BBH enjoys being the underdog: Hegarty

By Devina Joshi , afaqs!, Mumbai | In Advertising | April 21, 2009
In a conversation with afaqs!, Sir John Hegarty talks of BBH in India, Nigel Bogle, Levi's, and a whole lot of Zagging

He's come a long way from his days as a junior art director at Benton and Bowles, London, back in 1965. His long standing associations with Cramer Saatchi (now Saatchi & Saatchi) and TBWA in London are etched in the advertising hall of fame. For the man who has been there and done that (and insists to have done it differently!), Sir John Hegarty, chairperson and worldwide creative director, Bartle Bogle Hegarty (BBH), it was his first trip to Goa (to attend the Goafest this year), where afaqs! caught up with him.

Among his many takes on advertising, the Englishman believes that it was Bill Bernbach who introduced modern advertising by bringing the model of copywriters and art directors together. Hegarty, like the French painter Monet, is a firm advocate of the fact that we're all creative - it's just that some of us shouldn't exhibit! Translated in advertising lingo, this means that "we all have ideas all the time; the struggle is identifying which one is good."

& #BANNER1 & #In conversation with afaqs!, Hegarty - who claims to have witnessed 'five recessions' in his lifetime (and wants to wear a T-shirt that says so) - discusses BBH in India, Nigel Bogle, Levi's, and a whole lot of Zagging...

afaqs!: What made you look at India seriously only now, 27 years after BBH was launched?

Hegarty: First of all, our global strategy, if you call it that, started only in 1995, when we started expanding to places other than London. We realised that the industry was going to be a global industry soon and to have a global presence of some kind became very important for us.

Having said that, we didn't want to be a conventional global agency or sell out to an existing network. We wanted to establish our own kind of network - a mini-network of being in centres of importance. Our natural inclination was to go to New York originally, but we went East first instead because we like to zag when the world is zigging! (Laughs)

First, we went to Singapore in 1996, followed by New York, Shanghai and Sao Paolo. India is our sixth office globally.

If you look at the globe, it's all about going to places that are going to be of influence. We did Singapore at a time when that was where you managed the Eastern markets, particularly China and Southeast Asia. But now, obviously with the opening up of China, we're in Shanghai as well. The same logic applies for India: although it was always on our map, the country became increasingly important for us once it opened up and expanded as a market. The timing for BBH in India was right.

afaqs!: You always come across as one who seems to be disgruntled with large network setups…

Hegarty: Well - BBH has always been the underdog, actually! We like it a lot, snapping on the heels of the big boys! (Grins mischievously)

Sometimes, people say to me, 'Do you have a five-year plan?' And I go, "No, actually I have a five-minute plan." We didn't sit down one day and declare, "This is how we will rule the world." No. Our global beliefs have developed and evolved with time.

I'd like to add here that the last couple of years have truly seen a globalisation of this industry. 25 years ago, I wouldn't have even known where the centre of advertising in India was, or which were the great agencies in Paris!

afaqs!: But doesn't a six-office setup globally limit you in terms of offering scale to clients?

Hegarty: Yes, of course it limits us. But we're not worried about that. We view BBH as a brand and this limitation you're talking of doesn't limit us in the way we think or behave. We know we can't be all things to all people. Yes, we are often criticised, peculiarly by other agencies.

We are very clear: we want clients who value the quality of an idea over its transmission. The value of that idea is more important than the process by which you deliver it. Whereas the bigger global agencies are all about: "We're everywhere, now how can we make it work for you?" That's fine! It's a different model, that's all.

We're not obsessed with scale. We're obsessed with quality and creativity.

afaqs!: What does your partner Nigel Bogle bring to the table?

Hegarty: Nigel is a great strategic thinker. His background is that of account management, but really, he is a brilliant thinker. In his own way, he has a very creative mind on how brands can utilise creativity and make it a business tool.

afaqs!: BBH has a triangular structure - planning, servicing and creative - in place. Should one understand that other departments/divisions aren't as important to an agency?

Hegarty: No, it isn't that at all. It is just that our foundation is built around these core disciplines. Creativity is our business tool and strategy gives us the application for that creativity.

afaqs!: So when are you snagging (or shall we say Zagging!) Levi's for BBH India?

Hegarty: You know, we've never expanded on the back of a client; we've done so on the back of a philosophy. We'd obviously like to work with Levi's here and will have a conversation with them, telling them this is what we're doing and this is how we can help you. However, in the end, Levi's India will make its decision. It's their company and their decision to make! We'll see what happens.

afaqs!: So which of your global clients are looking at aligning themselves with BBH in India, now that the agency's here?

Hegarty: Oh - of course I would love it if some of our global clientele such as Unilever, Diageo or Audi work with us in a big way in India. But our plan is to first establish BBH as a brand in India, before we can start pretending that we can pick all these big names here! (Grins)

We want Mumbai to generate its own business. We've just announced the win and I'm really excited about it! If you ask me, it would be rather boring if Mumbai was just a means for our global clients to eye India. Even globally, by and large, we have helped build local brands first, and then got in the MNCs. It isn't necessary that all the clients we're strong with in London have to reflect with us elsewhere. Look at the US: we don't have Audi there. We pitched for it but didn't win it! (Shrugs)

afaqs!: You talk of building BBH as a brand here. Simply put, why should a client choose to go with you over the other agencies?

Hegarty: We do it better! (Laughs)

It's about a certain culture, philosophy and a way of doing little things in a better way - an environment and a flat structure which encourages creativity in the organisation. I'm going to hire people out of Ogilvy or JWT. When they come to BBH, they should somehow know it in their gut that they're going to be better. That's my aim: to get people to feel that difference.

afaqs!: Is there more to BBH than the ad agency?

Hegarty: We're integrating our digital offering at BBH globally. In London, we also have ZAG (started two and a half years ago): a division that invents products, which forms an additional source of revenue for our agency. ZAG will be in India within the next two years but we have to build BBH in India first.

afaqs!: Are agencies spreading themselves too thin by trying to offer everything to clients under the same roof?

Hegarty: Yes, there is a danger in spreading yourself too thin. You'll be seen as a generalist rather than a specialist. However, in the modern media environment, one needs to have an understanding of the broader spectrum. That is what our 'Engagement Planning' is all about.

Clients are confused! Should they put money on traditional media? Digital? Above the line? Below the line? That is where agencies need to step in as partners.

afaqs!: People here think BBH will be all about unconventionality in India. True?

Hegarty: While we'd like to be seen as innovators, old media is hugely powerful. Radio is not dead, print is not dead! C'mon - one just has to use it cleverly, differently. It's called Zagging.