Creative Pioneers: Sir John Hegarty on collaboration, creativity and what’s killing great work

The following is an extract from a filmed interview with Sir John Hegarty created as supporting material for CR’s first online training programme, Mastering Creativity. More details about the course, which you can sign up to at any time, at the end of this post.

CR: There are quite a few agencies and design consultancies who like to talk about having a unique, patented process – ‘This is the way that we work, which is distinct from anyone else’. We wondered whether you followed a particular process in your work and, if so, how that worked?

I think that there is a process that the business goes through. At BBH we talked about – and I titled my book – ‘Turning Intelligence into Magic’. We believed that great strategic thinking aligned to magical creative execution, created fantastic, successful work. And that work converted into sales for its clients. So, we did sort of have a process and I think strategy is fundamentally important and it helped us enormously in getting to a different place that is and could be very successful for a client and its business. Because, then it allows you as a creative person to explore different ways of solving that client’s problem. But that is as far as the process goes.

I have sat in a thousand meetings where the agency has said, ‘We’ve got to have a process and let’s explain it to the client: we do this and we do that’. It is all bollocks. Honestly, it’s all bollocks. I mean creativity is this wonderful, magical: trying to reduce it and pretend that it has an absolute process is in a way killing it. And, it is stopping it flower. It is stopping it getting to a magical point of view.

When the world zigs, zag, 1982 – BBH’s first ever poster for Levi’s launched the brand’s black denim jeans. The black sheep image was later adopted as BBH’s logo. Art director: John Hegarty. Copywriter: Barbara Nokes. Photographer: Alan Brooking

Our industry has become obsessed with these things called ‘tissue meetings’, which are absolute nonsense. What I am trying to do is liberate creativity: a process contains it. The only process we had was one where we tried to ensure that the creative period, so to speak, was given as much time as possible and we had a kind of process for protecting that. But to pretend that ‘if we do these five steps we will get to a great solution’ is an absolute complete nonsense. Mostly, these things are written by people who aren’t working in the creative department. They are usually written by the people who are trying to manage the process. And, as I say in my book, the word ‘manage’ is always used by management people and it is what they do. Whereas, creative people are trying to liberate the process and come to solutions that you would never have expected but that could transform a client’s fortunes.

CR: You mention ‘tissue meetings’ and how they are becoming increasingly important. Could you talk a bit about what they are for and why they have become more popular, I suppose?

We live in an incredibly competitive market now. Therefore any creative company is trying to say to a client, ‘Oh, when you work with us it is a very special involving process and we collaborate with you and we get it…”. And, of course clients in a way love to hear that. They don’t like to hear ‘I am going to brief these lunatics and in five weeks or four weeks or two weeks or whatever it is they are going to come back with something that is going to transform my business’. They want to understand the process more, to be a part of the process.

Therefore, this whole sort of act of tissue meetings has grown in our industry because more clients are exposed to it. It makes them feel comfortable. But, you know, my job isn’t to make the client feel comfortable. My job – as a creative director, if that is what you are doing – is to create work that actually transforms this person’s business. And, they may not be comfortable with what they’ve got to do: business decisions take bravery. You know, you have to do brave things. And, you have to stand up and get noticed. You have to stand up and do things that everybody goes, ‘My god, why are we doing this?’. But, if you take bravery out of it you become safe and in becoming safe you begin to diminish your ability to transform your business.

So, we are actually, in a way, killing the ability for a client to buy outstanding work that is going to transform their business. That is why today the work isn’t as great as it used to be. And, that is not my opinion, by the way. That is the opinion of the audience we talk to. There is constant research being done that shows that advertising today, that the work being produced, isn’t as good as it used to be.

CR: There is a sense that – as you were saying earlier – that involving clients more in the process is a helpful thing. Could you expand a little bit on where you think collaboration could work and where it doesn’t work?

I think the word collaboration is bandied around in our industry today and I always get a slight shudder when I hear that word. But on the other hand, we have got to understand what we mean by that word. You know, one has always collaborated. You have an idea and then you collaborate with a huge number of people [to make it]. You collaborate with the client. You know, ‘This is the idea’, you bring the client into it: ‘This is the idea, this is what I want to do, this is how I want to do it.’ You get them part of the process because you want them to, not only buy the idea, but actually feed it into the rest of the company so that it is as effective as it possibly can be.

But I think there is a danger too that some people are sort of interpreting this word as being a way of actually creating ideas: that we all collaborate. We all sit in a room and somehow, instead of having one person or two people in the room, we have five people in the room and isn’t that better than having just two people in a room? This is when it all collapses and falls apart. I think one of the big management consultancies has come out and said, brainstorm sessions are a complete waste of time.

There is absolutely no evidence, none whatsoever, of a brainstorm session ever coming out with a great idea. I say this at talks I give. I ask the audience, I always say, ‘Can you give me one great idea that came out of a brainstorm session?’ I get complete silence. In that silence, I could probably list at least 50 ideas that have come out of the mind of a person or two people together: from Harry Potter to great movies, to great paintings, to great books to thinking. That is what we are about.

I think collaboration is crucially important when you have got an idea. ‘How do I bring this idea to life?’. And, I think we have misunderstood it. And, of course clients want to use this because they feel they are being more in control. That is what it is all about. And, in a way, you have got to just accept sometimes that you’ve got to let go. You’ve got to let go and actually that is exciting. It’s exciting because you don’t know where it is going to lead to. You don’t know where it is going to land. And that is, in a sense, what business has got to do. And, if you lose that, you lose the possibility of really creating something that could transform your company.


Sir John Hegarty will share more insights on Creative Review’s online training programme, Mastering Creativity. 

LEARN MORE ABOUT MASTERING CREATIVITY 

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