Sir John Hegarty has that special knack of putting something across in just the right way. Whether on stage addressing a mass audience or in a one-on-one interview, Hegarty can make anything appear light and funny and this conversation of IMPACT with Hegarty is no different. Whether it is about how good, or not so good, BBH India is doing or what the vision for the future is, Hegarty has a quick reply to everything.
John Hegarty is the Chairman and Worldwide Creative Director of Bartle Bogle Hegarty (BBH). The agency was founded in 1982 by John Bartle, Nigel Bogle and Sir John Hegarty and in the last many years has earned the repute of being one of the most admired creative agencies. In this interview with Noor Fathima Warsia, Hegarty speaks on consistency, patience and the need for a long memory in the advertising business.
Q] Let us begin with the latest big news from the agency – the appointment of Raj Kamble and finally filling the vacancy of the Creative Chief for BBH India.
We are very excited about Raj joining us. For us, it has always been very important that the company has creativity at its heart. When Priti (Nair) decided to leave us, it was very unfortunate, but those things happen. It was essential we found somebody to replace her naturally. And I am really pleased we found Raj. Apart from the fact that his work is fantastic, I have always admired people who have crossed borders in some way or the other – attitude, class, religion... something. Great creative people do that because they cannot stay the narrow way. Raj has physically crossed borders by working in the UK and the US, and I believe that has made him a better creative person. He approaches everything with an open mind. Sometimes you find creative people to be really good at one thing, and they find it difficult to get out of that. But Raj is a great example of someone who can be lifted from a milieu, who has experienced very broad knowledge of the world, and he brings that back to India.
Q] You already had Russell Barrett in the system and now there is Raj – you must be happy with the current creative quotient of the agency?
Absolutely! Russell has been fantastic acting as ECD in the absence of Raj’s appointment and we are very proud of what he has done and the way he has worked. He is an important part of our agency in Mumbai. He is terrific.
Q] So what is on the agency’s target list now?
I will end up repeating some things I had said earlier, but that is because in some aspects we are consistent in our approach. We are not interested in size. We don’t have a target list of accounts. What we want to be is the best. That always been the ambition, and the reason I like that is because in a way, that is a subjective measurement. There is no absolute way of saying that you are the best. And the other thing about that is that you have to constantly keep at it. You have got to work to stay number one, and this is something that is very important to us at BBH. We always talk about the work, the work, the work – that’s the thing that drives us. The other thing we talk about is having a long term view – we believe very much in that. Short-term setbacks will keep on happening, it cannot come in the way.
Q] How much of a setback was it when Priti moved out?
It was a setback because we had to tread water for four months. But as I said, those are things that happen. Setbacks don’t bother us as long as we know we have a good team and we are moving forward.
Q] So how much close are you to that ambition of being the best?
In India, nowhere close but we are just three years old here. It took us about eight to 10 years to do it in the UK. Time has a very elastic quality. I will go back to the thing of why is the work important to us. When we set up BBH back in 1982, for all three of us really believed in great advertising – we loved the work we did and were proud of it. And we genuinely believed that it was better for brands. But the interesting thing is that for the present BBH, our business model will succeed only if we do great advertising. We have six offices across the world in all. We are a constant pain in our clients’ ass because we constantly disagree with them, we probably charge more than most other agencies but we eventually give them work that money cannot buy. If we don’t do that, our business model collapses. I am not having a go at any of the big multinational agencies here – that is their business model. Ours is entirely different.
Q] Your business model is somewhere in between of the big networks and the creative boutiques…
…We believe in the micro-network. Wieden+Kennedy is somewhere in the same place too. In late eighties, we realised that advertising is going to global and we would have to start creating ideas that cross borders. Originally we thought we can do that from London, just like Hollywood works. That was an interesting ambition but in reality, you have to be in certain markets because it is a constant relationship. We didn’t want to set up a conventional network, so we decided we wanted to be in certain areas of creative importance. That is why we went to certain centres like Singapore and then New York, we tried Japan but that was hopeless.
