Q&A with advertising legend Sir John Hegarty

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Advertising icon Sir John Hegarty will be making his way to our shores early next year to judge and present Stuff’s inaugural Paper Planes competition – a celebration of the most creative and innovative uses of the print medium.


We spoke with John to get his thoughts on the power of print, the influence of tech giants and the future of advertising.

JH: Before you commence the creative process, you have to ask yourself – what are you trying to achieve with your ad? Is it brand building, is it pure information? Or is it a combination of both? In reality, there’s no one answer.

I constantly say all analogies eventually break down. Each case has its own peculiarities. And of course, you’re in a competitive market vying for attention. So, if most car ads are long copy, the one with short copy may stand out even more. Principles remain, but practices change.

These days, many advertisers and marketers are shifting their focus away from traditional advertising towards a solely digital approach. Why do you still see value in the print medium?

JH: Print is still a public medium, it’s a shared experience. Depending on the journal, a number of people will have access to it. Ultimately, a brand wants to be a part of culture – when it does that it raises its profile and its value.

One to one communication rarely gives you that. Print does. That’s why it is still important.

What do you think makes a great print ad?

JH: One that changes your mind.

What are some of the best print ads you’ve seen over the years, and why did they have such a lasting impression?

JH: This is difficult to answer. I grew up in the golden age of great print advertising. From the iconic VW ads by DDB in New York, to the great print work coming out of CDP here in London, and to our own print work at BBH for brands like Audi and Levi’s.

The work I remember standing out the most featured culturally shifting ideas. Daring, competitive, funny and challenging. They moved product and minds.

Simplicity is the greatest achievement in creative execution. Advertising’s great skill is to take a complicated thought and reduce it to a simple, memorable, motivating thought, whatever medium you’re in.

Each media has its own peculiarities, understanding those is crucial. But wherever you are, the only space that matters is the space between your audience’s ears. That’s the space I’m trying to occupy.

You’ve previously talked about how tech giants like Facebook and Google have “been allowed to not just disrupt, but disrupt irresponsibly”. Why do you think this?

JH: The tech giants have been allowed to create monopolies. Our legislators have not kept up with the developments in these areas. But just as the oil and steel barons had to be broken up in the early 20th century, so the same will have to be done to the tech barons.

If you read Adam Smith’s “The Wealth of Nations”, he says in capitalist economies, corporations will naturally try and create monopolies, and governments have to regulate them to prevent this. Sadly, very few people really read Adam Smith.

Over the course of your career, did you have any major revelations that changed the way you approach creativity?

JH: Not really. I was once asked, what did I look for in an idea? I said something I liked. Realising that wasn’t a very helpful answer, I looked back over the work I had created and the work I admired and realised virtually all of it had a streak of irreverence to it. So I was able to identify a thread that held my thinking together, and gave a talk on the power of irreverence in the communication industry.

What’s your advice for creatives today, and what do you think the future of advertising will look like?

JH: Never predict. You’re almost certainly going to get it wrong. Go back 10 years and look at some of the predictions made about our industry to prove that point. Having said that, I can’t see us abandoning the need for ideas and the need to communicate them in the most memorable way as possible.

Stuff’s Paper Planes Gala event will be held on Monday, 3rd of February 2020. For more information, go to: www.paperplanes.stuff.co.nz.

Q&A with advertising legend Sir John Hegarty