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Legends Sir John Hegarty and Partha Sinha share thoughts on the future of media advertising

By Shelley Seale


Austin, Texas, USA


A good advertising agency tries to find human solutions to business problems, according to Partha Sinha. The president of The Times of India Group joined another legend of the advertising world, Sir John Hegarty, for an exclusive, live interview for INMA members on Wednesday, during which they discussed today’s advertising market and how it will affect media companies in the future.

“A problem can be brought into the human level to find a solution, which is rooted in human culture, human emotions. That attracted me a lot,” Sinha said in explanation of how he was drawn to the advertising industry.

For Hegarty, the path to advertising was a bit different. The founding shareholder of Saatchi & Saatchi, co-founder of global agency TBWA, and current co-founder of investment management company The Garage Soho, started off in art school.

“I thought I was going to be the next Picasso,” he told INMA. “But I was rapidly informed that I was probably not going to be the next Picasso.”

The artist in him had a lot of ideas, however. 

“I was very good at having ideas. I loved playing around with them,” he said. “So I was advised to go to design school.”

Hegarty moved to the London College of Printing (now London College of Communications), where he met designer and writer John Gillard, who introduced him to the advertising work coming out of New York.

“For me, it was like a light being thrown on in a darkened room,” he said. “And it was all about ideas — ideas that were funny, smart, witty, but inclusive, and that was the great skill. So I rapidly created an advertising portfolio and got a job in advertising. I’ve never regretted it.”

INMA Executive Producer Mark Challinor went on to pose some questions to these two advertising legends.

Mark Challinor, Sir John Hegarty, and Partha Sinha discuss the future of advertising in an INMA Webinar.
Mark Challinor, Sir John Hegarty, and Partha Sinha discuss the future of advertising in an INMA Webinar.

INMA: What are your thoughts about what we’ve seen over the past year with COVID? Have you been shocked by the scope of it and the decline in the advertising market?

Hegarty: It’s seen a decline in what I would call broadcast advertising and investment in brand-building ideas. We’ve seen a further shift to social media, a further shift to what I call promotion rather than persuasion, and I think you need both. It’s hit agencies I think quite hard.

I’m committed to remaining an optimist, and I think it will kind of balance itself out when we come out of it, when brands realise that persuasion is also part of brand building.

Sinha: There is only one thing that will make the economy work again, which is we need to start a virtuous cycle of demand. Once people have money in their hands then demand happens, manufacturing happens. Advertising still plays a very critical role in demand generation.

There are two things that stimulate demand. One is advertising and another is distribution. Many times what happens is the idea of distribution gets very close to the idea of advertising and people tend to mistake it for what John was referring to as promotion. Promotion is very here-and-now and distribution-led, whereas persuasion is far more the core of advertising. Persuasion still plays a critical role; persuasion still allows people to choose from one brand to another.

What has happened during COVID is many people, for the first time, had the time and mind-space to do something they hadn’t done for a long time — which is thinking. And once people start thinking, the power of persuasion becomes far more important.

So what I’m saying is that advertising will come back. We’re seeing that people who were away from broadcast advertising are coming back because they are realising it is very important to create an argument before you ask people to just pick it up. We will see demand coming back the minute the economy gets a little bit of a positive spin.

INMA: Many people look at print as something that’s dying or already dead. But isn’t it all about creativity?

Hegarty: Yes, but I think it’s more than that. If I was promoting print, what I would be promoting is the core of every brand: trust. What do you mean by a brand? Trust. You can trust that this does what it says. That’s the core of advertising.

Sir John Hegarty talks about the importance of trust in advertising and brands.
Sir John Hegarty talks about the importance of trust in advertising and brands.

I would look at print and I would go: What you read in print you can trust. What you read on social media, you can’t trust. If I were promoting print, I would be doing a whole campaign [on the trust factor of print]. I would have a whole campaign around legal, decent, honest, and truthful. You would only accept brands that had to be absolutely truthful in what they said, and I would build this sense of trust in print. Once you do that, creativity sits on top of it.

