Very few peo­ple can say they have been Bar­tle Bogle Hegarty ex­ec­u­tive cre­ative di­rec­tors, but Ian Heart­field and An­thony Austin now have the chal­lenge of shar­ing the weight of his­tory, Jeremy Lee re­ports

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With a long, lin­ger­ing kiss, Ab­so­lut vodka paired un­likely cou­ples of dif­fer­ent ages, gen­ders and eth­nic­i­ties in a provoca­tive spot re­leased ear­lier this month, de­signed to mark its sup­port for LGBT rights.

The agency that cre­ated the ad, Bar­tle Bogle Hegarty, has also em­braced the un­usual – the con­cept of joint ex­ec­u­tive cre­ative di­rec­tors, one from a “tra­di­tional” ad back­ground, the other from pro­duc­tion – hav­ing hitched up Ian Heart­field and An­thony Austin. The pair­ing, while not as un­ex­pected as some of the cou­plings in the Ab­so­lut ad, is nonethe­less still quite sur­pris­ing.

Austin and Heart­field be­come BBH’S fifth and sixth ECDS in the agency’s 25-year his­tory, re­plac­ing Nick Gill and oc­cu­py­ing a po­si­tion only oth­er­wise held by John O’keefe, Bruce Crouch and Sir John Hegarty him­self. “It’s a ter­ri­fy­ingly short­list,” Heart­field ad­mits, al­though nei­ther he nor Austin claims to be fazed by the weight of his­tory that now lies on their shoul­ders.

This pair, who were pro­moted to deputy ECDS in July last year, come from strik­ingly dif­fer­ent back­grounds and have dif­fer­ent per­son­al­i­ties. A rel­a­tively ge­nial duo (com­pared with the oc­ca­sion­ally cur­mud­geonly – or shy – Gill), the cooler Heart­field was re­spon­si­ble for the Cannes Grand Prix-win­ning “Noit­ulove” spot for Guin­ness while at Ab­bott Mead Vick­ers BBDO, and was the most-awarded cre­ative in the 2006 Gunn Re­port. Mean­while, the be­spec­ta­cled Austin is an edi­tor and pro­ducer by back­ground. He joined from Mother in 2015 to launch BBH’S pro­duc­tion arm – Black Sheep Stu­dios – and in that time also picked up a de­cent gong, bag­ging a Bafta for his short film Home about the refugee cri­sis.

In truth, Gill, who will re­main at the agency with the pro­saic job ti­tle “cre­ative” and work on Tesco and Bar­clays, in­for­mally handed over the reins to the pair some months ago, al­though it was only last week that the an­nounce­ment was made to the agency. “Ben [Fen­nell, BBH chief ex­ec­u­tive] would call it a clas­sic piece of BBH suc­ces­sion man­age­ment,” Austin says. BBH’S suc­ces­sion man­age­ment has not al­ways been quite so smooth in re­cent years. The Mel Exon/caro­line Pay/jonathan Bot­tom­ley/ja­son Gon­salves de­ba­cle seems like a dis­tant mem­ory now that the agency ap­pears to have raised its cre­ative game and, de­spite some blips, man­aged to fire up the new-busi­ness ma­chine again.

Suc­cess begets suc­cess, of course, and in the six months or so since Heart­field and Austin have been in charge of the BBH cre­ative depart­ment, it has pro­duced an im­pres­sive reel. As well as the afore­men­tioned Ab­so­lut “Equal love” spot and the Home film for the United Na­tions High Com­mis­sioner for Refugees, other re­cent high­lights in­clude “Ef­fort­less night”’ for Uber, “Re­act” for Audi, “Grow” for Refuge and “This is Vir­gin Fi­bre” for Vir­gin Me­dia. Even the Tesco cam­paign has be­gun to gain some trac­tion. The news that BBH’S rel­a­tively new man­ag­ing di­rec­tor Adam Arnold, who re­placed Exon, has de­cided to de­camp from the man­age­ment floor to sit in an of­fice within the cre­ative depart­ment is a po­tent state­ment that, for BBH, it’s “all about the work” once again, Heart­field says.

But the fact re­mains that pair­ing a pro­ducer with an ad cre­ative seems – at face value, at least – an odd move. Af­ter all, aren’t the two pulling in op­po­site di­rec­tions? Not so, they say. While Heart­field says that he loves the cre­ative stric­tures of time-length, and Austin adds that he finds him­self grav­i­tat­ing to­wards other for­mats such as en­ter­tain­ment, they main­tain that the com­bi­na­tion works.

“The ad­van­tage of this [set-up] is that you’ve got to do ev­ery­thing th­ese days. What we’ve got in this line-up is the po­ten­tial to do ev­ery­thing. The core of the busi­ness has got to be on fuck­ing fire, which is sorted now, and when that’s in place, the new stuff can hap­pen as well. You’ve just got to do all of it,” Heart­field, the more con­fi­dent of the two, says.

His op­po­site num­ber is a lit­tle warier – and per­haps seems a lit­tle in awe of Heart­field. “We’re not a team,” Austin con­fesses. “We com­mu­ni­cate and get on very well but we come from dif­fer­ent back­grounds and bring dif­fer­ent views to the ta­ble. The good thing about hav­ing peo­ple from dif­fer­ent back­grounds is that we bring a very dif­fer­ent ap­proach. I think it wouldn’t ben­e­fit to keep us apart and silo us, as we have di­ver­gent views.”

The fact that Austin will con­tinue to run Black Sheep Stu­dios is not a con­flict, he says – he will not push clients down the long-form con­tent route (which some say could lead to fric­tion with Heart­field). “Black Sheep Stu­dios is a tool in the ar­moury rather than the an­swer to a brief,” Austin says.

Talk of agen­cies pro­duc­ing longer-form con­tent for their clients (and maybe even for them­selves) has been do­ing the rounds for al­most as long as Gill oc­cu­pied the ECD chair. With Austin and Heart­field be­ing given equal billing, BBH is se­ri­ous about cre­at­ing ideas that live be­yond ad­ver­tis­ing – that op­er­ate in dif­fer­ent for­mats and live both within and with­out the tra­di­tional ad breaks.

While their com­bi­na­tion might seem a strange one, it’s clearly been done for a good rea­son. “We were thrown to­gether but have the same am­bi­tion. All we re­ally care about is the work,” Austin says.

Heart­field adds: “Peo­ple looked to BBH for what’s com­ing next or to wrong-foot the in­dus­try. This place rep­re­sents some­where where you couldn’t tell what was com­ing next, and I think that’s what we want to get back to – to sur­prise peo­ple and lead the way. A strong in­dus­try needs a strong BBH.”

Ab­so­lutely so.

“Peo­ple looked to BBH for what’s com­ing next. That’s what we want to get back to – to sur­prise peo­ple” Ian Heart­field, joint ex­ec­u­tive cre­ative di­rec­tor, Bar­tle Bogle Hegarty

Heart­field and Austin: Bar­tle Bogle Hegarty’s first joint ex­ec­u­tive cre­ative di­rec­tors

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