John Hegarty: one of the all-time great creative directors

John Hegarty has been a central figure in advertising for six decades. He is one of the few creative directors awarded both the D&AD President’s Award for lifetime achievement, as well as induction into the One Show Advertising Hall of Fame. As well as overseeing many of the most resonant pieces of advertising of all time, John Hegarty is an eloquent advocate for creativity in his interviews, articles and speeches.

Table of Contents

He has also written two of the very best books on advertising: Hegarty on Advertising and Hegarty on Creativity Both quickly became must-reads for creatives all over the world.

Unlike many books written by advertising people, his books aren’t a series of self-aggrandising case studies. He talks deeply about the creative process. That’s a given. But the most fascinating insights are about dealing with clients. How to get the best from them. And how to help them get the best from you.

Multiple clients have stayed with his iconic agency, Bartle Bogle Hegarty, for quite literally decades. As you’ll see later in this article, it’s not because they were going through the motions. The work was always compelling and pushing the brand forward.

In the history of advertising, no-one has tapped into the zeitgeist as well as John Hegarty. There is much to learn from him while you build your creative career.

All roads lead to the work.

Starting out in the industry

Growing up in North London in a working class family, John demonstrated an interest in art and design at a young age. He went to Art College after school, followed by a stint at the London College of Printing (now known as the London College of Communication) to study design. 

He was attracted to advertising, landing a junior art director position when he graduated. Like many of the greats, John Hegarty moved quickly through the ranks, becoming a creative director within eight years of entering the industry.

Starting his own advertising agency. The iconic BBH.

Ten years after becoming creative director, he founded his own company in partnership with John Bartle and Nigel Bogle. They timed it well. Straight after their previous agency, TBWA, won the agency of the year award in the United Kingdom. It made sense to start a new agency when his personal profile was high, and admired by his clients.

Since the founding of BBH in 1982, with John as the figurehead at the helm, the agency has gone from strength to strength. There are offices in 7 international locations today.

They live by the mantra “Our objective is effectiveness. Our strategy, creativity.”

What other agencies would take two or three paragraphs of flowery language to say on their website, BBH manage in seven punchy, succinct words.

John Hegarty Bartle and Bogle

John Hegarty's greatest strengths

Incredible communicator

Watch John Hegarty being interviewed. He speaks clearly and persuasively. His manner is warm, knowledgable and makes his points clearly and simply.

Most importantly, he’s mastered the art of speaking authoritatively and modestly at the same time. The greats rarely big note themselves, and John Hegarty is no exception. He gives credit and respect where it is due. 

Any aspiring creative would do well to watch how he conducts himself in interviews and to learn from it. You can just imagine how incredible he would be presenting a new campaign to clients. Honest, genuine, persuasive, and completely unflappable. Speaking of which…

A master of building trust

So many great creative agencies have burned bright, for their flame to flicker and die just as quickly. John Hegarty maintains durable relationships at the highest possible level, even if the client has a new person in charge, or if the market is changing around that industry. Even though he is less a day to day presence on the ground in the agency, he remains a towering figure.

John is fascinated by people, and listens just as effectively as he talks. 

He makes effective work creative. Not the other way round.

He has never chased the big ‘sugar hit’ creative idea. He really gets it. Creativity exists to assist commerce. This doesn’t say the work he oversees isn’t creatively great. Because it is. But it is in service of the client. And of the moment the client’s business is in. Not in service of his ego, or those that want to make themselves famous inside the agency.

His agency is proof that effective work can also be creative. That is what true creative directorship is. Many creative directors are in a rush to make their name. They want to sell the best possible creative idea they can convince the client to buy. 

It’s an easy mistake for a junior to fall into. It takes a while to learn that the creative idea you like the most is probably not the idea that is right for the client. Start from the attitude of wanting to make effective advertising creative, instead of the other way around, and you will grow your career as well as your award cabinet.

