Sir John Hegarty


Sir John Hegarty, and partners John Bartle and Nigel Bogle, started Bartle Bogle Hegarty (BBH) in 1982. It became one of the most talked about and awarded advertising agencies ever, achieving success through creativity, but also by its integrity. For the past 20 years the agency has given 1% of UK profits to charity.

John was awarded a knighthood by the Queen in 2007 in recognition for his services to the advertising and creative industries. He now plays a central role in the global advertising scene and sits on the advisory board of the VCU Brandcenter in the US and is a board member of the Design Museum in the UK. In his personal capacity, John has supported many charitable organisations.

What prompted you to become a philanthropist?

Well, I don’t really think of myself as a philanthropist; it sounds a rather grandiose title and as if I have made a career move – ‘I was once a creative director and now I’m a philanthropist’, which is not the case. Early on in my career, I asked someone who very kindly supported me what I could do to repay them; they said ‘Just pass it on John’. This stuck in my brain and when I found myself in a situation that I had enough money to do something significant, I felt it was my responsibility to pass it on. I don’t think of it as philanthropy – I think of it as what I should be doing. It’s a necessity, not an act of generosity.

Do you remember the first significant donation you made?

I think it was to the Big Issue. I met John Bird, who is a wonderfully charismatic individual, and I loved what he was doing and his line about ‘it’s a hand up not a hand out’. There was positivity to what he was doing and it was exciting that people [the homeless] were getting involved in their own rehabilitation. I was an early supporter of the organisation and still support it.

What is the focus of your philanthropy?

It’s a bit unfocused – I should perhaps have a greater focus to it.  I am a Londoner and things that relate to London are things that I have engaged with, as in the case of the Big Issue. And then there’s the creative industry: I support the School of Communication Arts, which is very important, and obviously my work with the Design Museum. I give my time and expertise to the organisations I support – I don’t just write a cheque. 


I don't think of it as philanthropy - I think of it as what I should be doing. It's a necessity, not an act of generosity.

How did you get involved in the Design Museum?

A long time ago – about 1997 – Terence Conran asked me to become a trustee. I have always been passionate about design and creativity for obvious reasons. I stepped down as a trustee when I moved to the States and Terence invited me to rejoin when I came back in 2001, which I did.

Design as a subject is a bit sidelined by other great museums, and getting people to take it more seriously is very important as it touches our everyday lives. It’s not just about making things look nice, but about making them function better, how they are made – it touches so many aspects of our economy, right down to manufacturing.

When you are involved in anything like the Design Museum, you can’t stand still. We have a plan for the Museum to move from Shad Thames to Kensington. We’ve always had a desire to get the population at large engaged with design, so we had to be in even bigger and better premises and the Commonwealth building that had been lying empty became available. We had to raise £80m for the new location. We got a huge chunk of money from the Terence Conran Foundation and when we [BBH] made our final sale to Publicis I thought I must do something with the money to support something cultural, so I made a donation too. I have also helped raise funds for the Museum as a member of its Development Committee. We’re building something that will be there in perpetuity, that people from all over the world can come to and be influenced by British creativity – so legacy is very important. 

How important is philanthropy in supporting design, arts and culture?

I feel very privileged to be able to support this field – that I’ve been able to earn the money I’ve earned and that I can look to hand it on to organisations that are trying to develop our cultural life and creative awareness. Cultural institutions play such an important part of our lives, not just in functional terms, but in a spiritual way as well. I find going to a museum a spiritual as well as an educational experience. I feel good when I have come out of it, I find the atmosphere uplifting.

In our industry [the creative industry] there is also self interest – the more we promote London as a creative capital, the more it benefits our industry, so you could argue it [philanthropy in this field] on purely commercial terms.

Are your family involved in your philanthropy?

No, it’s just me. I have two children who are making their own way in the world, but hopefully they will learn from what I have done, and when they have money they will do the same. It’s important they are aware of it [the donations I make] and that I pass on that sense of responsibility. You have to share your success with the rest of society as much as you can. We as a society have huge debates now about wealth, how much people have got, the disparity of wealth – and I think more has to be done by people with money. 