Sinha: I think because of what we went through in the last 12 months, the whole idea of credibility has taken on a whole new meaning. Veracity, or the lack of it, was kind of cute when you talked about things like a football match. But when it started affecting your whole life, you realise the importance of veracity. 

The idea of contributed content is brilliant, but I think it’s a dangerous thing to have consumer-generated news. So what has happened with print is the idea of credibility has come back by a big amount.

INMA: How do you think we drive creativity in print?

Sinha: I think creativity in print is kind of the cornerstone of communication because the environment that a print ad comes in is where you are thinking, you are forming opinion, it is part of conscious-building. When your mindset is like that, what comes in a print ad would have to garner all that creativity to create an argument in your head. 

I’m hearing a lot of “data is the new currency,” and creativity need not be the only source because with data we can reach people in such a precise manner. 

The nature of the question itself has changed. Previously, for a media campaign, the question used to be: How many people have seen my ad? Now the question is: What has my ad done? What impact did it have? So in that case, it’s not just about how precise is your reach and how precise the number of people you have targeted and have gotten to. It’s also about how much of your business you can attribute to the communication.

Hegarty: Your creativity comes from within you. It’s about you, and it speaks to your beliefs. And when you do that, it defines you as well. That’s the power of creativity.

I have a very simple diagram. I start with a triangle, and I say, this is all communications. At the top of that triangle is: Does it stop you — is it memorable? Just put memorable down. Because if I haven’t done something that’s memorable, then forget it.

All communications should be three things, Sir John Hegarty said: Memorable, motivating, truthful.
All communications should be three things, Sir John Hegarty said: Memorable, motivating, truthful.

At the other tip of the triangle you put, is it motivating? Now that I’ve stopped you, I’m now motivating you. And at the third point of the triangle, is it truthful? 

Because I’m actually trying to build a long-term relationship, a relationship that’s going to go on and build over time. That is my definition of how creativity works. You can actually apply that to architecture, to writing, to a painting. Is it memorable, is it motivating, is it truthful? 

INMA: What’s your view of branded content? And do you think the traditional publisher-agency-advertiser model is broken?

Hegarty: I’ve never been a fan of branded content. I can see why people do it. Believe it or not, advertising has an honesty about it because you know it’s an ad. It’s not trying to fool you that it’s something else. I think at the core of branded content is an attempt to try and get you to believe that this isn’t an ad. And I think that’s distrustful, and therefore I’ve never particularly liked it. It might work in the short-term, but I don’t think it works in the long-term.

As far as people building their own agencies within their companies, I think it’s fine. If that’s what you want to do, why not? I don’t think it’s necessarily going to be as exciting as working with an outside group of people who can be more objective and can challenge you.

Sinha: On the branded content, I completely agree with John. I have a slightly provocative point of view on that. I think it cuts both ways. On one hand, your brand could be on one side of an argument and therefore build opinion. That is one type of branded content where I think the brand has a role to play.

Partha Sinha discusses branded content and how it can be used appropriately or not.
Partha Sinha discusses branded content and how it can be used appropriately or not.

But when the content is kind of cleverly disguised as branded content, that is where the problem starts. It actually starts from a sense of mistrust, and many times when the audience figures it out, I think there’s a very high chance of rejection. 

INMA: What do you think the advertising trends are going forward?

Hegarty: I’ve learned never to try and predict the future. Principles remain, but practices change. The fundamental principles of communication will remain the same. They have been misplaced, I believe, over the past 15 or so years, but I think the principles of persuasion at some level and promotion at some level, and the duopoly of those two things, is fundamentally important.

Sinha: I think as long as the principles of engagement remain the same, the forms can keep on changing. Of course mobile will have a very significant role to play. But will it also be true to the nature of engagement? I think that is where the truth will lie. So podcasts will become big, but how much of advertising will be podcastable? Big question to ask. Advertising forms haven’t changed, they have just transported themselves.

About Shelley Seale

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