Sir John Boots It Badly

Hegarty There is a video of Sir John Hegarty on line that shows the master commit himself to misapprehensions so unpardonable that it is clear he should be relieved of his knighthood and sent to the tower for an indeterminate period of time and at least till he comes to his senses.

Sir John on good creative, marketing and taste.  Click here.

Sir John tells us that, finally, creative decisions come down to taste.  Do we like the  creative in question, or do we not? Advertising, he says, is about creating desire.  We must make people want the product.  In the old days, we did this be insisting on a point of difference, a special ingredient.  Now, it’s the way we communicate with the consumer.  And that’s about taste.  We are increasingly living in a fashion world.  We are dominated by it.  Taste is important and you can’t teach it. 

There are several things wrong with this argument, but I want to point out the most obvious: that one of the most powerful people in the world of British advertising has just declared intellectual bankruptcy. 

All the world is persuaded that there is something wrong with advertising.  The New Media people claim that TV ads are dead.  Clients have always nurtured their suspicions and now they are in full out revolt.  The academics cannot figure out what makes this bumble bee capable of flight.  The "critical" theories have no such difficulty, and routinely find advertising to be the chief culprit in the creation of false consciousness, consumer manipulation and every ill that ails us.  The consumer is happily TIVOing ads out of existence.  The agency world is in disarray.  The world of marketing is the throes of crisis.

This might have been the moment from something oracular.  As one of the senior members of the profession, Sir John might have stepped forward and poured oil upon the water.  He might have recited verities to reassure us.  Or he might have broken new ground and issued a new model for understanding what advertising is. 

Not a chance.  No, Sir John choose this moment to tell us that advertising is effectively mysterious, inscrutable and unteachable. Bravo, sir.  That’s leadership! 

With this declaration, we are back in the black box that advertising created after World War II.  Advertising, agencies told the client, was a thoroughly creative process.  Only the agency could do it.  Only the agency could evaluate it.  Only the agency could be trusted to invent it.  The client was obliged to keep her distance…and pay the bills.  The quid pro quo was clear.  We, the agency, give you ads.  You, the client, pay us hard-stopping amounts of money.  Oh, and one more thing: go away.

In the old days, this black box approach to advertising was not a bad idea.  It kept the least talented cooks out of the creative kitchen. It left the agency free to do its best work.  But now that clients have got smarter, now that the agency world is in crisis, now that advertising is effectively being taken away from the agency world, this might not be the best time to retreat into a naive obscurantism, and the pretense that advertising is, well, imponderable. 

Unless, shudder, it’s true.  Could it be that one of the most powerful men in British advertising has no idea how advertising works?  Could he really believe that it’s just taste?  That it’s all about fashion. That there is no meaning manufacture here to be understood, refined, build upon, taken forward.  No bold new thinking that shows how the challenge of new media can be turned to advantage?

Don’t tell me this is the best you can do, Sir John.  You spent a life time managing the creative process, and your epiphany is that it’s all about taste and fashion?  Maybe the world of advertising is beyond all hope.  Perhaps we should read this declaration of intellectual bankruptcy as a requiem for the field.   


McCracken, Grant.  2005.  Minstrel Marketing and the Hegarty Trade-off.  This Blog Sits At the Intersection of Anthropology and Economics.  June 24, 2005. here.
(For a kinder view of Sir John’s significance)


With thanks to the following for bringing the video to our attention:

Serendipity Book here.

PSFK here.

7 thoughts on “Sir John Boots It Badly

  1. The Owner's Manual

    The bulge in the demographic snake’s stomach known as Baby Boomer should force some changes in the patina of advertising, but it may be a tad early to see it, and it may be too late for it to work.

    I noticed an almost brutal cutoff of TV programming of interest when I turned fifty. The advertisers, hence the producers, are uninterested in over-50 eyeballs and it shows. You don’t have to be cynical to describe popular entertainment as written by and for juveniles, and advertising as the mendacity of omissive, commissive manipulation.

    Thank God for PVRs. But back to the Bulge. Will agencies be forced by ennui-soaked retirees intent on spending the kids’ inheritance to abandon the mystery and “get real?” If they do, will it be received as were the efforts of a company during the 1950’s, who went so far as to satirize what is now being TIVOed out of existence?

    I refer to Petrofina, who advertised that filling one’s tires with pink air was coming soon, while simultaneously sloganizing, “work hard, sell a good product, and don’t try to kid anybody.”

    The coming culture may be too old and wise to take advertising seriously.

  2. jkh

    even heroes like john hegarty get old – and with them their believes and tricks.

    tempus fugit, friends.

    at least grant stays young, elastic and fresh. he has also never been tempted by quite that kind of brutally raving success sir john and company enjoyed in the 90s.
    turns out that is a good thing.

  3. Tom Asacker

    “It’s the best possible time to be alive, when almost everything you thought you knew . . . is wrong!” From the play Arcadia by Tom Stoppard.

  4. srp

    I’m a bit sympathetic to the message that advertising contains an irreducible core of inarticulable insight. It seems implausible that algorithmic or even heuristic approaches could reliably generate competitively superior advertising content. Such approaches might help us recognize which inspirations are good ones after they’ve been prototyped, but probably couldn’t ever generate good ads in the first place.

    As McCloskey pointed out in If You’re So Smart, no literary theory can reliably generate a great work of art, no economic theory can reliably deliver profitable business ideas, etc. These are open “rhetorical” fields of endeavor, not closed “scientific” ones. Science can still improve our judgment, however.

  5. john mcgarr

    Can Sir John be right and wrong at the same time?

    Maybe its simply the problem of complexity – how or why any piece of communication works is so highly complex (given the unique cognitive and cultural differences across the populace seeing it) that it is impossible to distill success down to a small, easily comprehendible set of “rules” or patterns.

    It appears to me he simply erroneously suggests this is a matter of the single idea of “taste” when it is more likely a matter of complexity causing unpredictability – we are not “cognitively wired” to handle the huge volume of information required to be able to predict effectiveness because it is too complex a process.

    I would suggest therefore a “safe-fail” approach of eliminating numerous alternatives would allow us to “test our way through” to success by narrowing the field through an iterative process, relying on only the one human ability that is undeniably effective: 20/20 hindsight!

    I am in the process of developing a research methodology to address this issue – the only problem being, I am not aware of any agencies who are set up to embrace a “safe-fail” creative development process. If anyone is interested or aware of any, feel free to contact me (thru Grant if you can’t directly through this post).

  6. Rodney Tanner

    Fear not, just down the soft carpeted corridor from Sir John sits the Chairman of his agency (BBH), Jim Carroll, one of the best planners in London. Jim Carroll recently did a piece on the 10 principles for marketing in the age of engagement.
    1) The first priority is engagement. Does it have something to talk about?
    2) Fame is a legitimate objective.
    3) Recognize the critical role of the aesthetic. Consumers are sensitive to visual stimulation and demand extremely high standards
    4) Embrace speed and immediacy
    5) Explore beyond narrative
    6) Extend across platforms
    7) Treat brand messages as content
    8) You need a big idea to hold it all together
    9) Take risks
    10)No sector is exempt from these principles

    No black boxes here. The BBH planners seem have to have it down pretty well.
    If you want a copy of the article, I can fax you a copy. He also outlines the challenges now facing research.

    Just my 2c worth.

  7. SidneyStencil

    Just look at him. Sir John, I mean. He’s got 5 (that’s five) buttons on his sleeves. As he talks about taste. What a natural. Did you mute the canned applause when you embedded the video?

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