Interviews

Doing the right thing: an interview with Sir John Hegarty

Sir John Hegarty bestrides the world of advertising, but there's a lot more to the adland knight than selling jeans and cars

Words by Adam Lechmere

Photography by Markel Redondo

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‘It’s just down the hall. If you pass the Hockney, you’ve gone too far,’ says John Hegarty when I ask for directions to the bathroom. Lately, when I mention that I’ve just interviewed him and people ask me what he’s like (Hegarty is invariably described as an ‘advertising mogul’ or ‘adland knight’), I repeat that neat instruction. I like the fact that a soundbite sums up this energetic man and his career. It tells you immediately that his East London penthouse is big enough to get lost in (indeed, the concrete-ceilinged corridors seem to stretch to infinity), that there’s a Hockney and, in a welcome implied compliment, that a guest will immediately, of course, recognise the artist’s work.

John Hegarty ad campaign for Boddingtons

Whether Hegarty is a mogul or not – I always think the word should be applied to people altogether larger and more sinister than this wiry chap expertly fine-tuning his espresso machine – he certainly bestrides the advertising world. Knighted in 2007, Hegarty found great early success with Levi’s and the 1984 film of Nick Kamen stripping to his boxers in the launderette to the tune of ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine’. The ad is 35 years old now, but it looks newly minted, having already been through three or four retro cycles.

Then there were Audi and ‘Vorsprung durch Technik’, Boddington’s beer (‘the cream of Manchester’), Häagen-Dazs and the brilliant ‘Three Little Pigs’ ad for The Guardian (watch it – it’s compelling), among many others. Bartle Bogle Hegarty, the agency he cofounded in 1982, has produced some of the most memorable advertisements of the last four decades. So which is his favourite?

‘Well, out of all the pieces of work I’ve ever done […] I would change nothing about the Levi’s ad. It was virtually perfect.’

John Hegarty ad campaign for Levi's

You have to understand here that we’re dealing with a salesman, and salesmen are not given to self-doubt. They find it counterproductive. So when Hegarty talks about perfection in his own work, and then starts riffing on the meaning of the word ‘masterpiece’, namechecking Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, Humphrey Bogart and Oscar Wilde in the process, this is not conceit; he’s simply doing his job.

And he does it very well. He got everyone wearing Levi’s in the 1980s, and he turned Audi into a highly desirable brand, giving the titan BMW a run for its money. Apart from ‘Vorsprung durch Technik’ – the tagline that wittily subverted the enduring stereotype of German engineering efficiency – the Audi campaign used what he calls ‘pub ammo’.

‘A bloke walks into a pub and tells his mates he’s just bought an Audi.’ Initial mockery turns to envy when they realise just how superior its four-wheel drive is.

It’s all moonshine, of course. For most of us, four-wheel drive confers no great advantage, just as Red Bull doesn’t give you wings. But Hegarty protests: this is not about simply persuading people to buy this car or that pair of jeans. ‘Essentially we’re trying to elevate the status of a brand to make it a part of culture. To ensure it has greater value and importance. We elevate jeans from workwear to a cultural icon: they have greater significance than something you put on and throw off.’

Perhaps, but those of us of a certain generation were brought up to believe ads were an annoyance at best, a trick at worst. We remember our parents harrumphing from the sofa during the ad breaks. Hegarty chortles (he does this a lot). ‘It didn’t annoy me at all. It made me want to create something my dad – or my auntie – would want to watch. After I’d done Levi’s, she would still say, when the Hovis ad came on, “That’s the sort of thing you should be doing.”’

In the 1970s, though, the views of the older generation held sway. Advertising was not a respectable profession. ‘At art college we were definitely déclassé, like selling your soul,’ he says with glee. ‘We were virtually excluded, the terrible smell in the room.’ Hegarty is a natural rebel. He insists that advertising is all about ‘telling the truth’, and I resist the temptation to deconstruct the Levi’s ad and unwrap its universal message. I think it has nothing whatever to do with truth, but the ability to tell a joke. A man dives into a pool, and his swimming trunks surface before he does, but then he lights a cigar and… ‘Happiness is a cigar called Hamlet.’ There’s a joke in every great ad, whether it’s multilayered (‘Vorsprung durch technik’ – that is, us laughing at the Germans, who are laughing right back) or straightforward.

John Hegarty's vineyard in southern France
John Hegarty's vineyard in southern France

Nowadays Hegarty has a couple of big interests outside advertising. After selling BBH in 2012, he founded The Garage Soho, a startup incubator (he likes new companies that disrupt the current business model), and he owns a 125ha estate with 15ha of vines (Carignan mainly, and Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Cinsault) in Minervois, a rugged corner of that most rugged of appellations, the Languedoc. There, he makes robustly elegant reds that sell through Fine+Rare (a sister company of Club Oenologique, for the sake of full disclosure) and in over a dozen countries. Hegarty Chamans is highly regarded – Robert Parker is one of its fans. Hegarty absolutely loves the region. ‘Minervois is the most exciting wine region in the world – such diversity of terroir and people – and fantastic wines.

Barrel details at Hegarty Chamans winery

The wine is produced biodynamically, a philosophy about which Hegarty is indulgent rather than doctrinaire. ‘The thing you get with biodiversity is a kind of vivacity and a sense of liveliness. I don’t buy into the wonky stuff, but we do follow the calendar, and why shouldn’t it be right? There is rhythm – if the moon can move the ocean, you don’t think it will affect anything else?’

