26 Jun 2012

Entrepreneur profile: Sir John Hegarty

Sir John Hegarty is co-founder and creative director of global advertising agency BBH. Here he explains why the crucial aspect of success for Britain as a nation of entrepreneurs should be irreverence. It’s the characteristic that he says makes successful entrepreneurs zig when the world is zagging

Hegarty is a legend in the advertising sector. He was instrumental in the creation of industry giants such as Saatchi & Saatchi, TBWA and BBH. He has created award-winning advertising for Levi's (including the famous series of 501 advertisements), Audi and Pepsi.

And without arrogance he says he was always confident his career would be a success. “I was certain I would succeed from early on,” he says. “I knew this was something I was good at and that I would succeed because I always had lots of good ideas. I knew the industry was about ideas. And I instinctively understood when something was really good.”

It’s the irreverence in us that inspired the great entrepreneurs

Sir John Hegarty

There are two powerhouses in global advertising – the UK and the US. And with long experience of both, Sir John knows what he’s talking about when he suggests that Britain’s enterprise culture could learn from America. “In America they have the American Dream. It worked because they were building a nation. The idea resonated because poor and starving people were coming from all over the world to a country where someone said, ‘Here’s the American dream’. The phrase became a flag in the ground.”

Question time

Hegarty claims there could be a similar rallying point in the UK now around ideas, innovation, creativity and – crucially – the concept of irreverence. This is the idea of looking at a situation and asking why things have to be done the way they always have been.  

“If you go back in our history and culture, you’ll find that concept of British irreverence. It’s the thing we are best at. How else did this little country conquer the world? It’s the irreverence in us that inspired the great entrepreneurs. It’s what drives someone today to say, ‘I’m going to do this and I don’t care what you say.’” 

The British, he suggests, love laughing at and challenging stuff. “The point of irreverence – and why it’s so powerful – is because it means questioning and not accepting the status quo. It’s why the Mini was such a success, because Sir Alec Issigonis (who designed it) realised that if he turned the engine sideways he could make the car smaller but the inside would be bigger. It’s irreverence to ask why and the confidence to do things differently.”

Why, oh why?

Sir John insists this ability to think differently is essential to the success of British enterprise. The most important question anyone can ask, he suggests, is “why?”. But the best people at asking why are always outsiders. And this celebration of the gifted outsider is another aspect of Britain’s entrepreneurial culture. “That idea of being on the outside and changing things on the inside is something we have always celebrated. The entrepreneur is a natural part of that. That’s partly why the Industrial Revolution started here. There was something in our psyche that did it. Lots of other countries had coal and so on. We have always rewarded and accepted people who come from the outside and who can change things. ”

Moreover, this irreverence is a force for good in our society, because it constantly challenges. “With a licence to do things differently, we can do things better. It’s what drives people like Vivienne Westwood and drove Alexander McQueen.”

While there is a big streak of irreverence at the heart of British enterprise, Sir John adds that there is also an inherent fear of failure holding us back. “We have got to encourage the idea that failure is not something to be worried about," he says. "The great thing about America is they don’t worry about it. Failing there is like walking, you just do it and then do something else. If that fails you do something else until eventually something works.”

Vision on

Sir John is adamant that promoting Britain and a British vision is important. “Countries matter because they are brands,” he says. “They have logos. We have the Union Flag and America has the Stars and Stripes. The Union Flag is such a brilliant device. People buy into national characteristics. We buy German cars because we think the Germans know how to design and engineer a brilliant car. National characteristics are increasingly important in a homogenised world and they will become more important.”

Sir John is clear that his success has required plenty of hard work. “It is important to remember life is a marathon and not a sprint. Too many people give up too early if something isn’t working. When we set up TBWA we went into the wilderness for a while. It failed to start with and we had to stick at it to make it work.”

This reminds him of the best advice he ever received. It came at art school. “One day the teacher stopped the class and said, ‘When a drawing is going wrong don’t just turn the page and start again. Keep working at that same drawing until it is right. Once it’s right, then you can turn the page over’.” 

Sir John says this is more important advice than ever. “You have to keep working until you can turn a dream into reality. You have to be irreverent and go against the current belief. If the current belief is pointing in one direction then look the other way. We say when the world zigs, you should zag.”


Richard Cree