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'Cross fertilisation' is very important at BBH: Sir John Hegarty

Sir John Hegarty
Bartle Bogle Hegarty

One of the three greats that founded the agency in 1982, Sir John Hegarty believes the best clients are those who value good advertising. Hegarty, who began his advertising career as a junior art director at Benton and Bowles (London) in 1965, lends a peek into his take on what advertising ought to be like in today's times. afaqs! chats with the chairperson and worldwide creative director of BBH (Bartle Bogle Hegarty) about the agency's Mumbai operations and future plans in an exclusive interview.

Q. This is your second time at Goafest. What changes do you notice since your previous visit a couple of years ago?

The major change, in my opinion, is in the attitude of the advertising professionals - and, the change is surely for the better. This is an industry that is very dynamic and energetic and now, more than ever, I notice that the people are extremely confident about the future. I can practically feel the energy in the air, it's palpable! In their reactions to one other, I sense a strong feeling of optimism.

Q. BBH India seems media shy as compared to other Indian agencies. Am I wrong in observing this, or is there a reason why I feel this way about the agency?

(laughs) Well, I don't mind the observation, and I really don't mind keeping things this way. As for the reasons, first of all, we're 50 people versus 250 people! We have a smaller client list. Secondly, we like to do publicity around our work so that our work can do the talking for us. So, with this in mind, we have to wait for the work to come through so that we can talk around it. I don't mind it this way because we're building a long term business here; a business that's very, very exciting.

Q. You've always maintained that you have a 'five-minute plan', as opposed to a 'five-year plan'. Is it still that way, or do you have something major planned for BBH India?

The long term plan is to be the best agency in India. It is an exciting place where people are doing incredible things. It's a place where people not only produce great work, but like to work! Also, we do plan to be in the media more (smiles) as we grow and produce more work.

People often forget how long it takes to win businesses, work with clients to gain trust, and do something different -- these things take time. Clients don't walk in and say, "Give me something brilliant, instantly." It doesn't happen overnight. Instead, the client usually says, "Hey, I'm not happy with what I'm doing; can you help me do something better?" And, then we work with them to find out what is 'better'.

Q. BBH India now has a firm management structure in place with Partha Sinha, Subhash Kamath, and more recently, Paul Ward and Raj Kamble, at the helm. Explain how this structure will work for the agency.

Yes, we now have a four-member managing partner structure in place at BBH India. The idea is that Kamath, Sinha, and Kamble will be focussed on the work and Paul Ward will be focussed on managing the business, almost like a managing director. We want this talent to be forward-focussed as well as focussed on solving clients' problems. Ensuring that all of Ward's attention goes to that, rather than to just run an office -- which can be very time-consuming -- is something we think is very important.

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Now, with Kamble on board, we have fantastic creative leaders. Obviously, we needed somebody. Sure, we had Russell Barrett who has done a fantastic job but now, we're lifting it up another notch. Kamble comes with a decade of experience outside India, in other markets, and brings back a huge wealth of knowledge.

Q. Ward and Kamble have been roped in one after the other from Singapore (BBH) and New York (BBDO), respectively. Both bring with them international experience. Was this a deliberate move to introduce an international flavour into BBH India's upcoming work?

Well, Ward was here from the word go; he helped set up the Mumbai office when we started here. But yes, we like the idea of people coming in from different parts of the world. We've done that before. We've sent people from London to Singapore and people from our Singapore office were sent to Shanghai. I think this 'cross fertilisation' is very important as it helps people understand what BBH is. We like to talk about ourselves as 'one agency in six places'. That mix of talent prevents us from becoming narrow in our views. It's something we've always pushed for.

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We now have a four-member managing partner structure in place at BBH India. The idea is that Kamath, Sinha, and Kamble will be focussed on the work and Paul Ward will be focussed on managing the business, almost like a managing director.

Q. Do you think Priti Nair's exit was a tad premature for a managing partner?

Yes, from my point of view, I was sorry she left but in the end, you have to expect that these kinds of things might happen. The only way someone can find out whether they fit in a structure, or that they don't feel right about it, is by being in it. She exited fairly quickly, but since it was so soon it wasn't a major problem for us. We stood still for a bit of time, but Barrett did a great job holding the fort in her absence. Actually, one can argue at the risk of sounding clichйd that every problem is an opportunity. Nair's exit led to us roping in Kamble. We now have somebody with a much greater breadth of experience in her place. Of course, I wanted Nair to stay -- I tried to get her to stay, but she wanted to go do her own thing. I can hardly say that's a stupid thing because I did exactly that! (laughs) As long as it ends well, it's fine. Nair and I are great friends, I'm very fond of her and I wish she does well in her ventures.

Q. What kind of brands do you enjoy working on most?

People always ask me "John, what brands would you like to work on?" and I say, "I want to work on brands that think advertising is of huge value to them." I don't care if it's someone making nuts and bolts, jeans or cars. The product category is irrelevant; what is relevant is whether they value advertising. Those who don't value great advertising and just care about the product and the logo being displayed are very boring people to work with. Way back, one of the best campaigns that I've worked on is a product of feminine hygiene. Most people wouldn't say, "I want to work on a feminine hygiene product", but we produced award winning ads because the client said, "I want to do something different". That's the kind of client I want to work with.

Q. Name the categories that in your opinion will yield maximum opportunities for growth in the near future.

In the industry today, you could say that the areas of growth are the segments that are big on technology and maybe the mobile sector. But again, as long as the clients want to do something different, I don't care who they are and what category they belong to.

Q. How do people -- agencies and clients -- perceive India in the present times?

Disparity of opinions and cultural differences here are really quite pronounced. Outside India, people talk about 'India' as a whole. Diversity of this continent, in terms of languages and other things, is vast and I don't think that's something people outside quite understand. Here, in India, people are aware of how to create work that unites people across these cultural differences. That's the ultimate creative challenge -- to create great work that brings people together.

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