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Sir John Hegarty’s plan to guide brands through (another) recession


By Jennifer Faull, Deputy Editor

September 1, 2022 | 8 min read

The advertising legend has endured a recession almost every decade of his 60-year career. As another downturn looms, he’s teaching CEOs why investing in creativity is the best way through a crisis.

Sir John Hegarty

Sir John Hegarty

Sir John Hegarty joined the advertising industry in 1965, going on to co-found TBWA in 1973 and then Bartle Bogle Hegarty (BBH) in 1982. Since starting out, he has worked through a recession in almost every decade: the 70s oil crisis; in the 80s under Margaret Thatcher; ’Black Wednesday’ in the 90s; the ‘Great Recession’ of 2008 and, of course, Covid-19.

He’s now watching, for the sixth time, the economy lurch into crisis, recalling to The Drum how, on each previous occasion, he’s seen creativity help businesses through the tough times.

“I’ve watched how [creativity] transforms businesses overnight,“ Hegarty says. “Not always, of course, but I've constantly watched it. And I’ve constantly witnessed a lack of creativity, and how that fails to deliver. So, I’m speaking from experience. And that experience is as relevant now as it was 50 years ago.“

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Too often, Hegarty has seen chief executives, finance chiefs and chief marketing officers espouse the importance of creativity when the going is good. But as inflation creeps up and consumer spending shrinks, businesses are readying for what will be some of the most challenging financial years in recent history. And history is repeating itself. While some will heed calls from the likes of P&G brand boss Marc Pritchard to “invest in creativity”, for most, the looming uncertainty will lead to a culling of ad spend, tightening budgets and risk-reducing measures.

“There’s lots of empirical evidence to show that those brands that don’t [cut spend] are the ones that come out of the recession stronger. I mean, just the time when you should be investing in your brand, you fail to do so,” he says.

“It’s the same as when you’re buying shares, they say: sell high, buy low. Now is the time to be buying. It’s time to talk about your great products. And the belief that people can’t afford it? They will be able to afford part of what you’re saying. Competitors won’t be out there so you’ll be able to take share off them”.

All of this is nothing new or noteworthy for the biggest advertisers. “But perceived wisdom doesn’t get carried forward,” he adds, frustrated at the company bosses who still need convincing on the efficacy of investing when sales stall and boards want a quick fix. “That’s the problem.”

Though an adman through and through, when Hegarty talks about creativity he doesn’t just mean pumping out a new marketing campaign. He’s also talking about the myriad ways in which ’getting creative’ can help a company become more effective and more efficient.

“If you can’t outspend your competitors, you can at least outthink them and that’s what creativity teaches you: how to outthink your competitors. How to be more effective with the resources you’ve got. Because you can’t change the resources, but you can change the way they’re implemented.

“I hear a lot of CEOs talk about the need for creativity, but I see very little action in implementing it, or even putting their staff or their people into creative courses. I see all kinds of other courses that they invest in, but how many of them actually invest in creative courses? I would argue very, very few. So, despite the fact that creativity is one of the most vital parts of any organization – it is the ability to think differently to outsmart your competitors and to make better use of your resources – you see very little in terms of investment in those in those skills.“

That’s why he has launched Business of Creativity, an eight-week course designed to sell its importance to business leaders, what it means for their organizations and how to get the most out of their staff over the coming years. It will feature a program of guest lectures from the likes of Greg Hoffman (one of Nike’s most celebrated marketing bosses) and fashion designer Anya Hindmarch, as well as guidance from Hegarty himself on best practice.

“People misunderstand creativity, first of all. So they don’t quite get it. [The course] will partly answer all of those questions: how do I employ different types of creativity? How do I make a meeting work better? When I’m asking people to come up with ideas, how are those ideas going to be implemented?”

Though he has an enviable black book of CMOs, Hegarty is pitching this at CEOs and CFOs, those holding the purse strings, to make the case for why prioritizing creativity is necessary in times of crisis.

“It gets them to understand the value of creativity within the organization. Not just in marketing, but in product development, in innovation and in how you engage with people.”

Beyond the course, he’s calling on agencies to step up in the coming months to encourage their clients to maintain spend within the sector.

”[Agencies] play a very crucial role. Of course, they’ve got to be trusted and my concern is not enough agencies are trusted partners of clients: especially if they’re too much a kind of a ’yes’ agency – too many agencies have a very shallow view and do things for their own benefit rather than the clients.

”But once you’ve got that trust, then you can get a client to listen to you. You can get a client to consider [why ongoing investment is important]. But you’ve got to provide them with your arguments, show them how it’s easier to communicate when there are a few people out there.”

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For Hegarty, the Business of Creativity course will go some way to this wider industry objective, which has seen the likes of the IPA run ad campaigns in the Financial Times to reduce the impact the advertising industry will feel when the time comes for company bosses to balance the books. Hegarty says his teaching on the Business of Creativity will not be a one-off, but the start of a long program to ensure the voice of creativity is heard in boardrooms.

”I’m not leaving it here. I’m not just doing this and walking away. This is going to be ongoing.”

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