He is a music maestro

As you look through the breadth of his work further on, pay attention to the music. In fact, seven of his Levi’s jeans ads spawned number one hits. He didn’t pay for songs that were already hits, he found great songs that he turned into hits. Music is an incredibly powerful driver of emotion, and helps the viewer recall the work as well.

Quality from go to whoa

It’s not how you start the race, it’s how you finish. The greatest creative idea can fall over at any hurdle. Many in the advertising industry fetishise the ‘big idea’. But the big idea only gets you to the start line. The most successful creatives know that execution is where greatness lies.

BBH has always worked with the best directors, illustrators, voice talent, photographers and provide them the space to their best work as well. From the biggest piece of film to the smallest social post.

He’s an Art Director that learned to write. And then to Creative Direct. And then to Strategise.

John Hegarty has never stood still. He has consistently improved his skills over decades, and has continually built his value not only to his agency, but also to the clients he has so reliably serviced. It takes a lot of hard work to be this talented. 

Make sure to keep expanding your knowledge and skills. Read widely. Take courses, not only in subjects related to your specialty. Learn whatever you can. I’m a firm believer that Art Directors should know how to Write. And vice-versa. And they both should understand the fundamentals of strategy, as well as be able to navigate their way around annual reports amongst other documents that their clients care about and refer to in their roles.

There are many places you can do this throughout your career. From a local night school, to short courses at schools such as General Assembly and Hyper Island.

John Hegarty. A true champion of visual story-telling.

“If the founders of the French Revolution were able to reduce their slogan to three words ‘Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité’ and the Romans built an empire on another three ‘Veni, Vidi, Vici’ why do we need so many more to sell cat food?”

Notice how few words are used in the work below. But the words that are used are powerful. Because they have space to breathe.

Advertising is far more than a communications industry. It's a problem-solving industry that also teaches you about life. It encourages you to focus your thinking and produce something of genuine value.

Lessons to take from his career

BBH London When They Zig You Zag

Don’t have a house style

The style of work that has always come out of BBH is incredibly varied. Make sure you develop that skill in your own work. Don’t fall in the trap of developing your own visual aesthetic. Or a familiar way of writing. Or similar script structures. You will only box your career in.

Even if your particular creative schtick is successful for a while, the industry will either outgrow or imitate it. It is only when you take purposeful steps to expand your repertoire that you become a better copywriter or art director. Force yourself to approach briefs differently and unexpectedly. 

Great campaigns aren’t repetitive

Look through the Levi’s ads that have come out of BBH. They are all part of the same campaign, and  all true to the Levis brand. But none of them are versions of other ads in the campaign. A man taking his jeans off in a laundromat is a million miles from mermaids trying to steal jeans off a drowning sailor. Which is even further away from a young man buying condoms from a pharmacist and later picking his daughter up for a date.

Don’t be lazy with your client

Happy clients don’t put their advertising account out to pitch. The greatest reason that a client will be compelled to look for a new agency is if they feel the work is going through the motions. In an advertising agency, the weight of this responsibility sits mostly on the shoulders of account management, who should be looking at the brand through a forward-facing lens. But creative can take some blame as well. If the work isn’t moving forward, the client will start looking for an exit.

No one exemplifies an active, engaged agency more than BBH. The agency has seen many clients through major pivots of communication style and brand strategy.

John once said in an interview: “Advertising is a short-term business, but we pursue it in a long-term way. From the start, we’ve been more concerned with what an action will mean in three, five or ten years, than with the immediate effect.”

Discomfort is an essential part of the creative process

You have to dare to take risks. Intelligent, well thought through, and relevant risks. But risks nonetheless. “Our best work is based on ideas that evoke anguished outcries: ‘You can’t do that!’ ‘You can’t say that!'” It’s never easy to do what’s never been done before, but that is their consistent objective.

Every person exposed to your message wants to feel intelligent. They want to be surprised, charmed and emotionally moved. Or else, they will simply move on and forget you.

