Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Hegarty on Advertising: Turning Intelligence Into Magic, by John Hegarty

It would never have occurred to me to read this book, or any book like it, but I heard John Hegarty on Radio 4 (Start The Week? Midweek? Some programme of the sort) during the week he launched his memoir-cum-textbook, and I really enjoyed listening to him. Another aspect that intrigues me is that he’s a product of post-war English Art School education – it fascinates me how many people who’ve enriched my life have come through that route: innumerable musicians, unashamedly original artists such as Grayson Perry, and so it seems, luminaries of the advertising world.

This is the Hegarty in Bartle Bogle Hegarty (BBH), the brains/imagination behind such iconic advertising campaigns as Levi’s 501s and Audi’s Vorschprung durch Technik. Looking through the book, I realise that, wherever an ad campaign has caught my imagination, or made me smile or laugh (it’s a rare thing, but it does happen), it’s likely that, whether John Hegarty was working for BBH, TBWA, some other multi-initialled agency, or Saatchi & Saatchi, he was never far away

Is this a manual, a ‘how to’ book? Or is it a memoir? It’s a bit of both, really. The style is what you’d expect: strong, punchy prose; lots of passion for his chosen world of advertising; racy anecdotes of triumph and disaster in his professional life (and not a word, that I spotted, about his personal life, apart from a single reference to his partner in the final chapter where he describes his relatively new life as a winemaker in France – this is a professional memoir through and through). These are strung along a timeline of Hegarty’s near-50 year career, and on a parallel track, an outline of the process of creating a successful campaign or brand. Equally, it’s not ‘a day in the life …’, but almost a credo – Hegarty takes great pains to tell us what he thinks is important to successful advertising and branding.

As ever, I’m a sucker for a well-made book, and this is finest Thames & Hudson production and design – a pleasure to handle, and another fending off, for the time being, of the e-book format for books about art, design or the creative industries. Reading the book is quite an experience – I’ll come in due course to reflect on its audience. The page layout is intriguing – blocks of text in bold and enlarged font size, interspersed with paragraphs in normal size. Sentences are kept apart by spacers. It looks as though one could speed read through the book by just reading these blocks of emphasised text – but in fact it is a through composed narrative. I know it’s a bit nerdy of me, but I found all that great fun, and it effectively pulled me through reading a book which, on one level, is a career guide for would-be entrants to the advertising industry, hardly a cosy biography for the general reader. Very easy on the eye too. And what a great cover! But this is one of the industry’s legendary creative directors – his book had to reflect this image and reputation, and it succeeds.

A lot of thought has gone into the concept and the creation of this book. It succeeds in being entirely accessible to a lay reader (or to this one at any rate), while I have no doubt being essential reading to all in the advertising world, and all who want to be in it. Hegarty makes absolutely no apology for his world, but the strongest possible argument in support of it. He’s determined to tell his audience why they should care about what he does for a living – equally, he’ll tell them just as strongly what goes wrong and why. His watchwords are Creativity and Ideas, and also Strategy. There is much about harnessing creativity, wit, irreverence and holding it all in balance – it sounds like a recipe for anarchy, but anarchy will not produce successful, memorable brands and campaigns. There’s a hubristic side to Hegarty’s writing – references to religion and faith crop up quite often – irreverence he illustrates in his analysis of the Roman Catholic Church as the ultimate successful brand, infused with 360deg thinking. Neither did he get where he is today by suppressing his ego – the most common phrase in his anecdotes is ‘I said …’. He’s the Ancient Mariner, who stoppeth one of three – but if I hadn’t got a wedding to go to, I’d happily stop and listen for as long as he wants to talk, he’s such a great raconteur. For someone in an advertising agency thinking of striking out alone, Hegarty has done his best to extract and bottle an analysis of how he thinks he has achieved such a successful career – there’s a certain generosity in this.

Has this book done anything to counter any cynicism I may have had about advertising and branding? Well, I think it made me realise that I’m not really a generalised cynic about it at all. A well made campaign, or a cleverly expressed brand, actually can give me pleasure – can raise a smile, or lift my spirits, or make me think – rather like a poem, or a work of visual art or creative writing. And that’s even if I’m never going to buy an Audi, or start drinking Boddington’s beer (or lever myself into a pair of 501s). I enjoy the good, and deplore the bad. Hegarty is a great guide to this world, because he can point to where bad faith or incompetence – or a cynical approach from within the industry – can result in a failure in image or branding. He manages to make me agree with him – misplaced attempts at branding are an embarrassing disaster. Brands are about differentiation – not needed where choice is irrelevant (he makes me cheer over the ludicrous notion of the Met Police ‘Working together for a safer London’ – ‘… what the hell else are they supposed to be doing?’ and a NHS hospital ‘Connecting You To Health’.)

If you are deeply cynical about the power of advertising and brands in our world, John Hegarty may well come over as brash, self-promoting, and overselling the importance of his business. But if you are even slightly intrigued about the passions that drive the advertising world, and the insights of one of its most successful practitioners, this is a very readable and entertaining book.

John Hegarty. Hegarty on Advertising: Turning Intelligence Into Magic. London: Thames & Hudson, 2011. 224pp ISBN13: 9780500515563

5 comments on “Hegarty on Advertising: Turning Intelligence Into Magic, by John Hegarty

  1. Lisa
    June 22, 2011

    One for some of the Apprentice candidates to read perhaps?? Great review, Hilary. Looks like an entertaining book. I was half expecting some dry and dusty tome. (Oh and as a former Department store sales person who hawked Levi 501s, you’re not missing out on much. I always thought they were distinctly average, which just goes to show the power of a good advertising campaign. Now, Audis and Boddington’s I could be prevailed upon to endorse. Free samples to Lisa @ the Book Fox Den 😉 ).

  2. Jackie
    June 22, 2011

    When I started your review, I was expecting something different, instead it has piqued my interest. I share so many of your feelings on advertising, only you worded things so much better.And I’m really curious now to see the layout. It would be interesting to read how some of the ideas began for those well known ad campaigns. I think, in many ways, advertising as a business gets a bad rap, so it’d be great to see it from a more positive angle. Thanks for showing us a book most of us never knew existed.
    That cover IS funny.

  3. Nikki
    June 26, 2011

    Not one I’d ever dream of picking up, but perhaps I should. Although for some reason the picture on the front makes my eyes go funny.

  4. Hilary
    June 27, 2011

    Have fun with this website!

  5. Pingback: Adventures in the Screen Trade: a Personal View of Hollywood, by William Goldman « Vulpes Libris

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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