When I tell one of the receptionists at BBH's London headquarters that I've come to interview John Hegarty, she points him out in the company's coffee bar. As I set off to introduce myself, she presciently adds: "I'll let his PA know you're here in case you miss him." By the time I've crossed the expansive lobby and climbed the stairs, he's nowhere to be seen. While John Hegarty is unquestionably charming and entertaining, this elusive quality is sustained throughout our conversation as beguiling candour trades places with anecdotes so well-honed that he occasionally disappears behind them.
I ask if he can remember the first piece of advertising that made an impression on him. He recalls a poster for Guinness from the mid-1950s when he only eight years old. "It said 'Down With Guinness', and I remember telling my dad that I'd seen this Guinness poster telling people not to drink it and he said: 'what do you mean?' I described it to him and he said: 'no, no, no, John... it's a joke' and he explained it to me." Hegarty is swift to debunk any suggestion that this demonstrates a precocious connection to advertising, emphasising that his was a typical post-war working-class upbringing and, at that time, "the idea of advertising was, like, 'what's that?'" He says he didn't give the industry another thought until he was at the London College of Printing in the 1960s where it was suggested it might provide the perfect output for his over-active imagination.
The first of Hegarty's Desert Island Clips is Levi's 'Laundrette'. A commercial that helped to establish BBH's reputation as well as boosting sales of the advertised jeans so dramatically that Levi's had to stop broadcasting it until they could resupply shops, it's also the ad responsible for Nick Kamen's singing career... so not all good.
'Laundrette' was one of two scripts filmed simultaneously, and if he'd had to choose between them, 'Laundrette' might have been dropped. It was only when Hegarty saw the first cut that he realised they'd created something special, "that's the great magic of film; nobody really knows what you've got until it's actually made. When you view the first cut of a new commercial, you always say to the editor: 'how is it?' and then you look them in the eye and if they say, 'yeah, yeah, it's okay actually' then you know you're in serious shit. But with 'Laundrette' the editor just said: 'it's good' very quietly and I thought 'hello'... then he played it and it took my breath away."
Hegarty acknowledges this alchemy is largely beyond his control and describes himself as being "in awe" of what a director brings to the process. "You have to remember to give the director room. On Levi's, we've sometimes written scripts that are too complicated and the director hasn't been able to do anything more than get the story down... that's why, with scripts, simplicity is so profoundly important."
He recognises that the choice of music was "absolutely crucial" to the success of Levi's, and it also plays a pivotal role in his second Desert Island Clip selection - the docking sequence from Stanley Kubrick's '2001: A Space Odyssey'. "It's genius. Imagine that sequence without the Strauss waltz. Total genius. I've heard that the editor just shoved some music on because he got bored with the rushes and then Kubrick saw it and just said: 'that's the music... I'll be called a genius for this but it's just luck'."
This tale, apocryphal or otherwise, further illustrates Hegarty's belief that there's something mysterious and magical about what a director does. But placing so much faith in one person means "you have to accept that it isn't always going to work out," and that "you've got to be prepared to say: 'no, this isn't right', even if it means starting over."
He recalls wanting a Club Med commercial to be recast "at the eleventh hour" because the actor chosen by director Jonathan Glazer felt wrong. "The character had to be absolutely right because otherwise he could look like a nutter. You had to be able to like him. If you can't believe in the character then it just won't work."
Hegarty crossed swords with Glazer again when they worked together on 'Odyssey' for Levi's. This time it was a disagreement about music that provoked the disharmony. Since it was Jonathan Glazer who had chosen and championed Handel's 'Sarabande' for the ad, Hegarty was taken aback when the director changed his mind about it once the film was completed. They showed me a version with the alternative music and I said, 'it's nowhere near as good... you're mad'; and when he discovered that his creative team "had got themselves sucked into the director's orbit" and were backing Glazer's alternative choice, he told them bluntly they were wrong. "I said to them, 'you're not telling me what piece of music works and what doesn't.'" Hegarty's view prevailed but it clearly still rankles that Glazer used the other music on his own reel: "I think it's a very sad comment."
Next on Hegarty's list is a 1987 commercial for K-Shoes which has a woman enacting glorious revenge upon her philandering husband and his mistress. Hegarty cites it as an example of the perfect script: "sometimes it's about what happens on the day... someone suggests something and you think: 'oh that sounds great, let's do that', but with K-Shoes it was all in the script – right down to taking the cigarette out of her mouth, closing her chin and stamping her foot on it."
When possible, Hegarty likes to attend shoots, and he's not afraid to make his presence felt. "I'm very much there," he says, placing an emphasis on the word 'there' which challenges his assertion that the director must always be given room, "and I know when to say 'get them to try this' or 'get them to try that'. I'm not being arrogant, I hope, I'm just being certain. I've spent so long doing this that I know when to jump in... and also I've learnt that if you haven't shot it, you can't make a judgement about it later."
