Sir John Hegarty: advertising needs culture and why consolidation doesn't work

Sir John Hegarty says culture is essential to advertising

Sir John Hegarty, one of the global creative agency BBH’s three founding members, believes that in a world in which brands increasingly demand the attention of consumers, culture is the key to winning people over.

Moreover, he believes that in an industry that’s facing constant reinvention, sticking to principles that drive a strong culture is how BBH is maintaining relevance, even as it moves into new markets and new generations of leaders come through.

Speaking from BBH’s Shanghai office, Hegarty tells The Drum that brands need to make peace with the reality that, while a good product is key, most brands could easily fade away without something extra.

If most brands didn’t exist tomorrow, the world would go on

“What is the function of advertising? Its primary function is to sell stuff, but how? How do you make your brand more relevant and profitable? Advertising has to be a part of the culture and people need to talk about you to increase importance. The truth is if most brands did not exist tomorrow, the world would go on. We are not fundamentally important to the world’s existence, we have to make ourselves important. A key part of that is becoming a part of the culture and having a relevance to the audience beyond simply being a function of what we sell,” he explains.

He draws experience on this not only from his time building BBH but now as part of The Garage, an early stage investor and brand builder for entrepreneurs, helping get businesses off the ground. He says he encounters too many founders that have not questioned whether what they are creating is something the world really needs.

A vast percentage of advertising is something you would not share

“You need a product that genuinely offers an advantage and one that you are constantly innovating the product or service where relevant, although sometimes the innovation is to do nothing. The other side is about asking if you are communicating to capture the imagination, whether it taps into the consciousness and if you are making something they want to pass on. A message people want to pass on; that is what culture does, it articulates something we all share. A vast percentage of advertising is something you would not share, it is just mouthing cliches again,” he says.

Using culture in advertising can be a tough balance, however, and errors can have huge ramifications for brands. Just recently in China, Dolce & Gabbana caused a country-wide boycott by launching an ad that tried to make light of Chinese culture and ended up causing offense.

For Hegarty, knowing how to play that balance is all about making your brand human and thinking of it as a living and breathing person.

You need to think of your brand as a human being

If you want to laugh at something, laugh at yourself because it shows confidence but does not laugh at other people. Someone who mocks other people is not someone you admire, while someone who laughs about themselves with confidence, that is attractive and it is the same with brands. You can create cultural relevance but don't try and hijack a cultural reference,” he adds, citing Pepsi’s famed attempt at tackling social issues in an ad with Kendal Jenner last year. “You need to think of your brand as a human being, what people do you like?”

In terms of when this has worked, he calls out Marmite as the best example of a brand that has made a joke of itself and grown as a result. “Marmite’s ‘Love it or hate it’ is a fabulous example of co-opting culture because they are talking about themselves. It was a truth and you could not get offended by it, everyone enjoyed it and they have gone on telling that story in an entertaining way. Marmite is such a part of our culture that we now talk about people being Marmite.”

Strong cultural advertising ideas like this are arguably also mostly from agencies with strong cultures too. This is all well and good when an agency is still strongly founder-led, with its belly full of purpose and meaning, but eventually, as agencies get bigger, human error and new perspectives can muddy the waters.

When you look at consolidation, you are looking at a failure

There is also a new pattern for merging entities and consolidation, as well as in-housing, and knowing how to keep a strong eye on culture becomes more important, says Hegarty.

“I think when you look at consolidation, you are looking at a failure. What you are saying is that we can't work on our own, so we will put a poor business within a strong business," he says. "If you think about companies, they have a culture, but when you put a failing culture with a succeeding one, the failing culture infects the succeeding one. When someone is healthy you don't put someone unhealthy near. We know it’s a sign of weakness, so what you are looking at is an inevitable decline."

BBH was founded in 1982 and has been responsible for some of adland’s favorite work. The agency is a part of Publicis, which has undergone a huge reorgansiation into its ‘Power of One’ model, but it has also remained largely untouched. How it can maintain at that level, resisting the lure of consolidation, is because the agency has kept the culture alive and stuck to its principles, says Hegarty.

“Culture is what BBH did and still does, from the first work we did way back in 1982 for Audi. It is an example of co-opting culture into ads and you create a bond with the audience that is long lasting. The principles remain the same, it is just the practices that change. So, 36 years later, the principles of what we started out with are the same - ideas that have an outstanding strategy, linked to great creative execution.

“The first thing you need is a set of principles that are easily understood and a culture that encourages the implementation. If BBH doesn’t remain true, it will fail, but I think we are now led by some people that are truly outstanding. In Shanghai, we are talking about the foundation of the company and its beliefs and we see strong creative leadership here as I do around the world,” he adds.

Since 1982, through forces that no single agency could predict or shape, the advertising industry has lost favor with the public. The Drum has taken this topic for The Drum Advertising Awards 2019 and beyond for the December print magazine, to prove that advertising is not a dirty word. For Hegarty, the failure of the industry has been to balance its forced attention with satisfaction for the viewer.

I didn't come into this industry to trick people to watch ads

“There is evidence saying people don't like ads as much as they used to, you see it in constant tracking studies that people are more suspicious. You can understand why, as clients are tracking people and invading privacy. Ads have to be careful and brands need to be invited in," he says. "We impose ourselves on our audience and it is beholden to use that to make it relevant, engaging and valuable. You need people to want to watch, versus being forced to watch.

"The future of our industry is always predicated on whether we are creating work that has value. If we are relying on tripping people up and conning them then they will resent it. I didn't come into this industry to trick people to watch ads, it was to create work that people wanted to watch and talk about, that is interesting and stimulating."

December is a fitting time to pose the question, as many markets around the world see an uptick in major advertising for the festive season. Hegarty points to the global obsession around certain ads to show that, when done well, advertising is welcomed in.

“Great brands inspire people and boring brands don’t. Look at the debate around the UK-based Christmas ads, around John Lewis and the British supermarkets, it is a fantastic example of what our industry can do. It is also proof against the idiots saying people don’t watch TV. If you go to any marketing conference someone will tell you people are not watching TV. Who gives them a platform and why aren't they being thrown off stage? If you said the world is flat, you would be thrown out.”

Fundamental to what’s driving a disconnect between great ads and bad ads is marketers being badly led, he says.

“Chief marketing officers have always wanted advertising to be a science, they would love salesmanship to be a science but sadly it’s not. When someone comes along and says they can predict what will happen and get you to talk directly to the audience, marketers say ‘wow great’ but they fail to understand the purpose of ads. We are badly led, in politics, business, and so many industries, and it upsets me more than anything,” he says.

With many striving for the holy grail of turning advertising into a science, one of the biggest challenges for modern marketers is knowing whether they are being led down the right path or not. If Sir John Hegarty’s mantra of understanding culture can be of any use, it is to think of how brands fit into this, humanly.

Get The Drum Newsletter

Build your marketing knowledge by choosing from daily news bulletins or a weekly special.

Come on in, it’s free.

This isn’t a paywall. It’s a freewall. We don’t want to get in the way of what you came here for, so this will only take a few seconds.