As we wave goodbye to the 2010s, The Drum takes a look back through some of the best interviews to have graced the pages of our print magazine over the last decade. Here we go back to our July 2017 issue, which was guest edited by Facebook colleagues Nicola Mendelsohn, Sheryl Sandberg and Mark D’Arcy, and in which Mendelsohn reunited BBH founders John Bartle, Nigel Bogle and John Hegarty to quiz them on how the industry has changed.
When the world zigs, zag. So went the mantra asserting a commitment to difference set forth by John Bartle, Nigel Bogle and John Hegarty as they founded their eponymous agency, now known as BBH, in 1982.
Accompanied by a photograph of a single black sheep heading in the opposite direction amid a white flock, the line became synonymous with the concept that variety and uniqueness could exist at a time when most advertising firms were focused on price and scale.
The communications industry is a different place in many ways 34 years on, but in Hegarty’s words, “principles remain, practices change”.
Playing no small part in the new advertising landscape is Facebook, so it seems fitting that one of the individuals at its helm comes with a verified advertising pedigree. Nicola Mendelsohn, vice-president of the tech company for Europe, the Middle East and Africa since 2013, has spent most of her career in agencies. And it was at BBH that she started out in 1992, as a 20-year-old inductee on the agency’s graduate scheme.
In 2017, the ideas business is a pluralistic landscape layered with multiple channels, one where agencies are trying to carve out new paths. And unlike in the 1980s, expressions to do things differently, like BBH’s vow to ‘zag’, have become ten-a-penny. Yet true originality is rare.
It’s against this backdrop that Bartle, Bogle and Hegarty find themselves reunited in a studio at Facebook’s London offices, in conversation with Mendelsohn, their former employee, to reflect on why their power of difference mantra is as relevant to agencies today as it’s ever been, and why creatives need to find their voice to stand out in the current marketplace.
As one of this issue’s guest editors, Mendelsohn takes on the role of interviewer with her former bosses, starting with the topic of BBH’s origins.
Explaining their motivations behind founding the company, Bartle points to the circumstances at the time that paved the way for a new agency offering.
“There was a lot of evidence that clients were becoming less concerned with the size of their agency and much more concerned with the size of the advertising ideas that were not coming out.”
Clients also had the opportunity to work with what he refers to as the “second wave” of agencies in a more direct way than previously, interacting with the founders of the company themselves. As for BBH, he says, the trio – and their frustrations with the state of the ad market at the time – had already been formed at TBWA, and so they’d had what he terms a “trial run”.
“We’d actually had a test market, we’d made loads of mistakes and learned a lot. We knew we’d make more mistakes – but not the same ones, we hoped.”
That ability to acknowledge and learn from mistakes was perhaps bolstered by the confidence they felt launching a startup strengthened by the power of three different skillsets: Hegarty the creative, Bartle the planner, Bogle the account man. And the agency’s success is clearly partly owed to their strong personal relationship.
“Was it all plain sailing between the three of you?” Mendelsohn asks.
“If you’re working with really good people, you value them and their input,” says Hegarty. “They’re not going to do what you do. A great band is great because everybody knows exactly what they do – not everybody is trying to be the lead singer or play bass guitar, and because you’re together respecting what each other does, you have this fantastic ability to create something wonderful.
“Of course, we had our differences, but ultimately, as Nigel would say, you play the ball not the man. At the end of it, those responsibilities – account management, planning, creative – came to the fore.”
They famously rejected the notion of speculative creative pitches – a strategy that the Financial Times described at the time as a ‘suicidal policy’ that would close them down within six months, remembers Bogle. But the move was essential in building their brand as a shop that was willing to go one step further in doing things differently.
“We really had to say ‘Well, what are we? Are we different?’, because difference is fundamental to the marketplace. And then Nigel had this thought about how we would do that. Of course, I thought it was barking mad but he is very persuasive,” Hegarty laughs.
“It was a way of saying that we are a serious creative business. Creative pitches are a way of producing very superficial work,” says Bogle.
Bartle adds: “The perverse thing was that I think we demonstrated our total commitment to creativity by not doing creative pitches, because it was too glib, like a painting competition. The danger of getting fool’s gold was huge, and we knew because we’d done it before. We’d won pitches with work that shouldn’t have won and we’d lost pitches with work that should have won.”
Indeed, their very last pitch at TBWA had been one such experience, Mendelsohn remind them. Bogle then explains how, during a presentation for crisp brand Golden Wonder which had created a more efficient bag resulting in crisper crisps, they pitched a poster with the line ‘Silence is Golden’. The managing director interrupted the presentation to tell them it was the finest advertisement he’d seen for the company.
