’A Rottweiler with a sense of humour’ is how a former Bartle Bogle
Hegarty creative describes John O’Keeffe, the agency’s new executive
creative director. Thankfully, the Rottweiler is absent when we meet at
BBH’s offices in Kingly Street.
’Pragmatic’, ’down to earth’ and ’genuine’ are some of the words used by
those who have worked with him to describe O’Keeffe, who took over last
week following the departure of Bruce Crouch to set up his own
Such descriptions contrast him sharply with his suave and smooth-talking
boss, John Hegarty, who plans to return to the UK next March.
Nonetheless, O’Keeffe claims to be keen to have him back. ’I like it
when he’s here,’ he says. ’He doesn’t tread on my toes. We’re perfectly
capable of having what politicians call a full and frank exchange and
it’s very useful at times to have someone outside the everyday
nitty-gritty who can look at the big picture.’
Crouch was the latest in a steady trickle of talented creatives to have
left BBH in recent years, a problem that O’Keeffe will have to
While the agency continues to win awards, its creative department is not
quite the paragon of excellence it once was, and it has a reputation
among creatives for being difficult to work in.
According to Crouch, one of the biggest difficulties is to maintain
creative standards as the agency gets bigger.
O’Keeffe says: ’It’s well known that I’d like to give more
responsibility to our senior people. There will probably be about five
to seven people with creative sign-off responsibility. We have to keep
the hotshop mentality but, naturally enough, we have ambitions to
O’Keeffe also wants to access a broader talent pool, looking, say, to
journalists and designers. ’I am interested in challenging the
convention of having a copywriter and an art director from X college,’
Another priority is to ensure the agency is prepared for the digital
age. ’Very shortly, we’ll have a digitally competent department based on
people whose principal skill is having great ideas,’ he says.
He is not the biggest award-winner, but award-winning copywriters don’t
necessarily make successful creative directors. ’He wasn’t the star of
the creative department, but he’ll be a far better creative director,’ a
O’Keeffe’s creative highlights include a Gold for Barnardo’s at Cannes
this year, the Every-man campaign featuring the singer Robbie Williams
for the Institute of Cancer Research and the One2One campaigns starring
Zoe Ball and Ian Wright.
Steve Hooper, a partner in Hoopergalton and a former BBH creative
director, says: ’John can be very aggressive, but he’s articulate and
bright. People like him.’
O’Keeffe’s career in advertising began, somewhat unconventionally, with
a job at an electronics company. He was asked to leave after he sent six
lorry-loads of switch gear to a nuclear installation in South Africa
which opened when they were supposed to close and vice versa. But the
manager who fired him showed him an article from The Guardian about an
advertising course, saying that O’Keeffe would be good at it.
He took his manager’s advice and, before the end of the first year, had
a placement at Saatchi & Saatchi. The agency took him on, along with his
partner, Russell Ramsay.
’It was an amazing rollercoaster - we were straight out of college and,
within 18 months, we had won a pencil and a Campaign gold for an NSPCC
John Bacon, now the group creative head at Grey, says: ’The person you
value most highly as a creative director is the person you know you’re
going to get an answer from. You could rely on John to take something
that wasn’t quite right and make it better.’
Yet that didn’t stop Bacon from firing O’Keeffe - even though he did
take him on again five minutes later. Or, for that matter, from thumping
him one day after a ’spirited disagreement’.
’Later that evening, someone asked me whether he had broken my glasses,’
O’Keeffe says. ’And I said no, (Alan) Midgley (a creative director at
Saatchis) had broken them a couple of hours before. Saatchis had an
interesting managerial style. It was a great introduction, but I’m not
sure that I would take every word of their advice on inter-departmental
But then came the attempted takeover of Midland Bank and things began to
go pear-shaped. The pair decided they would go to BBH if the agency
would have them and stay at Saatchis if not. BBH took them on and they
have both been there for ten years.
It was quite a culture shock at first. ’We were fairly blunt at
Saatchis,’ O’Keeffe says. ’It was, ’here’s my ad, now sell it’. Here,
it’s much more a case of ’let’s sit down and have a chat about this’. It
took a bit of getting used to, but in the end that works better if you
have a mission across the departments to get great work made. It never
was about compromise.
It’s hard to hear criticism but things work better if you accept that
everyone is pointing in the right direction.’
It is a culture that O’Keeffe intends to maintain - with, of course, a
touch of the Rottweiler thrown in. It should be a promising combination.