BBH's unlikely creative duo gets a crack at making advertising history

Very few people can say they have been Bartle Bogle Hegarty executive creative directors, but Ian Heartfield and Anthony Austin now have the challenge of sharing the weight of history, Jeremy Lee reports.

Heartfield and Austin: Bartle Bogle Hegarty’s first joint executive creative directors
Heartfield and Austin: Bartle Bogle Hegarty’s first joint executive creative directors

With a long, lingering kiss, Absolut vodka paired unlikely couples of different ages, genders and ethnicities in a provocative spot released earlier this month, designed to mark its support for LGBT rights. 

The agency that created the ad, Bartle Bogle Hegarty, has also embraced the unusual – the concept of joint executive creative directors, one from a "traditional" ad background, the other from production – having hitched up Ian Heartfield and Anthony Austin. The pairing, while not as unexpected as some of the couplings in the Absolut ad, is nonetheless still quite surprising.

Austin and Heartfield become BBH’s fifth and sixth ECDs in the agency’s 25-year history, replacing Nick Gill and occupying a position only otherwise held by John O’Keefe, Bruce Crouch and Sir John Hegarty himself. "It’s a terrifyingly shortlist," Heartfield admits, although neither he nor Austin claims to be fazed by the weight of history that now lies on their shoulders. 

This pair, who were promoted to deputy ECDs in July last year, come from strikingly different backgrounds and have different personalities. A relatively genial duo (compared with the occasionally curmudgeonly – or shy – Gill), the cooler Heartfield was responsible for the Cannes Grand Prix-winning "NoitulovE" spot for Guinness while at Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, and was the most-awarded creative in the 2006 Gunn Report. Meanwhile, the bespectacled Austin is an editor and producer by background. He joined from Mother in 2015 to launch BBH’s production arm – Black Sheep Studios – and in that time also picked up a decent gong, bagging a Bafta for his short film Home about the refugee crisis.

In truth, Gill, who will remain at the agency with the prosaic job title "creative" and work on Tesco and Barclays, informally handed over the reins to the pair some months ago, although it was only last week that the announcement was made to the agency. "Ben [Fennell, BBH chief executive] would call it a classic piece of BBH succession management," Austin says. BBH’s succession management has not always been quite so smooth in recent years. The Mel Exon/Caroline Pay/Jonathan Bottomley/Jason Gonsalves debacle seems like a distant memory now that the agency appears to have raised its creative game and, despite some blips, managed to fire up the new-business machine again.

Success begets success, of course, and in the six months or so since Heartfield and Austin have been in charge of the BBH creative department, it has produced an impressive reel. As well as the aforementioned Absolut  "Equal love" spot and the Home film for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, other recent highlights include "Effortless night"’ for Uber, "React" for Audi, "Grow" for Refuge and "This is Virgin Fibre" for Virgin Media. Even the Tesco campaign has begun to gain some traction. The news that BBH’s relatively new managing director Adam Arnold, who replaced Exon, has decided to decamp from the management floor to sit in an office within the creative department is a potent statement that, for BBH, it’s "all about the work" once again, Heartfield says.

But the fact remains that pairing a producer with an ad creative seems – at face value, at least – an odd move. After all, aren’t the two pulling in opposite directions? Not so, they say. While Heartfield says that he loves the creative strictures of time-length, and Austin adds that he finds himself gravitating towards other formats such as entertainment, they maintain that the combination works.

"The advantage of this [set-up] is that you’ve got to do everything these days. What we’ve got in this line-up is the potential to do everything. The core of the business has got to be on fucking fire, which is sorted now, and when that’s in place, the new stuff can happen as well. You’ve just got to do all of it," Heartfield, the more confident of the two, says.

His opposite number is a little warier – and perhaps seems a little in awe of Heartfield. "We’re not a team," Austin confesses. "We communicate and get on very well but we come from different backgrounds and bring different views to the table. The good thing about having people from different backgrounds is that we bring a very different approach. I think it wouldn’t benefit to keep us apart and silo us, as we have divergent views." 

The fact that Austin will continue to run Black Sheep Studios is not a conflict, he says – he will not push clients down the long-form content route (which some say could lead to friction with Heartfield). "Black Sheep Studios is a tool in the armoury rather than the answer to a brief," Austin says.

"We were thrown together but have the same ambition"

Talk of agencies producing longer-form content for their clients (and maybe even for themselves) has been doing the rounds for almost as long as Gill occupied the ECD chair. With Austin and Heartfield being given equal billing, BBH is serious about creating ideas that live beyond advertising – that operate in different formats and live both within and without the traditional ad breaks.

While their combination might seem a strange one, it’s clearly been done for a good reason. "We were thrown together but have the same ambition. All we really care about is the work," Austin says. 

Heartfield adds:  "People looked to BBH for what’s coming next or to wrong-foot the industry. This place represents somewhere where you couldn’t tell what was coming next, and I think that’s what we want to get back to – to surprise people and lead the way. A strong industry needs a strong BBH." 

Absolutely so.