“We thought it was in the bag,” laughs Hegarty. It was not. In the end, J Walter Thompson won the business. And so the point of not partaking in what Hegarty terms “nonsense” had become a firmly distinguished feature for the agency.
The principles the trio had formed not only helped to differentiate their agency from the competition, but also established a clear set of values that helped inform its culture. Halfway through the interview, Mendelsohn pulls out a book from her time at BBH – a contract signed by Bartle, Bogle and Hegarty outlining their beliefs on the power of creativity – before asking them for their views on what creativity means today, and how it has evolved from the early days of BBH.
Both Hegarty and Bartle take the opportunity to issue a collective call to creatives to themselves make their voices heard in an industry that has conversely become louder.
“The danger for Cannes today is it’s becoming a technology festival rather than the creative festival they talk about,” says Hegarty. “Our industry was changed by creative thinkers who said ‘I believe in this’ and took a principled stand on what they were going to do so that people had choice in the marketplace. I don’t think there really is any choice in the marketplace right now and it’s a great disappointment. I’m very critical of my creative colleagues for not stepping up to the plate.”
Bartle adds: “It has taken years and people are now talking about the importance of the creative industries. Yet the voice of the creative in the creative industry seems to have gone quieter while its industry has become louder.”
Hegarty feels that advertising doesn’t necessarily value creativity in the same way as other creative sectors. “I hear a lot of people in our industry saying ‘it’s too difficult to get people, they’re not looking at ads anymore’ or ‘there’s no point, you’ve got to make things shorter and shorter’. And then I look at other creative industries such as architecture – architects aren’t saying ‘there are too many buildings going up in the world, nobody’s going to notice them’ and ‘no point bothering’. You get Frank Gehry doing the Guggenheim in Bilbao and everybody’s talking about it. They employ more creativity; they emphasize the creativity. I think our industry really has to grab this.”
The sentiment is shared by softly spoken Bogle, who adds: “We’re in a world where there is huge pressure on production costs in our industry. Chop, chop, chop. Look at the quality that you get in drama investment – you see incredible production values and then you come to an ad break where the quality of the production has been cut and people are not investing.”
For Bartle, his main gripe with the industry today is the pitch process: “It’s too much about price, takes too long, and there are too many agencies. A lot of talented smaller agencies keep coming second because some big agency or agency groups show their strengths.
“On the procurement side of things, it’s very difficult to be a client now than back when you could be braver. Today it’s about their accountability. They’re fearful of making mistakes. And I would like to change that. Some of these pitches go on forever – there are too many agencies.”
In 1992, when Mendelsohn started out at BBH, she was in a graduate intake of three women and has since gone on to become the UK’s most powerful woman in technology. When she raises the issue of female leadership, Hegarty, who describes himself as having been “a working-class boy” when he started out, agrees it is “crucial” but expresses more dismay at the lack of ethnic diversity and diverse backgrounds in advertising. “My biggest disappointment is that ethnic minorities are not represented in the agencies. And it’s not the agencies’ fault; our educational system is not opening young people up to the opportunity.”
Bogle describes diversity as a “fundamental requirement” in terms of original thinking within creative businesses, adding that the industry must do “everything we can” to improve lack of representation. “If you go to a meeting where everyone is the same, it tends to be a very boring meeting.”
When prompted by Mendelsohn on the creative potential of today’s fragmented advertising landscape, the trio is in agreement that the core principles of strategic thought haven’t changed in the way the methods of delivery have.
“Sometimes I feel there’s a huge kind of circle,” ponders Bogle. “Barbara Nokes [Hegarty’s first copywriting partner at BBH] approved lots of work that was written and she used to tap her desk and say: ‘First three seconds, first three seconds… if you haven’t got them in the first three seconds you haven’t got them at all.’
“So I think there’s an element of ‘all change, no change’. Good brands are sought after, great brands are insisted upon. Our job remains to insist upon a brand, based on its values. And we have many more opportunities to do that now than we did before. It’s important we still don’t lose sight of the power of an idea in media that isn’t necessary one second long.”
Perhaps the key to unlocking advertising’s future potential to build brands is getting back to those fundamental principles. As the interview draws to a close it is Bogle who encourages creatives not to lose sight in the power of the idea.
“John wrote the ‘Launderette’ commercial in 45 minutes and that transformed an entire global brand called Levi’s. We are in the ideas business and I think the world we live in now, if used properly, is a huge enhancer of our ability to deliver creativity on a scale we’ve not been able to do before.”