"I don't like associating with liars, either as brands or as people. I think we've forgotten that. I think society as a whole is underestimating that and I think it is to our cost."
That's the view of ad industry grandee Sir John Hegarty, who is worried about the truth being seen as a "negotiable concept" in marketing and society at large.
In the final episode of the Making Sense of it All video series, Hegarty tells Crater Lake & Co's Hilary Woods that effective communication is based on a source of truth. That truth is essential for brands to build long-term relationships with people, no matter how the digital ecosystem is disrupting advertising and media.
Hegarty cites Marmite's "you either love it or hate it" messaging as a prime example of how effective truth-based marketing is, but laments that this has now been forgotten in the industry and within society.
"We know fake news and we know that that's a phenomenon that's occurring anyway. We have a prime minister who is an inveterate liar and yet people carry on supporting him and voting for him," Hegarty says.
"So I think because advertising is a part of society, you can look at it and say we are a society, I believe, in crisis. In crisis because the democratic process is one which recognises the truth more rapidly than any other process, that's its big advantage. Otherwise you might as well have a dictatorship."
Sir John Hegarty, co-founded the ad agency BBH and is a thought leader for the creative industries and the business world. He is also co-founder of The Garage Soho, is an early-stage investment company helping young entrepreneurs get their ideas off the ground with both money and brand advice.
Making Sense of it All is a weekly video interview series by Mediatel News in association with Crater Lake & Co. Each Tuesday, we publish interviews with the industry's most thought-provoking marketers, agency executives and research thinkers to find out how people working in media can make sense of this ever more complicated and fragmented ecosystem.
HILARY WOODS: So, John, as someone very very experienced in the business you obviously have a lot of experience of 'making sense of it all', so how do you go about it?
SIR JOHN HEGARTY: Well, I have a phrase which is, "principles remain and practices change". I try and get people to understand that the whole of the marketing ecosystem has undergone fundamental change but the principles of marketing remain absolutely the same.
I think the problem is today we seem to have forgotten the fundamental principles are as they always were, and always will be, by the way. But, of course, the means by which you can communicate, the means by which you can talk to people, has changed fundamentally.
I suppose I look at it in the round and I try and remind people that the most powerful strategy any advertiser can employ is the truth.
Now, that's always surprising to people because they sometimes think that the job of advertising is to disguise the truth, to hide it, to fabricate it, to create something that's a sort of a camouflage of the real facts. Well, it's not.
The most successful advertising; the most successful brands have been those that have employed the truth over the last 40, 50, 60 years.
But we seem to have reached a stage when the truth is a negotiatable concept and I suppose I'm talking about the wider world as well as the world of advertising.
I've always felt the world of advertising encapsulates the wider world. One, because it uses the influences of the wider world, but of course your brand, your company is trying to be a part of culture and that's what makes it powerful and important. It elevates the importance of that particular product or service so we have a situation whereby people feel that the truth isn't necessarily an ingredient in a successful marketing campaign, whereas it is an absolute fundamental. I try and explain that to people.
My communication is triangle. I've always believed in the power of three (it seemed to work for God – maybe it could work for us as well!) and it's very simple: a triangle is one of the strongest structures you can ever create.
At the top of the triangle, it says "is it memorable?" Because obviously if you're talking to people, if they can't remember your communication, then go home now pack up and do something else.
One end of that triangle is then "is it motivating?" I stopped you; now, having stopped you, am i saying something that is motivating? That is going to make you consider, think about the point I've made and your opinions.
And, at the other end of that triangle, the third point of the triangle: "is it truthful?" because actually I'm trying to build a long-term relationship and I think, as we all know, as in life as in brand building, you don't build long-term relationships by lying; you build them by being trusted and being truthful.
So that triangle creates the basis of what all communication should be about.
Except, we seem to have forgotten the truthful part of it and of course the truth is a very powerful force. One, you can always remember it; it's disarming as long as you've communicated in a way which is interesting distinctive funny, witty, smart, clever whatever. You will have a very very successful campaign.
But, as I said, we see now with the advent of digital technology and social media that somehow the truth is not really a relevant factor anymore. I think that's something that is going to be paid heavily for by brands and going to be paid heavily for by social media companies .
The thing I would also say: as I think there is a moral malaise at the heart of so many things today, even though I talk about truth as the foundation of any great marketing campaign, we have a situation where Volkswagen cheats on emissions control and undermine the value of that brand.
We have a situation where technology companies think it's not their job to pay taxes; they find every loophole they can. There is no moral, in their view, there is no moral obligation to pay taxes. They aren't responsible. Yet of course they benefit from everything that everybody else is doing and they don't see that. They see no conflict because profit has been elevated to a status beyond anything else rather than, are we benefiting society as a whole.
The greatest advertising, the advertising that commands respect and, funnily enough and the irony is of course, Volkswagen was built on the truth – it was built on a piece of advertising back in the 60s said "it's ugly but it works". It disarmed people and they built an amazing organisation around that.
Today we have Marmite who have elevated the status of a yeast spread to a cultural phenomenon by saying "well, some people love it, some people hate it" – a genuine truth, extrapolated and articulated in a way which makes us laugh and makes us smile and we now have a phrase called "that person's a bit marmite".
That power to do that is fundamentally important but it's something that has been forgotten and i think it's also within society as a whole.
We know fake news and we know that that's a phenomenon that's occurring anyway. We have a prime minister who is an inveterate liar and yet people carry on supporting him and voting for him.
So I think because advertising is a part of society, you can look at it and say we are a society, I believe, in crisis. In crisis because the democratic process is one which recognises the truth more rapidly than any other process, that's its big advantage. Otherwise you might as well have a dictatorship.
As soon as we malign the truth, as soon as we say it has less value then the values within society recede, as they recede within a brand, you are not building a long-term relationship. So I look at the truth as a powerful force and one which we've got to rediscover, which sounds rather bizarre to say this and make people understand how beneficial it is to a great company and a great piece of advertising.
WOODS: Do you have any advice for people, how they might go about finding their own truths or any strategies for for doing that?
HEGARTY: It's about being honest. Nobody's going to set up a a company going 'it's 100% positive'. Everybody knows there are defects within things, everybody knows that. It isn't absolutely 100% right, it's a it's a matter of if you look at other examples of advertising the truth has to have a benefit in it.
I'm not saying "just tell the truth" because you know that's good, I'm saying look for a truth that has a benefit. It might not be an obvious benefit but it is a benefit.
I think Marmite was a wonderful example of that. They said there was a reality out there that, where people either hated it or loved it, and they said we're going to take that truth and turn it into a very powerful, formidable campaign. So you're looking for things like that.
Oatly, which i think is a very interesting brand, now just IPO-ed in the States for $10bn – it's bloody oat milk! But they were very honest in how they talked to the consumer, the audience. They were very honest in it and they talked in a very fresh way and that honesty came across. It was completely through-the-line for everything they did and it created a powerful brand, one that you want to associate with.
I don't like associating with liars, either as brands or as people. I think we've forgotten that. I think society as a whole is underestimating that and I think it is to our cost.
WOODS: So how you 'make sense of it all' is always to search for a truth with a benefit? -
HEGARTY: Absolutely. That is the core strategy that you go for: what is it about this that actually will capture people's imagination, that's founded on a truth. And that way you will create something that, at least out of those three points, you're beginning to build a long-term relationship.