An evening with Sir Hegs

Last Thursday I had the great pleasure of spending an evening at The Groucho Club in the company of Sir John Hegarty (I know! Who stuffed me into a Delorean and sent me back to 1985? Well, it was Lisa Batty of IPC magazines. She organises a book club and last week’s was John Hegarty’s).

John spoke and we listened and asked questions and drank booze and ate those mini hamburgers that don’t have any calories. Here are the best bits of wisdom I can recall:

When John was at art school his teacher said that when a picture wasn’t working the worst thing you could do was give up, turn the page and start again. You had to keep at it until the picture worked. The teacher then paused and said, ‘I suppose I’m also talking about life’. That’s a great lesson. Most of What Sir John said came down to the message ‘Never, ever, ever give up’, and that story was a brilliant illustration of why you shouldn’t.

When he was taking tennis lessons he had real trouble getting his backhand right. He could swing a mean forehand but no matter what he did he couldn’t get his backhand going. Then one day he hit a perfect one: great position, smooth shot, right down the line, at which point his teacher said, ‘Right, we shall now move on to the overhead smash’, to which John replied, ‘Hang on, I’ve only hit one good backhand.’ His teacher turned around and said, ‘If you can do one, you can do a thousand. We shall now move on to the overhead smash’. The point is to have belief. Like a lot of creative people, John had a sneaking suspicion that he only had a finite store of, say, 500 good ideas, which would eventually run out. But they don’t run out. If you can have one, you can have 1000.

Then he told a story about this Levi’s ad:

Apparently, the original music for this was ‘It’s A Man’s World’ by James Brown, but when it was laid to picture it made the male model look like a really bad actor. The thing was, John just thought the performance was crap and nothing could be done about it, but then someone found out that an ad in Belgium was using that song (the Levi’s ad was due to run in Belgium) so they had to try another one, which ended up being Mannish Boy by Muddy Waters, a track that looks like the entire ad was choreographed to match. So brilliance can come from the most unexpected places, particularly when you’re working with film, which always relies on the existence of a bit of magic that you can never fully control.

There was much other great wisdom, although we disagreed on (or never quite explored) the issue of creatives no longer making a name for themselves as they used to in the days of Tom and Walt, Steve and Vic, John and Nick etc. I suggested that as creatives were not given the opportunities to be as famous today (for many reasons I’ve explored in past posts) other methods could be used to gain that notoriety, including blogs such as this. John quite reasonably argued that it should be the work that makes you famous. I agree, but these days it just doesn’t happen, so when the world zigs, zag (I can’t remember who said that). You could knock it out of the park like Cabral, but there hasn’t been one of those since his last good ad (five years ago!). The odds are stacked against us. Get your advantage where you can. It’s worked for me and Trotty.

But thanks a million John, for the amazing career of great ads (so far) and being truly inspirational and very pleasant company.