Believe in what you are doing

Advertising can initiate and accelerate change. Not simply in the movement of goods – but in the attitudes and behaviour of people. Some creatives have a conflicted relationship with the advertising industry. They work within it, but act judgemental about it. As if the dirty wheels of capitalism are going to leave a stain on their soul.

Frankly, that’s an immature way of thinking. And John Hegarty agrees. “It is within our grasp to help improve the level of taste, modify human behaviour, and help make this a better world. What other profession has as much an opportunity to make a difference?”

Great ideas aren’t dependent on age, they're dependent on enthusiasm. Experience gives you an edge but only if it's looking forward.

John Hegarty's Greatest Hits

The best Levis advertising of all time

The 28 year relationship between BBH and Levis has produced some of the most iconic advertising of all time. The creative partnership made such an impression on the zeitgeist that they produced seven number one songs on the UK Singles chart. And that, in essence, was the campaign. It was essentially a music campaign. You never hear anyone talking. But even without words, they are compelling stories of youth. Effortless cool. Ads to talk about at the water-cooler. They still retain that effortless cool even today.

I stand by my statement that this is the most consistently great Levis advertising. But there was some notable work coming out of Weiden & Kennedy in the States with their ‘Go Forth’ campaign recently. 

Levis Dangerous Liaisons Ad (Strange Love)
Play Video
Levis Washroom TV Ad
Play Video
Levis Sta-Prest Print Ad Haircut john hegarty bbh london
Levis Sta-Prest Print Ad john hegarty
Levis Drugstore TV Ad
Play Video
John Hegarty BBH Levis Print Ad The more you wash them the better they get
John Hegarty Levis Print Ad Torture Them Washing Machine Ad
Levis Twisted TV ad
Play Video
Play Video
levis print ad bbh john hegarty
Levis Odyssey tv ad
Play Video about Levis Odyssey tv ad
Levis Creek TV Ad
Play Video about Levis Creek TV Ad
levis boxer print ad
Levis Print Ad Modelled by the original wearer john hegarty
Levis Print Ad Modelled by the original wearer john hegarty
Levis Sta-Prest TV Ad Flat Eric Dancing
Play Video
Levis Campaign Flat Eric Mr Oizo
Play Video

The Johnny Walker tagline expressed beautifully.

Keep walking. When BBH began working with Johnnie Walker in 1999, it was suffering a sales decline of 9.3% in a year. There were 27 campaigns running worldwide, each with a different strategy, look and feel. The brand needed something to stand for that could unite it the world over, and something that could help the brand turnaround a long period of decline. In the years since, sales have more than doubled.

‘Keep Walking’ is a profound thought. It is simple to understand, but with enigmatic depths that can be explored for eternity. It is a positive, dynamic force. So firmly rooted in the name of the product that it couldn’t be for anything else.

John gives an excellent interview about what I believe is the best piece of creative in this campaign (The Man Who Walked Around The World) here if you’d like some insight into what this campaign means to him.

Never dwell on failure. It hampers success.

Johnny Walker The Man Who Walked Around The World
Play Video about Johnny Walker The Man Who Walked Around The World
Johnny Walker Poster Print Ads John Hegarty BBH
Johnny Walker Android Advert
Play Video about Johnny Walker Android Advert
Johnny Walker Fish TV Advert
Play Video about Johnny Walker Fish TV Advert
Johnny Walker Morning TVC BBH London
Play Video about Johnny Walker Morning TVC BBH London
Play Video

Obsessing about one medium versus another is a waste of energy. It is the cultivation and management of ideas, and the people who generate them that is the crucial factor.

The transformation of Audi into a luxury brand.

Audi was a foundation client for BBH when Audi was the least well known of the prestige car club. The tone of voice, along with the iconic and enigmatic tagline ‘Vorsprung durch Technik’ are the work of the agency, with John Hegarty himself at the forefront.

It doesn’t matter that no-one knows Vorsprung durch Technik’ means. It’s distinctive. Highlighting the Germanic flavor of the brand, and unlike any positioning for any other car brand. These three words discovered by Sir John Hegarty on the wall of the Audi factory in 1982 would change the world of advertising forever. Yes, that’s right. John Hegarty wrote this line.

