Feature

To grow in the future we must learn from the past

Even an industry as fast-moving as advertising ignores its long and distinguished history at its peril, Sir John Hegarty says.

John Hegarty...chariman and worldwide creative director of BBH
John Hegarty...chariman and worldwide creative director of BBH

We are, quite rightly, an industry obsessed with tomorrow. Relentlessly searching for the next big idea. And that next big idea can't look anything like yesterday's big idea. Ours is a ruthlessly creative culture, more so than any other.

This is probably why advertising is such a young industry. It devours its creative talent. This year's award-winning campaign will be passe by tomorrow. As the media around us explodes, as attention-spans shorten and competition increases, the pressure mounts to be "new", to be different and more effective. Great campaigns come and go with even greater speed. Often discarding their creators on the way. Burn-out is an occupational hazard in advertising.

How lucky Jagger and Richards are. They can go on singing Satisfaction for years and fill stadiums with adoring fans. Satisfaction, by the way, was written in 1966. In advertising, the past is a foreign land.

So why bother with the History of Advertising Trust and its Arrows project, the online service (www.arrowsarchive.com) that allows access to some of the best TV advertising of the past three decades?

Whether we like it or not, or even understand it, creativity is a progression. Nothing has ever been created in a vacuum. It is, by definition, impossible. Admittedly, at times, that progression leaps, rather than takes small steps. But, ultimately, it's a building process.

The value of seeing where people have been, how they've played with our prejudices and how they've subverted our attention is fundamentally important to one's development as a creative person. Great minds have always sought inspiration from precedent. Seeing in it the opportunity to create more distinctive communication.

We have to accept, however, that we live in an age of unprecedented change. Accelerating so fast that we only see the present as it disappears from our consciousness. Thanks to the power of digital technology, we can make mistakes faster than at any other time in our existence.

The value of HAT is in helping us avoid those perils. And as its library deepens and widens, it becomes ever more valuable. The Arrows are the latest manifestation of that archive. Every commercial entered into the BTAA awards from 1977, with every person involved in that work, is catalogued and available for downloading. This is a unique library of creative experience. An asset bank beyond comparison.

Of course, there's also a purely functional value in recording something as ephemeral as advertising. The word "history" in our industry is a somewhat derogatory term, but the means to hold on to an experience, an idea, an execution, can not only be engaging, it can be educational. We don't just study the past because we can. We study it to learn and grow.

With no chance, however, of referencing that past, we all suffer. Constantly condemned to repeating previous failures. Despite the digital dash to tomorrow, yesterday, however you define it, has much to teach us. It shouldn't be a foreign land. History is a vast early warning system. It's a place filled with treasure and experience. The trick is knowing how to use it.

- Sir John Hegarty is the chairman and worldwide creative director of Bartle Bogle Hegarty and an ambassador for the History of Advertising Trust.

HEGARTY PICKS FIVE OF HIS FAVOURITE ADS FROM HAT'S ARCHIVE

Fiat Strada - Hand-built by robots When News at Ten was getting audiences of 12 million a night, the centre break was the slot to buy. Collett Dickenson Pearce was the first agency to buy the complete break and made history with this commercial. It only ran about three times but fundamentally shook the logic of the 30-second spot. Its only failure was the advertising was far too good for the car.

Carling Dam Busters - I am supposedly famous for walking out of the D&AD Film jury for failing to convince my fellow jurors to give this a gold. I think it is as close as you can get to perfect - a peerless piece of writing, acting and filming. A brilliant example of how advertising can utilise our nation's history and live beyond the confines of the medium. It's a disgrace the jury failed to accord it gold. Especially when you look at the dross that's awarded today.

Heineken Water in Majorca - This famous campaign, originated by Terry Lovelock, produced some truly wonderful work. For me, this was one of the best. I genuinely think that, 500 years from now, anthropologists wishing to understand the British in the latter part of the 20th century will just play this commercial. Our obsession with class, language and self-deprecating humour are all supremely expressed. And all in 60 seconds.

British Airways Face - This was a groundbreaking piece of advertising that took real courage to create, sell and buy. What it looked like on a piece of paper I can only imagine. But the decision to make it created genuine brand value for BA and infected its corporate culture for years following its airing. How good is that?

Sony Balls - I think the word original is overused in our industry. By definition, no idea can be original. It has to relate back, in some way or another. But this spot gets close to it. It isn't like anything else I've seen in advertising. It also represents a brilliant solution to the increasingly global briefs we have to work on. Proving great work can be done globally.

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