Sir John Hegarty on what he’s learnt about business

Sir John Hegarty discusses his business life

The co-founder and worldwide creative director of advertising agency BBH, Sir John Hegarty is behind some of the most iconic ad campaigns of all time, including the Levi’s launderette commercial and Audi’s Vorsprung durch Technik mantra. He tells Director what he’s learnt so far about business and brilliant ideas

I had three wonderful teachers. One at school who taught me history isn’t about the past, it’s about the future; one at art school who said ‘John, you’re more about ideas than painting – study graphic design’; and one at design school who said ‘you should look at the ads of Doyle Dane Bernbach’. When I saw all those great campaigns coming out of America in the Sixties it was like a light switch being thrown. I knew that’s what I wanted to do.

Great creative people are outsiders. They’re always looking in and observing, commenting and reflecting, wondering how it could be better. As soon as you’re part of something, you’re compromised by it.

The best companies have a very simple purpose. And the chain of command is absolutely understood. The first I worked for, Benton & Bowles, was at war with itself – the creative people were fighting the account people, who were fighting the media people. It was dysfunctional and it failed.

It’s good to be fired. It can be harrowing at the time but teaches you that you can stand up for what you believe in and continue. I was fired by Benton & Bowles, but eventually joined Charles Saatchi’s consultancy which, in 1970, became Saatchi & Saatchi.

Creative people must learn to lead quickly. There’s no point walking into a room and presenting a challenging idea but not knowing if it will work. You have to instinctively learn how to take the audience with you. Otherwise the idea will die.

People give up too soon. A problem in business now is people are parachuted into jobs for three years, and then clear off. Anyone can make things look better in that time, but they impair later growth. We had a disastrous launch at TBWA [the global group whose London agency Hegarty co-founded in 1973], but we turned it around. You have to give it at least five years.

It’s scary to leave something hugely successful. But at TBWA our progress in London was held back by the wider group, so we had to pull out [Hegarty, John Bartle and Nigel Bogle left to launch Bartle Bogle Hegarty, BBH, in 1982].

Get the strategy right first. Then you can execute great creativity around it. We decided BBH wouldn’t do speculative creative pitches for clients. We said, ‘We can’t do it in four weeks like that.’ We challenged them to come to us and we’d work on strategy first. People said it wouldn’t work, but to us it was essential.

When a brand is in trouble, go back to its soul. If a brand drifts away from its basic principles it becomes vague, flaccid, nobody understands it. The answer lies in – what made it great? Why was it so successful? Go back to its roots. That’s what we did with Levi’s and Audi.

Will it make my product better? If you apply that principle you have a chance of continued success. There are always temptations – ‘should we merge with them?’ ‘We can make more money if we do this.’ But will it make the product better?

A strong culture is fundamental. When people feel their opinions are valued, if they understand what they do, when roles are clearly defined and you don’t have everybody doing everyone else’s job, they can flourish.

Don’t be a cynic. When it comes to generating ideas, three things I’d say are: first, cynicism is the death of creativity; second, surround yourself with great people, mix with the best; third, stay in touch with the world – be curious, ask ‘why?’ Read things that others don’t read and feed your creative soul.

I read a brilliant interview with JK Rowling. She was asked, ‘What age of child did you write Harry Potter for?’ She said: ‘I didn’t, I did it for me.’ If you don’t think what you’re doing is great, then you should change it.

There’s a danger in constantly being switched on. Somebody said, ‘I do my best thinking when I’m not thinking.’ I know it’s cool to say ‘I tweet every day, I’m on Facebook…’ But what are you learning? Where’s the ability of your mind to just free-flow?

Do interesting things and interesting things will happen. With some colleagues I’m starting an incubator company. I can’t talk about it just yet, but it will help young companies start up and build interesting businesses – that’s the exciting idea that’s really interesting me now.

On Monday June 9, over 100 IoD members and guests gathered together in the Waterloo Room at 116 Pall Mall to hear from, and chat to, advertising great Sir John Hegarty who was in conversation with IoD director general Simon Walker. Read a summary of the event and watch highlights by clicking here His latest book Hegarty on Creativity is out now.

For more on Sir John Hegarty, visit

About author

Chris Maxwell

Chris Maxwell

Director’s editor spent nine years interviewing TV and film stars for Sky before joining the IoD in 2011 and turning the microphone on Britain’s business leaders. Since then he’s grilled everyone from Boris to Branson and, away from work, maintains an unhealthy obsession with lower league football.

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