Hegarty on Soho, sacrifice and the secret of life

Hegarty chairs SohoCreate, which champions London's creative hub.
Hegarty chairs SohoCreate, which champions London's creative hub.

Quite a bit has changed since Sir John Hegarty started out in the business, but the spiritual home of UK advertising and birthplace of BBH remains the source of his creative inspiration, he tells Kate Magee

LONDON — "Life is not fair," Sir John Hegarty says emphatically. "But the secret of life is to look at what you’ve got that somebody else hasn’t. If you are always envious of other people, then you’ll never succeed."

We are meant to be discussing his involvement in the SohoCreate festival but have strayed way off topic.

Quite how we got here is a mystery but that’s also the joy of a conversation with the lively, charismatic co-founder of Bartle Bogle Hegarty.

His speech is peppered with jokes – "I’m buffering," he says at a rare time the right word has escaped him. Later, he quips that the East London hipsters "all look like baristas. I just want to go up and ask them for a double espresso."

He could never be accused of being an equivocator. His opinions come thick and fast and it’s utterly refreshing, although some look pretty stark when written down, stripped of his charming delivery. Young people need to "get a grip," and politicians "have very limited imaginations."

But it’s admirable to find that someone who says he looks for a creative spark and likes a challenge actively seeks out those things himself. "Keep going, it’s very interesting," he encourages during one particularly heated exchange.

Hegarty will host several events in his role as the chairman of SohoCreate, which champions the "most creative square mile in the world" and celebrates its contribution to the creative industries.

Despite having spent most of his career in the area, he still gets a "lovely feeling" when crossing into the district. "You have this sense of release, the sense that anything can happen. This is a place where you can genuinely be who you want to be. I think that’s brilliant," Hegarty says.

Soho is steeped in creative history. A place that misfits, rebels and outsiders have called home for hundreds of years and that is known for its tolerance and irreverence.

"It’s always been a place for the outcasts. It has a history of rebellion. I think that’s brilliant in terms of a creative environment because you are always challenging the status quo," Hegarty says.

Soho’s strength is the breadth of creative skills it houses. Hegarty thinks there’s something "magical" about that interaction. It’s no surprise, then, that he picked Soho as the birthplace of BBH.

He says: "I remember, in the '70s and '80s, there were lots of agencies that wouldn’t come to Soho because it was all a bit seedy but we loved it. We loved the energy on the streets; we felt it. But big corporate companies don’t like that. They want respectability. But respectability dulls creativity."

Hegarty believes the location of an agency is an important positioning statement and is dismissive of the agencies that are moving out from the center to places such as the South Bank: "They are all big, corporate, boring companies and they are going down there because the rents are cheap.

"If you are a company, that’s a very dangerous practice to follow. Agencies are defined by where they are."

He seems to have forgotten that BBH is as big and corporate in some respects now as any other agency, but it remains a valid point. So what impact does environment really have on creativity? Surely an individual can be very creative but still work in Mayfair? "Of course you can," Hegarty answers, "but I think it will make it harder. Building a great creative company and maintaining creativity is very, very difficult, especially in our industry where you have to come in every day and have a new idea. So don’t put barriers in the way. A bland environment creates bland thinking."

It’s no secret that London is choking on its own affluence. Much of the city — including Soho – is being turned into luxury flats. Hegarty points to Centrepoint, which has been converted into apartments: "I guarantee you the top 20 floors are going to be sold to overseas buyers. It’s ridiculous – the council should have fought it. We Londoners have invested in Crossrail to make it easier for people who come into the center, not for people who have just flown into Heathrow. We’ve got to protect London for the people who live here and contribute over a lifetime to its well-being."

But the man who says he is "cursed as an optimist" believes that Soho will retain its creative edge because it does not have large buildings or streets. "Corporations want large spaces with power over the plan, so they can put bland desks in, with bland people, doing bland jobs, because they are about process, not innovation. Soho doesn’t suit them so they leave it to small creative businesses to flourish and be nurtured," he says.

Hegarty’s own creativity was nurtured at the age of 14, when he was the beneficiary of a free council-run program to attend Hornsey College of Art on Saturdays. It was his first real exposure to a creative environment: "Being asked ‘What do you think?’ – and not being told what to think – was like, ‘Wow! Somebody is talking to me as though I’m a human being and have a point of view.' "

That feeling of being free to express himself had a profound effect on his life. Hegarty believes others should have the same opportunity and praises Sir John Sorrell’s campaign to open art schools in deprived areas on Saturdays. But he has much less sympathy for a younger generation that, according to Noreena Hertz’s research, is fear-driven and anxious.

Hegarty says: "I grew up believing the world was going to end in four minutes. Nuclear war was a constant threat. But we lived with it. People forget that. If your biggest anxiety is that you might not be able to get a flat in Shoreditch, then you need to get a grip."

Equally, Hegarty believes people should understand that the world is not fair and use this to their advantage. "I agree it is easier if you’ve got money but then you don’t have the hunger. Work with what you’ve got," he says.

The conversation strays on to the subject of women in the industry. The agency Hegarty founded now has a good record of supporting and promoting women, with senior executives including Mel Exon, Rosie Arnold and Caroline Pay.

"You’ve got to do as much as you can to encourage women as we do at BBH. We do everything that we possibly can," Hegarty says. But he is adamant about one thing: "There is no glass ceiling in our industry."

Although Hegarty says it is a predominantly white, middle-class, masculine industry and suffers because of it, he is "constantly bemused" by why that is: "It didn’t set out to be that. It’s the most egalitarian industry in the world. We don’t care who you are. Are you good? Are you entrepreneurial? Have you got an interesting mind? Come on in."

As Hegarty sees it, the biggest problem is women taking career breaks to have children, then struggling to rejoin an industry that has moved on: "It’s very, very hard, and I sympathize with that enormously. Of course we should be doing everything we can to help. But the thing about a creative career is that, if you are not doing it every day, you are not getting better every day. It’s like a sports person. If you are 24 years old and a tennis player, you can’t take a year off; you’ve lost the momentum. You can’t accuse our hugely competitive industry of being competitive."

But surely he thinks it’s unfair for women to have to take the hit on their careers to bring up children?

Hegarty says: "What are you going to do about it? On average, men live a shorter amount of time than women. That’s really unfair. I think we should make that an issue. Maybe that’s the price I’ve paid for doing the work I’ve done, and building the companies I’ve built, and pro­viding for my family: I don’t live as long."

It’s hard to tell whether he is being mischievous or deadly serious. But he continues: "We have to talk about this. In life, you can’t have it all and you have to make choices. Be aware of those choices. Life has sacrifice in it. My parents’ generation went to war so I could go to school. You have to accept what you are and the decisions you make."

Hegarty is still inspired by walking around the streets of Soho: "There are incredible things going on if you just look around you." But he also believes that, as a creative person, you have to constantly challenge yourself or you’ll have a very short career.

It’s also a way of dealing with the inevitable pressure that comes with being fêted as a great creative.

It is why he thinks Picasso – who adopted a different style of painting (Cubism) at the height of his career – is such a great artist: he had the courage to try something different.

Sitting in the heart of Soho, getting his new incubator business off the ground and working on a project with Richard Curtis and the United Nations, it is easy to see why Hegarty is still "constantly excited by the world we live in".

Life may be unfair, but Hegarty is making the most of his lot.

This article first appeared on campaignlive.co.uk.

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