Sir John Hegarty: Creativity is receding from the world of marketing and the obsession with data is to blame

Brands have become risk-averse and ads are boring, says advertising guru Sir John Hegarty. If the industry wants to survive it has got to lose its obsession with data and go back to its roots.

John Hegarty
Illustration by Peter Strain

I’ve barely sat down in the office of Sir John Hegarty’s latest venture, startup incubator The Garage, before he is bemoaning everything that is wrong in the ad industry today. Across the table, he complains how creativity is “receding from the world of marketing” as it becomes data-driven, how marketing has forgotten to “engage with people’s imagination and soul” and how digital tech “hasn’t created the wealth it promised to”.

This, he argues, is the reason for lacklustre economic growth. Innovation, creativity and imagination have been sidelined in favour of data, cost-cutting and simply doing what the research says. That isn’t to say he doesn’t believe in data, just that it isn’t the “only thing”.

“Data is great at giving you information, giving you knowledge; but it doesn’t give you understanding and that is its great failing,” he explains.

“What we need is greater creativity and what we’re doing today is reducing the power of creativity. Marketing, I believe, is suffering because of that; you’re not getting imaginative ideas that capture people’s imagination.”

Hegarty knows a thing or two about creativity. He was a founding shareholder in Saatchi & Saatchi and co-founded TBWA London in 1973 before going on to start the agency that would bear his name, Bartle Bogle Hegarty (BBH), in 1982.

We presented this work and the main guy at Golden Wonder said ‘that’s the finest work I’ve seen’. JWT ended up winning the business. It’s a fucking lottery.

Sir John Hegarty

His work on Levi’s, Volkswagen and Audi is the stuff of legend, still regularly touted as some of the best and most creative advertising ever made. Yet ask him what he thinks are the best campaigns of recent years and he’s hard pushed. In fact, he says he can’t think of any that “absolutely stand out”, although he holds up Marmite, Netflix and Nike as examples of brands that are still doing “brilliant things”.

“I try not to look at advertising [anymore] because I think by and large it’s quite boring,” he says. “I’ve always thought great advertising elevates the status of [a brand] to such an extent that it becomes part of culture. That way you get greater fame, greater value, greater certainty and greater effectiveness.

“Marmite, it’s just a yeast spread, but do you ‘love it or hate it’? It’s become a part of culture.”

Hegarty believes Marmite is one brand still doing “brilliant things” in advertising.

The focus on data, he suggests, is the root cause of the problem, making big brands risk averse and “boring”, too focused on saving money instead of generating growth. He uses the beer industry as an example, claiming companies such as Heineken created the opportunity for craft brewers because they lost their audience.

“I’ve watched very exciting companies become very boring because in the end they’ve got size and now they’re obsessed with their size and so they don’t think imaginatively,” he explains. “They put systems into the organisation that take creativity out because they don’t trust their own people, so instead they control them. By controlling them they reduce the power of creativity and consequently markets begin to suffer. Then they have to go out and buy companies that still think creatively, suck them in, and make them boring too.”

READ MORE: Heineken on why craft needs a ‘reverse’ marketing approach

Agencies must go ‘back to the future’

Despite Hegarty’s clear disdain for a data-driven philosophy, it seems unlikely the industry is about to shift focus. So what does Hegarty think agencies should do? His suggestion is quite radical: stop working with large organisations and only deal with those that want to think creatively.

“What we need is the great agencies to say, ‘we are only going to deal with people who want to think creatively’. To say, ‘we are driven by creativity because we think that’s the incredible tool for creating effectiveness’.

“[If I were starting an agency now] I would go back to the future. I would make it strategic and creative and I would insert media alongside it.”

Despite conducting hundreds of pitches throughout his career, he claims the process has “never worked” calling it “completely unscientific”.

Data is great at giving you information, giving you knowledge; but it doesn’t give you understanding and that is its great failing.

Sir John Hegarty

“You try to make it as scientific as you possibly can by having various criteria, but in the end, it’s faith. Do I believe these people, do I think they are people who can deliver success for me, do I think they’re committed to my business? The pitch process has always been a haphazard business, a bit of a nonsense,” he says.

To illustrate this he recalls pitching for the Golden Wonder account at TBWA. “The strategy was freshness and so we said the way you measure that with a crisp is the noise it makes, so noise is what we’re selling and we created a 48-sheet poster that had an empty packet of Golden Wonder and it said ‘Silence is Golden’. We presented this work and the main guy at Golden Wonder said ‘that’s the finest work I’ve seen’. JWT ended up winning the business. It’s a fucking lottery.”

READ MORE: Unilever’s Keith Weed urges agencies to ‘reinvent’ themselves or risk being made redundant

The risk of digital landfill

With digital advertising eating up more and more of advertisers’ budgets, what does Hegarty make of its rise? While he welcomes digital as just “another opportunity to communicate” he has concerns about the business models and practices of the some of the digital players.

“[The big digital players] are unregulated, irresponsible, and we are just waking up that,” he says. “I view them as someone with unprecedented power that has managed to get away with using that power in an unregulated form. That’s going to have to stop, and it is now. We are beginning to see that with GDPR.”

But is it partly the ad industry’s fault digital media companies have been allowed to run riot? Hegarty has a theory.

“When you get these great tech advances and innovations, creative people stand back and say, ‘what the hell do I do with this?’. The tech becomes king and everyone bows down in the face of technology. But eventually technology runs out of innovation and then creative people come in,” he explains.

“Look at the Lumière brothers, who invented the moving camera; they gave up on it, they didn’t realise they had invented Hollywood.”

lightbulb innovation
Hegarty believes technology eventually runs out of innovation, which is when creative people take over.

He also questions the need for brands to be “always on”, describing it as an idea peddled by digital media firms to eat up marketers’ time and budgets.

“Who says [brands] have to be on all the time? It’s the digital companies telling you that. Wouldn’t it be better to be on three or four times a year and do something great each time. [Brands should] drive forward an overall idea that says ‘this is what we’re about’ but find different ways of articulating that throughout the year. Isn’t that the future, rather than a constant stream of digital landfill?”

What makes a great marketer

Hegarty has worked with a number of great marketers in his time, but asked to name one and the first person who comes to mind is Volkswagen’s John Meszaros. What made him great, explains Hegarty, is that he “went with his gut”.

“Whenever you showed him a piece of work he said to himself, ‘do I like it, do I think it’s great?’. He bought things on that basis and therefore he was the man responsible for that great campaign, ‘If only everything in life was as reliable as a Volkswagen’. He did Vorsprung Durch Technik [for Audi with BBH] even though the research said don’t do it. He felt you had to be daring, you had to be different.”

Returning to his theme of data, Hegarty proclaims it is this feeling that marketing risks losing. Every creative, he believes, should love their work and not worry so much about what the research says.

“We lack today people who love what it is that they do. They are very professional, they’re well trained, they read data, but they don’t love it.

“Today the reliance on data is destroying love and therefore [advertising] is losing its audience. And if we lose it we won’t have the economic growth we want. Why is it we’ve not got economic growth? We can’t just blame the financial world.”

Getting that creativity back is the key to ensuring the future of the ad industry, and that it is seen as a driver of company profits and economic growth, not just a nice to have.

“Creativity is the future. When we got a troubled brand we would go back to its roots – what made it, why was this brand so successful – and we tried to capture that again. It’s the same with advertising, when it was great what was it doing? We have to go back to that.”