The riveting story of Levi’s: John Hegarty and Nigel Bogle on their favourite Levi’s ads

With Levi’s celebrating 140 years in 2013, Jason Stone catches up with BBH founders Nigel Bogle and John Hegarty to discuss some of the brand’s most iconic advertising.

It’s 140 years since Levi Strauss and Jacob Davis were granted the US patent to make the first riveted men’s work trousers from denim, effectively inventing blue jeans as we know them today. And it was around 30 years ago that the company took one of the wisest decisions in its history when it appointed a year-old start-up called Bartle Bogle Hegarty to create its advertising in the UK. The agency didn’t even have a permanent office back then, but swiftly began producing some of the most memorable advertising of all time for its new client. A week before Cannes I visited BBH to talk to John Hegarty and Nigel Bogle about their favourite Levi’s commercials. It seems likely that part of the reason for the enduring success of Bogle’s relationship with Hegarty is a shared sense that it suits them both for the latter to stand in the limelight. Bogle’s quiet modesty strikes a considerable contrast with Hegarty’s Barnum-esque charisma, but there’s no doubt that both men rightly regard theirs as a partnership of equals. I spoke to them separately, but they still managed to finish each other’s sentences as they offered a remarkably unified verdict on the work that made their agency famous.

Russia

While ‘Laundrette’ is the commercial that many people consider to be the first great collaboration between Levi’s and BBH, there was some excellent work made before Nick Kamen ever stripped to his kecks – including a commercial set in the Soviet Union during the 1960s which showed a young man nervously negotiating border control at an airport. It was quite a departure for Levi’s, which had a history of using clichéd Americana, but Bogle reveals that their new client was ready for something different: “Levi’s wanted to be in at the beginning of something with BBH. They were very brave to appoint us in the first place. We had 11 people when we won the account. All the big agencies were on the list and we were this tiny little agency that had been going for five minutes, so I never had any sense of having to force them to buy something. They were very receptive and it was a partnership from the beginning.”

Laundrette

Having persuaded Levi’s to move away from the American imagery that had failed the brand in the past, it was perhaps surprising that BBH opted to reintroduce it when it was handed the task of marketing 501s. “When you’re using America as part of a brand’s appeal you have to be very selective about what you use and what you don’t use,” explains Bogle. “There’s no doubt that young people in the 1980s had a sense that America was the home of rock ‘n’ roll and teenage emancipation, but that’s completely different from seeing America as a Big Brother bossing the world.” ‘Laundrette’ has earned its place as one of the greatest ads of all time, but Hegarty reveals how it could have turned out quite differently after he and director Roger Lyons had a last-minute disagreement about the casting. “We were making two commercials, ‘Laundrette’ and ‘Bath’, and we’d cast a guy called James Mardel for ‘Bath’ and Nick Kamen for ‘Laundrette’, but Roger decided that he wanted to do it the other way around.” Hegarty’s view prevailed, but he’s not remotely triumphant about it. Instead he reflects on what might not have been and the role played by luck: “If we’d listened to the director, what would have happened? I’m sure it would have been a very nice commercial and people would have liked it, but it wouldn’t have carried the power that it did. Nick Kamen was kind of made for that role.”

Swimmer

BBH took a number of risks with ‘Swimmer’. Although director Tarsem was riding high on the success of REM’s promo ‘Losing My Religion’, he’d never directed a commercial, the script had less of a narrative arc than previous ads in the series, and the young director was determined to take the music in a brave new direction. “It was a fantastic piece of film,” says Hegarty. “We moved away from the R’n’B modern tracks and showed that Levi’s could put a piece of music on its advertising ‘Mad About The Boy’ which was written by Noel Coward – that wasn’t ‘cool and groovy’. Something from outside the mainstream. And because it was Levi’s that did it, people knew it was worth listening to. It had achieved that level of...” Hegarty struggles for the right word before completing his sentence with a grimace, “coolness”. Bogle explains the risks taken with ‘Swimmer’ were part of a concerted effort to move the campaign forward: “To give credit to Levi’s, it always wanted to move it on too. It was always looking for a new story and there was a constant desire to bring a new dimension to each film we made. This was definitely a moment when the campaign took a different direction.” Bogle acknowledges the agency’s debt to Tarsem: “It was the best pre-production meeting that I’ve ever been to. He’d worked out completely how he was going to shoot it and he just acted out the process of going through all these swimming pools. It was a piece of theatre, and at the end of the pre-production I thought ‘I’ve seen the film’. It was that detailed and that brilliant.”