The Audi advertising model sits on three pillars. “Exciting. Creative. Playful.” Under the purview of John Hegarty they have certainly succeeded.

The range of work is astounding. From epic to quirky and everything in-between. Consider the ‘Unboxed’ film, which I consider to be one of the best uses of animation of all time. It is quirky and charming. It tells a wonderful story about adding the human touch to a beautiful design in an utterly compelling manner. Great use of music too.

Compare that the the R8 ‘Dyno’ ad. Which can best be described as a performance car being put through its paces in a pristine, controlled environment. Stripped back, elegant, and incredibly impactful.

The agency’s instincts for when to be clever, and when to be bold are impeccable. 

Audi Hummingbird advert
Play Video
Audi Gymnasts ad
Play Video
Audi Grip film ad
Play Video
Audi R8 Dyno film cinema ad
Play Video
Audi Birth tv ad
Play Video
Audi Born Restless tv ad
Play Video
Audi Print ad In the beginning Audi created quattro
Audi Clowns tv commercial
Play Video
Audi Odd Couple ad
Play Video
Audi Synchronised Swimming
Play Video

Always remember: a brand is the most valuable piece of real estate in the world; a corner of someone's mind.

Audi Unboxed TV Animated Ad
Play Video
Audi Refuge advertisement
Play Video
Audi: Wakeboarder TV ad
Play Video
Audi Snow Mode TVC BBH John Hegarty
Play Video
Audi Bull TV ad
Play Video

The Guardian

Newspaper advertising, along with magazine advertising, was a major advertising category prior to the birth of the internet. It was a daily battle for wallets and eyeballs that called for a sizeable investment in marketing.  

Newspaper advertising is notable for the focus on ‘tone of voice’ that came to distinguish it from advertising for other categories. It was always accessible, yet authoratative. A line that is deceptively difficult to straddle.

The Guardian, under the stewardship of BBH London and John Hegarty, did some of the best work in the category for many years.

The first ad shown here, Three Little Pigs, is widely considered the best piece of media advertising of all time – particularly as it signalled the move of media into an online environment. It’s worth watching more than once, and really pulling apart in terms of how the creative ticked so many strategic boxes for the client in such a seamless, engaging manner.

I also have a soft spot for the delicate whimsy of the first ‘Own The Weekend’ ad. Honestly, a montage of people in different scenarios played out to a music track is not a new idea. But the tone of voice, casting and humanity in the piece of work is so spot on. 

John Hegarty The Guardian Three Little Pigs Ad
Play Video about John Hegarty The Guardian Three Little Pigs Ad
the guardian print ad can't be bought John Hegarty
john hegarty the guardian print ad influence the news
The Guardian Aftermath Ad
Play Video
the guardian points of view tv ad
Play Video
the guardian observer megaglove tvc
Play Video about the guardian observer megaglove tvc
The Guardian Newspaper Ad No One Edits
The Guardian Margaret Thatcher Marmite Ad John Hegarty

The first lesson of branding: memorability. It's very difficult buying something you can't remember.

The Guardian Own The Weekend commercial
Play Video about The Guardian Own The Weekend commercial
the guardian commercial own the weekend hugh grant
Play Video about the guardian commercial own the weekend hugh grant
Play Video

Before Old Spice, Lynx (Axe) advertising was king

For a very long time, advertising for the large holding companies such as P&G or Unilever was a poisoned chalice. You would make great, consistent income for the agency. But they were not creative clients. In fact, they had very strict rules about what ‘effective creative work’ was. It involved such things as saying the product name upwards of five times each thirty seconds, a product demonstration with a graphic visualisation of the effect, and close to zero creative story-telling allowed.

It’s hard to describe how revolutionary this campaign and the tone of voice for Lynx was. It truly forced a reckoning inside the large conglomerates about what the most effective way to reach their customers would be. The success of the campaign made some senior marketing types extraordinarily uncomfortable. Sparking debates at boardroom level as well.

