John Hegarty stands chatting and laughing with our photographer in the reception of his Soho offices like the charming old media pro that he is. He is explaining how his advertising agency, BBH, came across its logo, a black sheep. It was an image he used in his first ad for Levi's jeans, the account for which BBH is still best known, and it summed up the agency's desire for its work to stand out from the crowd.
But the truth is that as a representation of the agency it doesn't quite hit the mark. Black sheep stand out, of course, but the phrase also implies something of a rebellious streak.
As arguably the best advertising agency in the world over the past quarter century, responsible for numerous iconic advertising campaigns for a client list that includes big banks, soap conglomerates, drinks giants and global telcos, there is nothing remotely subversive about BBH.
It does a nice line in glossily packaged rebellion " that's precisely the appeal of Hegarty's long-running Levi's campaign. But really BBH is a company that sits at the heart of the establishment and underpins our economic system. Ask anyone who knows about the advertising industry and they'll tell you that BBH isn't different from most other big advertising agencies " it's just better.
But today Hegarty has much to laugh about. He proudly reveals that he has become only the third Briton, after David Ogilvy and David Abbott, to be elected to the US Advertising Creative Hall of Fame. 'I'm not a wonky person. I don't read all those books about 'jump and a parachute will appear'. But you must understand,' he says, 'that I am cursed with being an incorrigible optimist.'
So he is feeling optimistic about his agency, the future of advertising, the future of media, the future of capitalism and the future of the planet. Most of all, he is feeling optimistic about the future of the pounds 60m British Airways account.
The business, currently with rival agency M&C Saatchi, is up for grabs, following the arrival earlier this year of BA's new chief executive, Willie Walsh, who was formerly with Aer Lingus and who has instigated the review as part of a drive to cut BA's costs.
Because of BA's international scope, and the fact that it is the flag carrier and has a tradition of epic commercials, it is widely regarded as one of the great prizes in British advertising. Every agency in London would give its eye teeth for the business. Only 10 were considered and BBH is down to the last four.
'It's undoubtedly one of the sexiest accounts in UK advertising and we really, really want it,' says Hegarty. He won't disclose his creative ideas for BA, not least because " uniquely in the advertising business " BBH has always refused to present creative ideas when pitching for business. It's the sort of strong stance you can take only when you are absolutely confident of your worth.
The agency does, however, give prospective clients a strategic analysis of their business and communications. 'We presented a way of thinking that was a philosophical way forward for BA,' he says.
Flying is no longer about sheer glamour. The advent of no-frills rivals means airlines are now 'retail accounts' in industry parlance. This means the ads will have to be as much about price promotion (work that carries low or zero status in advertising) as beautifully shot multimillion- pound epic television campaigns. 'Tesco is the best analogy for BA's complexity,' says Hegarty, 'so what is needed is a big overarching brand, thought driven through absolutely all its communications.'
He seems to have completely forgotten " or forgiven " the controversy that surrounded the last time he pitched for the BA business 10 years ago. Then the BA chief executive of the day, Bob Ayling, was within a whisker of appointing BBH, but was overruled at the last moment by the BA chairman, Colin Marshall, who insisted the business went to M&C Saatchi. …