I like the way he describes the winemaking process. On the one hand, he’s got all the winemaking mantras at his fingertips – ‘we want to see what the land is telling us’ and so on – but on the other, he’s perfectly aware that there is a process, and there is always manipulation. It’s like shooting film, he says: you’ve got the footage, and then you have to edit it and put music to it, and that’s where the rhythm reveals itself. ‘And when you find that rhythm and the right piece of music to go with it, it’s explosive.’

Inside John Hegarty's barrel room in southern France
Concrete vats at Hegarty Chamans, Minervois

His father, before settling in London, was a farmer – ‘he’d be turning in his grave at the thought of me going back to all that’ – and the son takes the business seriously. He and his New Zealander partner Philippa visit the estate once a month and involve themselves in every aspect of Hegarty Chamans, from pruning to blending, along with some pretty high-end consultants. Pruning, for example, is overseen by Marco Simonit (about the most famous in the business – it’s like taking on Gwyneth Paltrow as your personal dietician). ‘It’s important to us to do it right and not be dilettantes in this,’ Hegarty says. He particularly enjoys the blending process, deferring, as sensible owners do, to his winemaker, Jessica Servet. ‘I have huge respect for Jessica, and she understands that I don’t personally like big, heavy wines – I like complexity and elegance, character and juxtaposition.

John Hegarty’s wife Philippa Crane.
John Hegarty’s partner Philippa Crane
Philippa Crane picking herbs in the garden
In the herb garden

There’s that word again. Looking back through the transcript of our conversation, I see that he’s used the word ‘juxtaposition’ several times. ‘Juxtaposition has been something that has driven me throughout my entire career,’ he says. ‘Putting things next to each other. Contrast.’ It explains his love of aphorisms (his conversation is peppered with them): ‘When people say zig, I zag’; ‘History isn’t about the past, it’s about the future’; ‘Lose the mystery, but keep the magic.’

I’ve met Hegarty a few times and know people who work for him, and the words that are most frequently associated with him are energy and commitment. I have no doubt that he approaches every part of his life with the same focus. He seems tightly wound, full of vim. He’s 74 years old, but he might be a decade younger. He must have been fun to have in a class, and judging by the frequency with which he mentions his teachers (we’re going right back to the mid-1960s now), mentors have been very important to him – from those who steered him away from fine art to graphics, and gently told him he was never going to be the great artist he had set his sights on being, to the legendary Bill Bernbach, who’s responsible for that original aphorism, ‘the most powerful element in advertising is the truth’

John Hegarty
John Hegarty

Truth, maybe. But what about shock and surprise? Hegarty’s ads have cornered the market in those commodities; one look at the extraordinary film for the UN World Food Programme that his Garage Soho company made with the director Lynne Ramsay will convince you of that. In a mere 62 seconds, the film delivers a jolt that you won’t forget. ‘Suddenly the cinema goes quiet. It’s incredible to see,’ Hegarty says, with a nice sense of wonderment. Did he set out to shock people? ‘No. You have to understand that an ad imposes itself on you. I choose to watch a programme, but I don’t choose to watch an ad, so it has a greater responsibility to understand the limits of what it can and can’t do. If you just want to shock, then you are suspect, but if you’re trying to open up a debate, then that is more legitimate. And, of course, it must engage and entertain.’ I’ve shown the UN film to a couple of people, and they agree: it gives you a physical shock, but from the first second to the last you are compelled to keep watching and – yes – you are entertained, in the sense that you can’t look away.

There are many people who would give their right arms for such a skill. As our conversation turns to politics, you wonder how he’s going to turn his mind to the little local difficulty that is convulsing the UK at the moment. Hegarty’s passionately pro-European stance is well known.

I remind him of a comment he made some months ago, that if there were to be another referendum, he would produce a campaign for the Remain side within six months. ‘Absolutely! I’ve been in conversation with Gina Miller [a dedicated and effective anti-Brexit campaigner] on how we approach a piece of communication that catches people’s imagination.’

Interior at John Hegarty’s home
Interior at John Hegarty’s home
Sunset at the Hegarty home
Sunset at the Hegarty home

He’s fizzing with ideas. Many of them are off the record, because he doesn’t want to give anything away; there’s one which he’d like James Corden to do (Hegarty can pick up the phone to just about anyone nowadays).

And so we come full circle, back to the idea of truth. ‘The first referendum was based on lies, and you cannot sustain a product based on an untruth.’ Well, there are many quite successful products (‘Coke – It’s the Real Thing’) whose taglines have the flimsiest hold on veracity, but then Hegarty adds his punchline: ‘The companies that succeed are the ones that tell me, “This is the truth, and your job is to find an interesting way of saying it.”

Garden seating area at John Hegarty's home
Garden seating area at John Hegarty's home
John Hegarty at home
John Hegarty at home

The truth is all very well, but you have to unlock its potential as a story, you have to entertain people. Whether working out the best way to get the stony soil of Minervois to reveal its secrets, selling jeans or the UN, or persuading the British public to vote a certain way, it’s how you tell the story that matters. And there, in a nutshell, you have the career of Sir John Hegarty.

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