Do interesting things and interesting things will happen to you.

Do you have any specific expectations of organisations you support, for example, in terms of how they report to you?

No I don’t. I want them to be organisations that speak to the population at large. I like inclusion, not exclusion.

Is there anything in particular you have been especially pleased with?

That’s a good question. I’ve donated to a lot of social causes. Interestingly, one collapsed recently; a friend started a venture to take waste and turn it into luxury items. Sadly it collapsed – it’s just one of those things that happen.

Given that this donation did not lead to the outcome you had perhaps anticipated, what is your attitude to risk in philanthropy?

I think the word ‘risk’ is a stupid word. I would never use it. When people talk about risk they say ‘you have to be risky in business today’ or ‘adopt and embrace risk’. I think that’s rubbish. Nobody gets up in the morning and says ‘I feel like a risky day today’. I tend to use the word ‘excitement’ rather than ‘risk’. Is it an exciting idea? One you would want to be associated with? One that will make you feel great? I don’t feel great risking something, I feel great when something is exciting. The meaning of words is very important and unless you interrogate them you can be very misguided.

What has been your key lesson learned so far?

Do interesting things and interesting things will happen to you. Every day is a new journey and not everything you support will succeed. You can shorten the odds, but there is no guarantee.

What are your plans for your philanthropy in the future?

Hopefully to earn enough money to keep doing it. That’s partly why I am doing what I am doing. I like the idea of creating and making things – a piece of artwork or a company. Creativity is an expression of self.

BBH has a policy to give 1% of its profits to charity. How did that come about?

We’ve had 20 years of donating 1% of profits. It came about as we felt it was the right thing to do and that it was our responsibility, having done well, that we should try and help as many people as we possibly could. Our charitable giving focuses on industry issues and education. For example, we back the Ideas Foundation that goes into schools and inspires kids in deprived areas about the creative industries. We put money and guidance into the programme. For example, staff go into schools and the kids come here to have the experience of answering creative briefs. We have a programme of work experience so they can feel what it’s like to work in a large company and in an environment that is invigorating and not dull. If you can give your money and your time in areas that you have expertise, you can make a profound difference.

Given your professional experience, how important is it for charities to invest in their brand or advertising? Many philanthropists shy away from supporting administrative costs or activity that is not seen to be directly supporting the front line.

A great definition of a brand is that it’s the most valuable piece of real estate in the world – a corner of somebody’s mind. A brand has to be remembered and understood, and it is built on trust. It’s vital for charities to engage with that as they raise money and awareness for their work. Unless they have recognition and people understand what it is that they are doing, they will never attract the funds they need. BBH works with Barnados on this. It’s wonderful seeing how professional they are in how they think about raising money; it’s a tough world out there and organisations are competing for the public’s pound. Personally, I also want to support responsible organisations, and responsible organisations are ones that know they have to build their brand – it’s how they compete. It’s about being professional. I am not interested in supporting amateur-land. I want to support people that can make a real change, and that requires a professional outlook.

It’s not right to say you don’t want to support an organisation’s admin costs. Of course you don’t want to see waste, but admin and process are fundamentally important. Process is the means by which organisations can deliver what they need to deliver. Charities need not only to raise the money, but also to then get the money to where it needs to be – that’s process and they have to invest in that.

If you were to give a piece of advice to someone who was at the beginning of their philanthropy journey, what would it be?

First, I would say it’s really enjoyable. Give to something you are profoundly interested in – that makes it even more enjoyable.

What do you think needs to be done to grow philanthropy in the UK?

I think people need to realise that it is a responsibility to give. We seem to live in a world where people see that it is the responsibility of government to do things – it’s not. It’s our responsibility – our society, our country – and therefore it is us that have to do something. I am quite surprised sometimes at how few people who have money do something meaningful with it and hand it on. I sort of look at people and think ‘how much do you really need?’ I’d like to see more people doing philanthropy.