Sir John Hegarty

You can't be all things to all people

Sir John Hegarty’s name became part of an advertising folklore as part of Bartle Bogle Hegarty, the agency behind such iconic campaigns as Levi’s laundrette and Audi’s ‘Vorsprung durch Technik.’ But he never set out to be an entrepreneur, as he tells Smith & Williamson’s Hall of Fame.

Sir John Hegarty Promo

For John, entrepreneurship was a means to an end, a way of achieving the creative freedom he sought, but he believes advertising in itself is entrepreneurial: “What it teaches you is the power of ideas to transform a business. When you’re working on advertising, helping a brand grow, you are acting like an entrepreneur.”

John’s early years were focused on art rather than entrepreneurship. He went to art school and studied graphic design. At the time he was introduced to the advertising scene in New York. He loved the ideas and it drove his work. For him, he says, it was never ‘what typeface shall we use’, but ‘what’s the idea’.

“There was some brilliant work coming out of NY at that time – for VW and Avis. These were great campaigns that became famous and for me, it switched a light on. This advertising was smart, intelligent, witty. But also inclusive. That was how I got into this.”

Early in his career, he was teamed up with another advertising icon - Charles Saatchi. When Saatchi founded his own agency in 1970, John went across as a partner, but left in 1973: “It was always going to be Charlie’s agency”.

When he left he joined TBWA, where he met the Bartle (John) and Bogle (Nigel) of his future agency. They drove the business for over eight years, leaving in 1982 to found Bartle Bogle Hegarty. “We really felt we had to do it for ourselves. Otherwise we were always operating on someone else’s master plan”.

It was a true partnership, he says, with everyone doing what they’re good at. He says: “We had huge respect for each other. We may have disagreed at times, but we were all working in the best interests of the company. At the foundation was trust and that was absolutely crucial. I always knew that one of them was looking after my interests. We had faith in what each of us did.”

It was not plain-sailing and he admits they were quite often a few phone calls away from disaster. They took a tough decision early on that they weren’t going to do any creative speculative pitches for work. In John’s view, it disrespected the value of creative thinking.

“If you build a business with a set of beliefs it will eliminate some opportunities. You can’t be all things to all people. If you have a Porsche 911, you can’t get a roof-rack on it.”

BBH’s campaigns ultimately spoke for themselves. Nick Kamen stripping to his boxer shorts while he launders his Levi 501s spawned a thousand teenage crushes and consigned Y-fronts to the dustbin of history. They worked with Phileas Fogg, famously made in ‘Medomsley Road, Consett’. When they were sold to United Biscuits, the group had to keep the factory open because it had become such as important part of their brand. They launched the career of a young Brad Pitt, who appeared in one of their commercials.

After several years, they realised advertising was becoming more global and they needed a footprint in other markets. The solution came in the form of Leo Burnett and Starcom, which bought 49% of the business in 1997. This was then sold to Publicis. When the original team decided to exit the business in 2012, Publicis bought them out. John was comfortable that the team negotiated a deal in the best interests of the company and left the company with the right kind of ownership.

John didn’t want to stop working. “Creativity is not an occupation, it’s a preoccupation,” he says. Tom Teichman was an old friend and involved in a couple of companies, looking nascent brands and how they could increase in value. John says: When a young entrepreneur comes in pitching their idea - someone may copy the idea and tech, the brand is where the value lies. We wanted to formalise this.”

The pair set up the Garage Soho. “We are backing creativity with capital, making it work harder. We are not necessarily looking for media or technology businesses, but whoever walks in with a great idea. Simba Mattresses, HEWI, Taylor and Hart. My only question is ‘is it interesting?’ Does it change the way people feel or think? We still get it horribly wrong. We passed over on PurpleBricks for example, because the owners fell out. Now it’s worth £1bn.”

Advertising is changing, he agrees: “principles remain, it’s the practices that change” certain elements remain the same: “Certainly you need to understand how to navigate digital technology, but it’s still about telling a story and getting it heard.”

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