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‘God, I Need a Drink’: John Hegarty on Lockdown

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The BBH co-founder talks about becoming an ‘on-wine’ business, and the impact of Covid-19 on creativity and commerce with Laura Swinton

‘God, I Need a Drink’: John Hegarty on Lockdown
“I’m now becoming an on-wine business!” laughs Sir John Hegarty, co-founder of agency BBH and incubator The Garage, from his home in an uncharacteristically sunny London.

Many independent businesses have met Covid-19-induced lockdowns by pivoting to e-commerce and thinking about how they connect with people online for the first time, from corner shops jumping onto Deliveroo to personal trainers switching to Zoom sessions – and the Hegarty Chamans vineyard is no different. 

Last week, John sent out an email promoting the wine from the vineyard he owns with his wife Philippa, with the goal of building a community around the brand, called Club Chamans, which will keep people connected via a quarterly magazine that’s going to engage, inform and educate about wine (to get in on that, email john[at]hegartychamans.com).

“We just sent an email out to friends, families and colleagues and it’s been a fantastic response,” says John, who has been considering the business impact of the pandemic not just as an adman, but as a small business owner and producer. “This whole thing is going to accelerate the way business operates and the way we do much more online. We know that was a trend and nobody’s an oracle for saying that but I think the acceleration is going to be quite profound, especially if social distancing continues for some time… Developing an audience is going to be important for any brand.”

While massive businesses with global supply chains are able to provide scale, in some cases that scale has proven a hindrance to the reacting as quickly as smaller independent retailers and producers. “I also believe producers have got to learn to be retailers. As the retail store closes down, the acceleration to online will now be turbo charged. Producers are going to be in greater control of their distribution. How are you adding value? On price, service and availability. Social distancing will not suddenly stop as the government eases restrictions. So the trend to delivery will continue,” says John.

John also reflects that for some direct-to-consumer brands, the lockdown situation is a time to make hay. “One of the things they say about marketing is get your timings right,” he says. “My wife Philippa is mad about Farmdrop, where they work with local farmers providing produce. She got into this about a year ago and of course their business has gone through the roof. At the Garage we saw a wonderful company called Oddbox. What Oddbox did is they get odd-sized vegetables and things people don’t want because they’re a peculiar shape and sell them to a direct audience. We saw them in about November and we couldn’t quite get the deal right because our fund had been used up and now all of a sudden their business has absolutely rocketed!”

Going back to his own efforts with e-commerce, timing has certainly worked in his favour too. John says that the response has been greater than he imagined – the humorous initial email suggests that he might have missed his calling in life. Within two minutes, he got his first response. “I got my first response within about 60 seconds of it going out, so I thought, that’s pretty good. ‘If you want direct response, come to John!’” jokes the joker. “My skills should have been as a direct response agency instead of a brand agency – I’ve obviously lost my purpose in life.”

Headlined ‘4 WEEKS IN ISOLATION – God, I need a drink’, humour is a big part of the initial email’s appeal and it gets us chatting about the role of humour in both advertising and in general during a crisis like coronavirus. He recalls a line he once heard in a Joan Bakewell documentary about a legendary London market trader that has always stuck with him: “‘If they’re not smiling, they’re not buying.”

“It proves humour and empathy really work, ‘God I need a drink’. Brands need to learn from that,” he says.

“You’ve obviously got to pitch your humour correctly. Making people smile, making people laugh is crucially important. We talk about black humour, but that’s how we cope with disaster. We see it at funerals,” reflects John.

And, like everyone else, John has been enjoying the cornucopia of creative videos and memes that have flourished as people confined at home have decided to get playful. “I think there’s been a tremendous outpouring of creativity,” he says, chuckling as we swap videos. One video, of a woman slumping down her stairs to the strains of Phil Collins in sheer boredom has particularly tickled him. “I believe this shows, like so many videos I’ve seen there are some incredible creative talents out there approaching creativity in new and novel ways. Agency creatives could learn from that.

Ultimately, as much as the lockdown has proven to be an accelerant for technological and behavioural change that will leave business and society forever changed, Covid-19 has also reinforced some of the fundamentals of our humanity.

“The sort of thing you really miss is the obvious things like going to see friends and family. That physical contact is gone and you sort of just take it away the implications for the economy and life are absolutely huge,” says John, who has found that weekly family quiz nights have proven to be a source of joy and connection.

“We’re social beings, that’s how we function. You take an animal that’s a social being away from its crowd , its whatever, and it really suffers. We know sheep are like that. We have sheep at the vineyard and if one of them are separated from the flock, they get into stress and you can hear it, they bleat and bleat. Sometimes you get one who has gotten on the wrong side of the fence and can’t figure out how to get back in and they cry,” he says. “We’re not there yet though.”


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Categories: Wines, Alcoholic Beverages

LBB Editorial, Mon, 27 Apr 2020 19:11:58 GMT