“I think it’s quite hard to break new ground, I mean… blimey!” says Sir John Hegarty a week and a half before Cannes Lions festival begins in earnest. We’re talking about the Titanium category that he’s set to chair and the challenges of meeting the high standards of the award created by Dan Wieden in 2003. “What we want is more effective work, not always work that’s breaking new ground. But I do think that in this world when you’ve got so many possibilities to communicate and we’ve got the technology to do that, finding those who are communicating outside the conventions of the communication industry is, I think, important and that’s what Titanium is all about.”
When we meet, he’s in the middle of the pre-judging phase and while he’s got some way to go and days of deliberations ahead of him in Cannes, a lot of what he’s seen so far is not necessarily the courageous brand thinking he was hoping for. Instead, he notes, there's a focus on exploiting and exploring new channels.
“In some ways – and it’s important that I put ‘in some ways’ in front of it – what the digital developments have done is to make what we used to call ‘below-the-line advertising’ quite sexy because of the technology involved. The tragedy of the whole thing is that there’s very little brand thinking. I keep saying ‘principles remain, practices change’, I try to get people to understand that,” he says.
He’s certainly no technophobe and is alive to the exhilarating possibilities offered by new platforms, channels and technological innovations… but he cautions that the industry may be losing its head when it comes to true creativity and purpose. “I keep saying this is an incredibly exciting time to be in the industry nowadays because of what you can now do… but sadly we have lost our compass in terms of ‘what should I be doing?’. So you’ve got people just doing stuff that you think is a complete waste of time but millions of Pounds, Dollars, Euros have been poured into it because people think it’s new, sexy and exciting.”¬
In the wider context of the advertising industry generally, he fears that creativity is being undervalued and squeezed, which in turn leads to an output that is less effective and valuable. “Technology enables opportunity but it’s creativity that creates value,” he says.
And widening the perspective even further, he suggests that the sorry state of the global economy, specifically in the West, is symptomatic of an industry that isn’t doing what it’s supposed to. In particular, bland pan-global strategies and campaigns have failed to touch people.
“I’m increasingly developing the view that a large percentage of global work just does not work because it’s not touching people anymore,” says Sir John, pointing to his experience with the beer market as chairman of craft brand Camden Town Brewery which sold to AB InBev in December. “It was interesting because in the UK overall beer sales are declining and yet all these craft breweries were popping up and their business was booming. And why is that? Because they were creating products and brands that were genuinely talking to people, that they felt part of.
“There is a big question here that global advertising just is not working. Isn’t it amazing that with all this advertising and development of communication and the efficiency of it that global growth rates are so low? I thought part of advertising’s job was to drive growth rates. I thought that was partly what we were about; not just being competitive but driving growth rates. Then why is it that growth rates throughout the western world are so low? Something’s wrong and no one’s asking that question.”
It’s something that he hopes will be raised in the Palais and along the Croisette during Cannes. “With all this incredible technology we were told 20 years ago that the digital revolution was going to transform economies. But where are the growth rates? They’re just not there. The only growth rates we had were manipulated through financial mismanagement and they all came crashing down. Someone at Cannes should be asking that. I think there’s actually a lack of creativity. We’ve got this obsession with technology and not enough of an obsession with creativity.”