The true legacy of this campaign, even though the laddish tone might clash with today’s sensibilities, is that is paved the way for more adventurous work for Dove, Tide, and yes, without this Lynx campaign, I doubt Old Spice would have ever happened.

To their credit, when the sensibilities of the audience began to shift, the campaign shifted as well. The laddish tone was pushed gently aside.

BBH were courageous enough to redefine their tone of voice as social standards were changing.

It’s the kind of pivot that usually happens with a change of agency. But John Hegarty managed to keep the client paying lucrative agency fees for many, many more years by doing appropriate, relevant, and great work that looked to the future, not the past. Watch the ‘Sporty Girl’ and ‘Brainy Girl’ ads, comparing them to some of the earlier work. 

axe lynx ideal woman tvc john hegarty
Play Video
lynx ad axe sporty girl bbh john hegarty
Play Video about lynx ad axe sporty girl bbh john hegarty
Play Video about brainy girl ad axe lynx bbh london john hegarty
lynx axe ad tv commercial getting dressed bbh john hegarty
Play Video about lynx axe ad tv commercial getting dressed bbh john hegarty

Great ideas aren’t dependent on age, they're dependent on enthusiasm. Experience gives you an edge but only if it's looking forward.

Play Video about axe-lynx-apollo-fireman-ad-bbh-john-hegarty
buzz aldrin apollo space agency announcement lynx axe ad bbh john hegarty
Play Video about buzz aldrin apollo space agency announcement lynx axe ad bbh john hegarty
bbh london lynx axe ad soulmates john hegarty
Play Video about bbh london lynx axe ad soulmates john hegarty
lynx axe ad big date jennifer aniston bbh london john hegarty
Play Video about lynx axe ad big date jennifer aniston bbh london john hegarty
Play Video
lynx ad axe bbh london john hegarty billions
Play Video about lynx ad axe bbh london john hegarty billions
lynx axe ad anarchy the chain bbh london hegarty
Play Video about lynx axe ad anarchy the chain bbh london hegarty
lynx ad peace call to arms axe bbh john hegarty
Play Video about lynx ad peace call to arms axe bbh john hegarty

The criminally under-rated one2one campaign

Tugging the heartstrings is also in John Hegarty’s skillset. This campaign for a mobile phone company is much more deserving of attention. Though, to be fair, 25 years is a long time. They still feel fresh though. Even today. Incredible craft combined with the perfect Penguin Cafe Orchestra song for the product.

It is one of the best examples of how to create a celebrity endorsement campaign. The brand name is integral to the idea and stated right at the very beginning of the ad. ‘Who would I most like to have a one2one with?’. The celebrity is engaged in the advertising too, having been intimately involved in the creation of the ad, working with the creative team to determine what their own ‘one2one’ would be. 

If you are planning on working with a celebrity, or even an instagram influencer in the current day, you would do well to study this campaign and learn from it.

Play Video
Play Video
Play Video
Play Video

Better to be known for something than be forgotten for nothing.

Play Video

Things to do

ad school guide portfolio school guide creative advertising

The Ad School Buddy

The complete guide. Undergrad, portfolio, grad, incubators and more.

Great Creatives

The Ad School Buddy

To make it as a professional ad creative, your choice of school is key. This is the most comprehensive guide to creative education in North America by far.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

ad school guide portfolio school guide creative advertising

The Ad School Buddy: USA & Canada

The complete guide to undergraduate, portfolio, graduate, incubators and more for every budding creative

Hegarty On Advertising Book

Hegarty on Advertising

This is one of the greatest guides to advertising ever put to print. A true classic.

Hegarty On Creativity Book

Hegarty on Creativity

In his follow up, John Hegarty delves into the process of creativity. There are no rules. But there are lessons that can help you learn to be truly original.

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Subscribe to our email newsletter today to receive updates on the latest news, tutorials and special offers!