‘Creativity – not technology – is what matters’, says industry legend Sir John Hegarty

Illustrator and art director Ben Tallon interviews the creator of still memorable campaigns such as Levi’s Flat Eric and Audi’s ‘Vorsprung Durch Technik' slogan about what’s wrong with the creative industries – and what will fix it.

For an industry legend, Sir John Hegarty is remarkably down-to-earth. He takes the seat opposite me as I stir my coffee, and he’s immediately grinning – and his laughter lines run deep. He’s a widely respected man with a decorated career – the creative mind behind some of the most iconic and impactful advertising campaigns of our time. But he’s unafraid to say where advertising is failing and how it needs to improve by encouraging new ideas drawn from creativity rather than technology.

The pursuit of difference is something the agency he co-founded, BBH, points to as the foundation of its iconic work over the years, under his creative direction. As a freelance illustrator and art-director with 8.5 years experience to Hegarty’s 50, we’re different on the surface, but we speak the same language. Any of my creative work that I care about has been carried out with irreverence and exploration, inherently human and timeless traits that Hegarty points to as essential foundations.
Apply tools and technology with these fundamentals and chances are, you’ll get magic.

“I’d gone to New York in 1999 to set up the agency, BBH,” John tells me. “It felt like I’d accelerated two years into the future. Everything was dotcom. Of course, it all came horribly crashing down as it was over sold. There was blood on the streets. Things that go up fast come down fast.

“There were phrases like, ‘Hey, we’re working on internet time, you don’t get it! This is the new new!’” He shakes his head, grimacing. “What is the idea? Do people want it? Can we make people want it? These were simple questions that were not being asked.”

I think of the many dull, formulaic movie posters on the underground I saw on my way to meet John in Soho – designed to please all, stock photographs of a famous face and a trendy font, lacking soul or innovation, no presence of passion. Dig a little deeper for the independent movies you might find screening at The Picture House – Get Out, for example – and you’ll soon find a greater level of love and craft in their presentation. Surely we have a responsibility to challenge our clients, fight for more Innovative and attention grabbing solutions to the problems we’re paid to solve? The talent is plentiful in the industry, but so is fear and subservience.

Hegarty famously had to fight for his decision to cast Flat Eric, the yellow puppet as the new Levis campaign hero.

“I feel we’ve lost our faith in creativity, too many people stood back in awe of the technology. It doesn’t matter what you’re creating, it has to be an expression of you. You hear so much rubbish today, things like big data, attempting to predict how people will behave. The only prediction I’ll make is that the future will be creative, despite the fact our industry today is not particularly good at developing great creative work.

“We will regain the need to produce outstanding work, engage with our audience, and entertain them, do all the things great communication is about. Those things do not change. There’s a lack of individuals. We had more renegades trying to challenge the status quo whereas today, people are technologically literate, but not communication wise.”

When I arrived at art college, I started to feel energised, curious to see if this new thrill might lead to a career. It’s very easy to forget that lust for excitement as we fall into trappings of safety and trend following. I met new people who had also left school and we set about forming a sense of identity for the first time. We had access to Apple computers and Photoshop, but would only use the kit once the creative had been fleshed out in creative session, so that we might facilitate and enhance the idea, not depend on the machine to style out a lack of innovation.

"Technology is fundamental," says John. "It enables opportunity. But creativity creates value. People do think that the idea is using a bit of technology, as opposed to having an idea that proves the best way to use that technology. More importantly, there is a message and we have to make it distinctive and memorable"

In recent years, I’ve been drawn to technology, collaborating with 3D print specialists, meeting neuroscientists to talk about the possibilities of working with brain scan imagery and actively seeking contacts in all sorts of other industries. The more I grow aware of what new tools are available, the less restricted my creative direction becomes.

I’ve always admired and embraced digital, my distaste for it lays only in its tendency to distract from the all-important message Hegarty speaks of, offering fast, easy, cheap solutions devoid of the human touch.

A history lesson

Hegarty grew up in a London based Irish family and points to his being naturally observant from a young age, gleaning quirks and characteristics from the people around him. He looks momentarily pained, smirking.

“I’m going to sound like an old fart now,” he says. “but it’s really not that. I see my creative staff under headphones, looking down and feel that they’re missing things. Inspiration is all around you!”

He believes that creative people are great observers, seeing the fine detail in the world that others stare at, but never notice.

My personality began to manifest itself around the age of eleven or twelve to cries of ‘weirdo!’ or regular questions like, ‘Where did hell that come from?’ They became a badge of honour once I reached a point in my late teens, understanding that my view of the world was different to most. Drawing became my tool of expression.

Still, I’m wowed by digital’s capability to help that evolve. Seeing the way emulsion paint bled into the digital ripples on the resin in a 3D printer gave me sleepless nights for the right reasons because it was cutting edge and fresh, carrying me into an exciting world of art-direction.

Hegarty’s brilliant half-century at the top would simply not have happened without a strong grasp on the intangibles, the drivers that bring this value to new technology. As my own career continues to evolve, I spend less time trying to focus my time and energy anywhere other than these keystones.

Where that will lead, I have no idea, but that’s fine. If I love what I do, stay thrilled with what comes next, I cannot fail.

Ben's interview with John was also recorded for Ben's podcast, Arrest All Mimics.

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