Lessons from BBH's Sir John Hegarty on the value of craft and why execution is just as important as creativity

Tips from Sir John Hegarty on the value of craft and why execution is just as important as creativity

There is quite often a buzz around the ideas and concepts behind ads, but what about the value of craft? The art of commercial filmaking is often overlooked, but BBH co-founder and advertising legend Sir John Hegarty believes that execution is just as important as ideas.

Speaking at Ciclope Festival in Berlin on Thursday (3 November) the advertising luminary said: "One of the great sadnesses of today is that there's a belief that craft isn't very important anymore or that you don't need it, and of course, that is as far from the truth as you can be."

To demonstrate his point Hegarty took the audience through some of BBH's most iconic ads - from Levi's to Johnnie Walker - and explained how craft was pivotal to the success of each. Here, we take a look at some of the lessons marketers can glean from his experience.

"An idea is only great if it looks great"

Hegarty admitted that his background as an art director makes him more of an advocate for the craft of films rather than the ideas behind them.

Pointing to BBH's minimalist 'Speed Isn’t Everything' ad for Audi, Hegarty said he wasn't sure the ad was going to be great when he heard the idea.

The spot, published this year, shows the model slowly turning in circles to the tune of Dusty Springfield's The Windmills Of Your Mind, and as the camera pans out its clear the slow-motion doughnut has helped form one of the rings from Audi's logo.

"I think if you fall back on craft, you can actually make very simple thing profound," said the BBH co-founder.

"The great skill in communication is simplicity"

Concepts and scripts are often placed front-and-centre of the creative, but Hegarty said he always takes the approach that the script is only "the beginning of the journey," and said the BBH team "always look to make it simpler."

"In the end there is only one media space," he continued, "despite what happens in technology; that space is the one between someone's ears – that's the space I want to occupy and simplicity is profoundly important in getting it in there."

He cited the agency's 2002 'Reach for the Sky' ad for Levi's as an example of this. The campaign shows a young man and woman running through walls as bricks and mortar explore. A woman soon joins him and they run together before crashing through a final wall and accelerating through a forest, up a tree and eventually into the night sky. It was directed by Jonathan Glazer, the man behind Radiohead's video for Street Spirit and the movie Sexy Beast.

"No ambition, no change"

"If you don't think your idea can really change the way things are, the way they're appreciated, the way they're looked at then of course you will never get any change", mused Hegarty. "You must have that ambition to do daring things, but obviously you need clients to help you do that."

One such of BBH's clients was the Guardian, which back in 2012 tasked the creative shop with helping people to see the news in a different way. The answer, the agency decided, was to use culture and so the paper's 'The Whole Picture' campaign was born.

Produced by Rattling Stick with effects and design work from The Mill, the Cannes Lion-winning film tells the fairytale of the three little pigs through a modern periscope. The end result was a visually-impressive walkthrough of information presented in the form of tweets, a computerised simulation of the wolf's 'huff and puff', YouTube videos and more.

The Mill told AdAge at the time that it took four weeks to add effects, and that special lenses were used to give a cinematic feel to spot on top of motion graphics, animation and 3D work which came together to create the final effect.

"Don't hire famous directors, hire directors and make them famous"

Hegarty conceded that this way of working came about because when BBH was founded the agency often didn't have "huge budgets", so it had to write "better ideas that would interest better directors."

Singling out another Levi's spot, he said the brand's well-shot 1996 'Drugstore' commercial helped put then little-known director Michel Gondry on the map. The retro video was filmed in the style of a black and white movie and contained a controversial tongue-in-cheek plot twist.

The spot never aired in the US due to concerns about it showing the purchase of condoms but it was highly successful in other markets, scooping the Guinness World Record for the most-awarded TV ad right through to the early noughties.

"Casting is everything"

During his talk Heggarty said that BBH is, and always has been, "obsessive" about casting.

At the time of its launch Audi's yuppie-themed 1994 ad for Audi was a "daring piece of communication" for the car brand to undertake, and as such the casting was crucial he said.

Containg the iconic line: "tell Charles I'm on my way," the spot revolved around an insufferable London city boy talking about his pursuits and wealth as he test drives an A4. At the end of the ad he rejects the car on the basis that it's "not really his style." The flim appealed to a wider audience, not just car lovers, coming at time when scrunity was being applied to the excesses capitalism in the UK.

"As the ad goes on you realise he's a real plonker," said the ad veteran, adding: "and that actor had to carry that part, if he didn't carry that part this would not have worked."

"Craft holds the attention"

In 2009 BBH was asked to create an ad showcasing the history of Johnnie Walker, but there was a catch – the team were resolute that the film had to be completed as one single shot without any cuts.

"Many directors turned it down", said Hegarty, but HLA director Jamie Rafn was up to the task and Trainspotting actor Robert Carlyle was chosen to front the mesmerising 'Keep Walking' five-minute long campaign.

"This for me, is one of the most remarkable pieces of film", Hegarty told the audience, "it's a fantastic example of how craft hold the idea together and makes it happen."

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Rebecca Stewart

Rebecca Stewart is a reporter at The Drum. Based in London, she writes news, analysis and features around brand marketing and digital innovation. She has interviewed key figures from the likes of Airbnb, Amnesty International, Unilever, Facebook and Spotify, as well as covering international events like Ad Week Europe, Dmexco and Ciclope.

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