It was in the spring of '82. We'd just started Bartle Bogle Hegarty and we received a letter purporting to be from Levi's asking if they could meet us. We thought it was a joke. Levi's, one of the coolest brands in the world, wanted to talk to us about its business. It must be a mistake! Well, it obviously wasn't. However, we also found out that Levi's was no longer cool. Its business was falling through the floor and it needed desperate help. Levi's called it the "doomsday scenario" - had denim gone out of fashion for good?
It was a daring pitch where John Bartle, Nigel Bogle and myself refused to show creative work.
Instead, we captured the essence of the brand and made them believe in the future. We won the business and so started a relationship that rebuilt the brand and created some of advertising's most iconic work. Our very first brief was to launch black denim. The black sheep poster became not only a symbol of Levi's culture, but also one for us. BBH's logo is a black sheep and our culture is led by the ideal: "When the world zigs, you zag."
Our original brief was just the UK and Northern Europe. After two years, Levi's wanted to relaunch the 501 across all of Europe. Believe it or not, we nearly lost the account back to McCann Erickson. It had a European network, we didn't. Again, we repitched for the business on our credentials and our beliefs. McCann repitched with a network and a Bruce Springsteen idea. Levi's turned down Bruce and stuck with the black sheep thinkers. And so the 501 campaign was born.
When Nick Kamen walked into that launderette to I Heard It Through The Grapevine, Levi's and advertising history was made. The 501 became the garment every cool teenager wanted (and boxer shorts, of course, which sold in their millions). The "doomsday scenario" had proved unfounded. Levi's was now cool and advertising was making hit music. We had seven number-ones on the back of our campaigns.
From its launch in 1985, the 501 campaign produced more than 30 commercials. We believed Levi's had to be beyond fashion, so each one had to stay ahead of the curve. The inevitability of fashion meant that if Levi's became a fashion brand, it would eventually go out of fashion. The advertising had to constantly zag while everyone else was zigging.
I've always believed that clients get the advertising they deserve.
It doesn't matter how good the agency is. If the client wants to buy ordinary, you'll never sell them extraordinary. Luckily for us, we had clients at Levi's who valued extraordinary. Naturally, we didn't always agree on the extraordinary, but that doesn't matter. You both know what you're trying to do.
Like selling "Flat Eric". We had to go back three times to convince them this could be a brilliant idea. What a great way of creating a new Levi's hero, we reasoned. Not one that rippled with muscles and had a six-pack. But a fluffy yellow puppet. To their credit, they finally bought him.
The question I get asked most often is which spot is my favourite? Of course, none of them would have happened without "launderette". It set the tone and style. The subtle use of humour that let everyone know we weren't taking ourselves too seriously and the use of visual dialogue to tell a story that enabled us to run the campaign across a multilingual Europe. But my favourite was "creek". The opening scene, the church choir in the background, the emerging sexuality of the older sister. The music resolve into a hard rock track and then the final rug pull of humour. It's the old man's trousers, she's holding. I've always said BBH is about turning intelligence into magic. For me, "creek" was magic.
It was a campaign that helped build an agency. It promoted the careers of new directors and creative people around the world. It has won every award going - apart from a Cannes Grand Prix. It was said "drugstore" (incidentally, the winner of our poll on Twitter) should have been awarded the title in 1995 when Frank Lowe as chairman decided it was a "poor" year. Naturally, I didn't think it was a poor year! Neither did the audience at the Palais des Festivals in Cannes.
I haven't mentioned the many names that helped make this piece of advertising history. There are too many. Nigel and I know all of those involved who will be reading this piece will be celebrating the opportunity this brand gave them to create a piece of advertising folklore. The opportunity to show how good they all are. How brilliant their thinking and creativity is, when given the opportunity to express it.
The other thing this brand taught us. If you keep zagging, you'll keep surprising. And that's what turns most of us on.
- Sir John Hegarty is a founder of Bartle Bogle Hegarty.
To view more Levi's ads, visit campaignlive.co.uk.