention of a predictable mind trying to make the unpredictable predictable. Tissue meetings were created to keep clients happy and to make them feel we are in complete command of what we do, which we’re not”. Well you’ll find no quarrel with that form me and I rather suspect the vast majority of right minded people in the business.
Hegarty also goes to some lengths to take issue rather brilliantly with fashion and fragrance advertising, largely for its obsession with style over substance. Once again the mild mannered adman that is on display in virtually every other page of the book falls away to be replaced by something far more interesting and powerful.
Here is what Sir John has to say on the vacuous world of perfume advertising “The fashionistas who’ve created this work have obviously looked up the word ‘profundity’ in the dictionary, thinking it spelt ‘pretentious’. These commercials are invariably shot in black and white because their brains haven’t quite grasped the concept of colour. But worse of all are the scripts. Now when you are writing a script, it’s best to have and idea – that small incidental phenomenon that drives communication. One dictionary definition of an idea is: ‘a thought or plan formed by mental effort’. I think the key phrase here is ‘mental effort’. Gelled hair and three-day facial hair growth are not ideas.”
He goes on to create and entire spoof script for a fragrance called Stalker from the house of cliché, so manifestly angry is Sir John about the world of perfume and fashion advertising.
And in those brief moments of visceral anger we perhaps hear the real Sir John. The Hegarty of tense creative reviews with his teams, the Hegarty fighting for great work against lacklustre people inside and outside his agencies, the Hegarty that has forged some of the most powerful pieces of communication the business has ever created and the Hegarty that tore his own work up for the Health Education Council brief when he saw Jeremy Sinclair’s Pregnant Man ad about to be presented to Charles Saatchi. In recording his ideas and life John Hegarty paints a picture of urbane gentleness but I think we all know that this is a man that has done all this precisely because he has so consistently raged against the dying of the light.
Hegarty on Advertising is published on the 13th June by Thames and Hudson
And here is my all time favourite BBH commercial. Was there ever a more perfect minute of storytelling, acting, direction and editing, not to mention the outstandingly good musical score? Enjoy.