Yahoo! Big Idea Chair: John's gems

Campaign invites John Hegarty, the worldwide creative director of Bartle Bogle Hegarty, to recline in Yahoo!'s Big Idea Chair.

On beginnings

I grew up in North London and went to Hornsey College of Art, then the London College of Printing. I was a terrible painter, useless. But I loved having ideas. Looking at my work, a wonderful teacher, Peter Green, suggested I should study graphic design and go to the London College of Printing. And it was there I met John Gillard. He showed me DDB's work for Volkswagen. Bill Bernbach's work was so different from the kind of advertising around in Britain at the time; it was like a light going on. As a young art director, I wanted to do that stuff. It was intelligent, witty and yet inclusive. It inspired attention. My very first job was as an art director at Benton Bowles, where I was assigned to work with a young writer called Charles Saatchi. But I was fired after about 18 months for being a pain in the arse, telling everyone where they were going wrong. The thing is, I was right. They just didn't want to hear it from a young art director.

On inspiration

I work in advertising, I don't live in advertising. The last thing I would ever do is read a book on advertising. There are much greater lessons to be learned about advertising by reading books about movie-making, say, about Hollywood. You learn by association and parable.

On starting Bartle Bogle Hegarty

We didn't really want to leave TBWA. Nigel Bogle, John Bartle and I had helped open the London office and we built it to Campaign's first Agency of the Year. But we felt the financial structure of the agency was fundamentally wrong. So we went to TBWA with a proposition to allow more successful offices to buy more of the shares. TBWA turned it down flat and two years later, in 1982, we left to launch BBH. We took no clients with us. We knew what we wanted to be and how we wanted to work. We knew that what we did on day one would determine how we were in year ten.

On the partnership with Bogle and Bartle

The most important thing is trust. There was always trust between the three of us and now there's trust between Nigel and I and Simon Sherwood, who has become the third partner on John Bartle's retirement. John and Nigel were better at managing strategic issues than I; I was better at managing creative issues. It was a trio of equals, not a democratic mush, a passionate, respectful relationship. We've had major and healthy disagreements about work but not about the general direction of the company. My disappointment with the business today is that I see people setting up agencies to sell. I like the fact that we are relatively wealthy, of course I do, but we must always remember: "Money has a voice but no soul." I never set out to be wealthy, but to have a good time and hopefully do great work.

On keeping the creative department separate from the rest of the agency

There's an illusion that getting everybody to sit with everybody else is going to make a difference in the kind of ideas that emerge. I think that's superficial claptrap. I think people who are passionate about having ideas make a business great. The reason the creative department sits together at BBH is about not hiding among other disciplines. Sitting next to a team that has just won a gold or whatever really, really pisses you off here. It's essential to maintain healthy competition.

On being Campaign's Agency of the Year three times running

I'm a huge tennis fan. Bjorn Borg won Wimbledon five times in a row - why can't we do that? We're an unbelievably competitive agency in an unbelievably competitive industry.

On BBH's creative work today

I'm always unhappy with our creative output but there's always a moment of creative hesitancy after the kind of growth we've had. That said, I'm still proud of our showreel. We don't have any golden oldies on it; the work's all two years old or younger. A lot of our work appears globally and people on juries don't have a relationship with it. Take Damien Hirst's polka-dot painting to an art exhibition in Caracas and the same would be true.

On independence

To make us credible, we needed a global media partner. So we did the deal with Leo Burnett to get access to Starcom. We did the deal with Burnett because we saw the business was going global, we were working with accounts such as Levi's that were crossing borders but we realised when we didn't win BA in 1995 (BBH won BA last year) that we needed centres of excellence in other continents. Burnett understood what we were all about, our desire never to sell more than 49 per cent. Even through Burnett to Bcom3 and then Publicis, we've never felt the need to extricate ourselves. We still think of ourselves as an independent agency, we've never sold our principles or culture. We see Maurice Levy once a year, he's tremendously helpful. We help each other whenever we can.

On wine-making and creativity

What I do at BBH is about the here and now. My vineyard is about patience, having God and nature as partners you're open to all sorts of different forces. You're a farmer, a chemist and a marketer; it's challenging, but in a different way.

On unfulfilled creative ambitions

I'm 61 but I don't think I'll ever retire. I'd like to learn French, do some painting (even though it's crap!), more photography, loads of stuff. Advertising is an incredibly ageist industry. In fashion, you can be old and on top but in advertising we've bought this idea you have to be young to do it. I don't buy the grey market, Saga-generation idea. It's all about staying connected, fresh and engaged. We need to embrace attitude rather than age.

On the big idea

For me, the big idea is about creating a cultural phenomenon. Within any idea I want four things: daring, profundity, freshness and simplicity. I haven't used the word originality. It's one of the most overused words in our industry.

I'd pick

The Economist campaign. "I never read The Economist. Management trainee. Aged 42" is brilliant. What is potentially a very banal positioning - "read this and you'll be successful" - is made convincing by wit and charm. Everything about the big idea is encapsulated - the complexity, the power of reduction, the depth of thought, simplicity, freshness and brilliant branding.

On a big idea for the future in any field

Sustainability. How can we develop sustainability in terms of what we use and the ideas we have? We need a more engaging way of talking about sustainability, a way that encourages participation. Now that would be an interesting advertising brief. How can the world go on producing stuff without destroying itself?

- The Yahoo! Big Idea Chair shines a spotlight on people and companies whose creative work is truly remarkable. See yahoo.co.uk/media for more details.

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