Q] But as a micro-network you don’t have the advantage of the networks or the nimbleness of a small agency...
It is quite the opposite. Why is it that we are working with people like Unilever, who recognise that the most important thing is the idea that they can take across borders? Creativity is the most important thing for these companies, which is why you are seeing the growth of the micro-networks. The problem is when you have a local creative agency, because eventually growth will come from work that crosses borders. That is what media does now and that is why micro-networks have a fantastic future. As market matures and technology changes the way people consume things, micro-networks would become more important.
Q] We heard BBH was in conversation about an alignment with TapRoot India...
No, TapRoot has been doing a wonderful job, why would they do that. I have met the guys from TapRoot and I think they are wonderful. I love meeting other people from other agencies. That is probably something I picked from London. One of the great things about the advertising industry in London is all the good agencies know each other and we are great friends. We compete, we laugh at each other’s work if it is not very good, we call each other and just say ‘yea that was a load of rubbish, bet you must be ashamed of that one’ and put the phone down very quickly. But at the end of it all, we enjoy each other’s company. I know people here and I love coming over and meeting them and may be that leads to such conversations.
The broad idea for me is to create someplace where people are excited to come in Monday morning and go, is it Friday already. It is like that in London and the same in New York. One of the things I am proud of is creating a great culture where people really can be the best they can be. Some people ask me why are you still doing it John, and I tell them because I love it. I am surrounded with very wonderful people and I don’t get the chance to meet them all. That upsets me.
Q] Does it upset you when there is talk that BBH has not taken off in India?
Of course it does. But that is the kind of fairly stupid thing people would say because they have very short memories. But in two years time, they would look at and say, my God it is absolutely amazing, I wish I could get a job there and they would have to change their mind. When I started working in TBWA/London in 1973, it was difficult. We were pushing water uphill. It took us a good five years to settle down and all of a sudden, the work started coming out and we were getting major awards. I knew it would happen and it happened --- I have got a very long memory. In this business, which seems to encourage short memory, have a long one.
Q] What other advice would you give to your team in India?
Not advice, but the permission to do; to tell them that they can. We help people be better than what they are. There are no hierarchies or committees coming in their way. I always say creativity is not an occupation, it is a preoccupation. We are all creative but some people earn their living doing it and the difference is the fearlessness. Because you have got to have an idea and you have got to have faith in that idea. At BBH, when someone has an idea, we all get behind it. When creative professionals are given freedom and support, it empowers them to produce the best work possible. And that is the BBH culture.
Q] But creative people also aspire for their work to be seen and hence the need for a client with scale...
It can be difficult for clients sometimes because they have all kinds of pressures on them. They have to produce double-digit growth. An agency has got to understand how to bring the client in the picture with them. It is important to have knowledge in the marketplace. Having that consumer knowledge and interpreting that knowledge into strategy brings the client and the agency on the same page because clients understand that, they get the strategy and where the agency is headed with it. The agency has to then use this knowledge to produce great work.
Q] What about new business wins? How do you get that?
By producing great work. Whenever we do something great, the phone starts ringing. It is never about the big piece of business, it is about the difficult business, give us that and we can work our magic on that.
Q] So what are you hoping from the BBH India office?
Making predictions is very dangerous but I want to come back to Goa and see Raj and his team go on and off the stage collecting awards – I am only joking. I want to see an office that is doing great work and that has an excited, happy lot of people who love doing what they are doing.
Q] In fact in the last few months we have seen a trend of sorts with agencies hiring expats as their creative heads – there is Adrian Miller in JWT and Patrick Burns at BMB Madison and even though Raj is not an expat, for the last many years he has worked outside India. Is there dearth of senior talent in India?
It is the other way round. People are looking at India now and saying this is the place to be. Why did people go to New York once? India is the place now with great opportunities. People talked about India and China but I have always believed India would be more exciting – this is why you are seeing senior talent opting to work in India. I say, in 20 years time, let us have the same conversation. I would be greyer then, and so would you, but I bet you’ll tell me, John you said this back then...