To illustrate this last point, Hegarty describes working with photographer-turned-director Terence Donovan: "we were shooting a commercial with John Mills and the idea was that he'd fall asleep if he wasn't reading this magazine and I wanted him to really fall over. Terry didn't want to do it that way. While we were still arguing about it, he called 'wrap' and the crew started to take the equipment to bits and I had to say, 'no... I've got to have it'. We had barely enough light but John Mills was great and we got it. And, of course, we needed it and that's why you've got to be there."
Hegarty's next selection is the 2002 X-Box ad, 'Champagne'; which shows the arc of a man's life from cradle to grave after he's fired from the womb like a cork from a Champagne bottle. It makes conspicuous use of special effects which Hegarty identifies as a double-edged sword. "Technology inspires creativity and creativity challenges technology which can be a virtuous circle, but there's also a danger that you can do so much that it becomes a distraction. I'm not anti-technology but there are times when you think 'can we not spend a little more time thinking about the script?'"
A French art student, Audrey Schebat, claimed 'Champagne' was based on one of her films, but Hegarty doesn't recall the subsequent lawsuit and suspects it came to nothing. Nonetheless, he addresses the question of plagiarism. "When a team walks in and shows me a bit of film, I'm always thinking, 'so, it's been done' and that makes me very wary. But, in a way, all ideas borrow. All ideas are a progression from one thing to another. By definition, you can't create something in a vacuum... it's got to have a reference point. I think it's all about the integrity of the idea. If a team says to me: 'we've written this great idea and we've seen this bit of film and it's a most wonderful way of doing it,' then I'll say: 'absolutely'. If it's based on something else, in any way, then the question is: are you doing it with integrity? And only you can answer that."
Hegarty's second movie clip is the Pulp Fiction scene where Vincent and Jules are discussing the absence of quarter-pounders in French branches of McDonald's. "I love that scene for a couple of reasons. First, it's the most brilliant example of product placement even though it actually wasn't product placement... Tarantino wasn't paid by McDonald's to do that. Second, I love the juxtaposition. Creativity is all about juxtaposition. This scene juxtaposes a really, really trivial conversation about burgers with an errand being run by a couple of hitmen who are about to kill all these people. It tells you so much about them... about how little killing means to them. It's a lovely observation about life and Tarantino's ability to capture it. Genius."
Hegarty denies that his next choice – The Guardian's 'Three Little Pigs' ad - lacks the simplicity he favours. "It is simple, actually... it's incredibly simple because you already know the story: it's the three little pigs. We just wanted to tell both sides of the story. Once that idea was established, it allowed the director to make something really interesting."
When 'Three Little Pigs' was broadcast, there was a considerable effort to elicit the opinion of the Twittersphere but Hegarty isn't worried that the instant verdict provided by social media will make agencies more risk-averse. "You have to accept when you put a piece of work out there that some people will be for it and some will be against it; but you've started a conversation and that's the most important thing."
His next clip is also from a movie - the scene from 'The Godfather' where Jack Woltz wakes up alongside the head of his prized horse. Hegarty admires the power exerted by "the brutality of it... it showed you - in one moment - what Don Corleone is prepared to do. It's visually stunning, it opens on the swimming pool and you just hear the screams and you wonder what's happening - you think he's being tortured but, no, Corleone's taken the thing that this man loves more than anything in the world and chopped its head off. Brilliant. A fantastic moment."
For his final ad choice, Hegarty selects 'Fish'; a 2003 spot for Johnnie Walker. "What I love is the complete absurdity of the idea. But it was an idea that wasn't working until we added the line, 'take the first step'. Once we put that in... it was like: 'I get it now'. I had thought it should just end with the words 'keep walking' but it was too much of a leap for people to understand and it needed 'take the first step' so that everyone could make sense of it. That's why I always say, ekeep working on it until you find the thing that works because it always comes in the end'."
When asked if an agency should use its output to advocate socially responsible behaviour, Hegarty gives an unequivocal "yes". He remembers hearing a line in a debate about ethics in advertising that perfectly defines his position on this: "'I wouldn't promote anything', this chap said, 'that I wouldn't want my children to partake of'. As my kids were growing up, I spent my life saying, 'don't smoke, don't smoke, don't smoke,' so how could I then walk into an agency and work on cigarettes?"
There's something immensely uplifting about John Hegarty's unashamed enthusiasm for the advertising world, "I love it. It's a wonderful business." It's little wonder that his calm focused determination has helped to deliver so much success to the company he co-founded thirty years ago and it's no surprise to learn that there are no thoughts of stopping, "whatever happens, I won't retire... I'd rather just go off and do other things."
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