‘Don’t stalk, inspire’: Sir John Hegarty on why brands are failing to build long-term relationships

Sir John Hegarty says brands’ obsession with promotion over creativity means they are not producing marketing that people love, which is effectively making the industry worse.

Just Eat creativity and data

Sir John Hegarty believes the rise of digital technology has led to brands’ obsession with “stalking” consumers rather than inspiring them, which is impacting their ability to build long-term relationships.

Speaking at the World Federation of Advertisers (WFA)’s Global Marketer Week today (7 April), he said brands have become “overawed” by technology and don’t know what to do with it. He advised marketers to ask themselves, “Am I a brand that stalks or am I a brand that inspires”, noting that the best way to inspire is to be creative.

“Creativity is the oxygen which drives business,” said the co-founder of ad agency BBH. “Unless you engage with that, you won’t go on developing, you won’t go on innovating, you won’t go on doing things that a business has to do. It won’t be challenged.”

He argued that business at its core is creative but all too often this is pushed to one side.

It’s bizarre to me that we are in an industry that by all measure of research that is done, your audience – the public – disapprove of what you do.

Sir John Hegarty

“It’s essential that creativity is brought into the heart of business for it to succeed… Creativity isn’t something that exists and we use it occasionally, it’s in our souls. It’s who we are, what we are, and it’s what business is. Those businesses that don’t engage with creativity – they die.”

While Hegarty isn’t against technology, he suggested it should be used to elevate marketing rather than lead it.

“Technology allows us to go granular and that’s great and I’m not saying don’t do that – data is fundamentally important. But data is knowledge, not imagination. And that’s what we need – more imagination. We’re emotional beings, it’s what we respond to.”

Data doesn’t dictate trends, humans do

He added that a lack of imagination is one of the things making marketing “worse”.

“The question we have is why is creativity under threat? Why are we in this situation? It’s bizarre to me that we are in an industry that by all measure of research that is done, your audience – the public – disapprove of what you do. They increasingly dislike advertising. That’s not my opinion, every piece of research says this,” he said.

“I’m not sure what business book you’ve read, but I’ve certainly not read one that has said ‘the way to success is to make a worse product’. Don’t know if somebody’s read it, I’d like to see it, but that’s what the marketing industry is doing. They are actually making a worse product.”

He said the problem is brands are not creating things that people love, which is at its essence what marketing needs to do.

“It needs people to love it… It’s about persuasion and promotion, and we’ve become obsessed with promotion. A great idea will solve everything, but we’re not doing that. We’re not capturing people’s imagination.”

One brand that has impressed him with its communication is Swedish oat milk company Oatly.

“They captured this essence of ‘there is a different way of consuming milk’… and they did it with humour, they did it with audacity, they were daring, they took double page spreads in newspapers, they spoke to everyone – and I think brands today have forgotten how to speak to everyone.”

Hegarty concluded that marketers must remember: “A brand is made not just by the people who buy it, but by the people who know about it. I think that’s one of the most important things you can ever say.”