Creek

This commercial is identified by both Bogle and Hegarty as a perfect piece of work, and both hinted that it was their all-time favourite – something confirmed by Hegarty in his autobiography. Bogle says: “There’s nothing you’d change about Creek,” while Hegarty describes it as “impossible to improve”. Exploiting the freedom generated by ‘Swimmer’, ‘Creek’ combined Ansel Adams-style imagery with an unexpected soundtrack courtesy of Scottish rock band Stiltskin. The photography is quite beautiful and the anachronistic guitar riff complements it perfectly. Hegarty and Bogle both express affection for the gag at the end prompted by the discovery that the stolen jeans don’t belong to man bathing in the creek. Hegarty notes that people sometimes underestimate the campaign’s humour, which he feels can be traced all the way back to the lovely cameo by the overweight man who surveys Nick Kamen in ‘Laundrette’.

Pick Up

This is a personal favourite of Bogle and he’s almost apologetic for choosing a film that he doesn’t think will necessarily appeal to aficionados. It’s one of the earliest ads in the campaign and has a dweeby-looking fellow and his girlfriend being rescued by a roguish fellow who uses his Levi’s 501s as a tow rope. “Most of our Levi’s work,” he observes, “was just a product demonstration that had been given an emotional twist and turned into a funny, sexy story; and ‘Pick Up’ is the ultimate product demonstration because it’s what’s on the label – the two-horse test that’s the trademark of the brand. ‘Pick Up’ was the two-horse test carried out in a more modern way and I love the way this ad uses this fundamental truth about the product.”

Washroom

Hegarty feels that ‘Washroom’ is a little overlooked when the great Levi’s ads are discussed: “It was a fabulous idea. A girl can’t go into the female toilets; she wants to change her jeans and she goes into the male toilets and there’s a guy sitting there, but he’s blind so she figures that it’s okay to get changed in front of him. She hesitates because she’s not sure, but she leaves... then it turns out the guy has been looking after another man who really is blind. I thought it was a brilliant idea but it wasn’t written in a very interesting way, and the client wasn’t convinced.”The problem was solved by TV producer (and Hegarty’s partner) Philippa Crane, who rewrote it as a Tarantino-esque script. Hegarty runs through the plot again – but this time he’s injecting the edginess inspired by ‘Reservoir Dogs’ and ‘Pulp Fiction’. The idea comes to life and you can’t imagine a client foolish enough to turn it down.

Drug Store

“‘Drug Store’ came out just after ‘Creek’ and it was a pretty amazing piece of film,” says Bogle of Michel Gondry’s stylish 1995 commercial which has a young man surprising the owner of a drug store when he arrives to pick up the man’s teenage daughter, having bought some condoms from him earlier in the day. “I thought it was really well shot and the music is really, really interesting. But I remember that we had to put in one additional shot to make sure people understood that the dad was the man we’d seen earlier in the drug store. “It gained a lot of acclaim and recognition – much more than ‘Laundrette’ did. ‘Swimmer’, ‘Creek’ and ‘Drug Store’ all won more awards than ‘Laundrette’.”

Flat Eric

When Hegarty proposed to the team charged with creating the next Levi’s commercial that they write a script centred around a pair of buddies ‘on the road’ (in the Jack Kerouac sense) and that one of the two should be a bizarre-looking yellow puppet, “one of them thought I’d taken leave of my senses while the other conceded that it could be ‘quite interesting’”. He had to present it to Levi’s three times before they relented because “the first time they thought I’d gone completely mad, and a lot of people here at the agency thought I’d gone completely mad, and I remember the account team saying to me: ‘are you really sure about this?’ and I said, ‘look, this could be really great’. Of course you’re not sure... But unless you do something daring, you’re going to vaguely do what everyone else does.” Nothing lasts forever – like all good partnerships, Levi’s relationship with BBH eventually came to an end. Hegarty remains loyal to the brand though, stating that he still prefers Levi’s to other jeans. Both Hegarty and Bogle are plainly proud of what they accomplished and appeared to enjoy the opportunity to discuss some of their triumphs for the brand, but there’s no misty-eyed longing for the past.

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