NEWSMAKER/JOHN O’KEEFFE: Down-to-earth Rottweiler sinks his teeth into BBH - Bruce Crouch’s successor is raring to put plans into practice

’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.

’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,’

he says.

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

source says.

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

press ad.’

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.