Tuesday Mar 28

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The Neil French Interview

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Issue #01 - Interviews

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Neil French
eil French has been labeled the most gifted, influential, flamboyant and, at one time, the most chauvinistic man in advertising. As the former Worldwide Creative Director of WPP, he simultaneously presided over JWT, Grey Worldwide, Ogilvy & Mather, Young & Rubicam, Bates, Red Cell, and Wunderman.

As any interviewer soon learns, there is depressingly little to say about Neil that hasn’t already been said. Rather than lament this fact and our own lack of imagination, we seized upon a novel idea. Actually, it was a small book about 3 inches square called Quirky Questions. This promised us over 150 entertaining conversation “sparkers” to complement our own questions. We chose a few sparkers that ostensibly felt appropriate when interviewing the man who has won more creative awards than any other.

Agency.Asia: Neil, you must feel vindicated that one of Asia’s most celebrated stars credited you – and only you – as her inspiration. The immensely successful creative director, Jureeporn Thaidumrong, said on the first-rate www.ihaveanidea.org site: “Contrary to what people may think and have been saying for the last couple of years, he's very supportive of woman creatives. I can guarantee that because I am actually one of the women he helped. I wouldn't stand where I am today if it wasn't for him.”

Ironically, this one comes from Quirky Questionsalt. Has the gender debate run its course?

In Toronto… believe me, it was great fun.
In Toronto… believe me, it was great fun.

Neil French: I never felt in need of vindication, actually. Don’t forget that the now-infamous occasion was fermented by a woman who had previously had an ear-bashing for being away on long leave when I visited the office.

It was, palpably, a most efficient revenge…but had the film of the entire evening been made available, anyone with a sense of humour or irony would have seen the pottiness of the reaction.

As I said at the time, it was ‘death by blog’, the bloggers largely having been both absent at the time, and inspired by other envious and untalented malcontents. That doesn’t alter the fact that my comment, although made in a jokey tone, was a heartfelt truth, gleaned from bitter experience.

Have you read the old Cadillac ad, “The Penalty of Leadership”? It about sums it all up. The other penalty of leadership is the tendency to believe your own press….and we all need the jester at our shoulders to whisper “You’re just a man”, from time to time. Which is why my public persona edges towards self-deprecation…however much that stance is not honestly felt at the time!

It’s interesting that the first two calls I had when I arrived back from Canada were from two hugely successful businesswomen, who heartily agreed with my point of view, and asked me to work with them. The two relationships that ensued have been a lot of fun, and a great success for all of us.

Judee’s comments came as a huge surprise, albeit a welcome one. She made the grade entirely on her own merits, actually. In fact, almost all I did to help was to smile and wave, like the Queen Mother! It’s possible that that was my job, I guess.

But do remember that the beautiful and sexy Judee forswore the ever-present mirage of being able to manage a marriage, a family, and a top-ranking career. Exactly the point I made in Toronto, hmmm?


Agency.Asia: Multitudinous forum posts about your remarks regarding women not being able to apply themselves unrequitedly to a CD role due to family commitments, saw you demonized as a chauvinistic western cultural imperialist. Indeed, a few even accused you of exploiting the entire SE Asian region, which allegedly is shamefully exploitative itself. Jureeporn went on to say, “I believe some people have a bad image of the market here. It's not true that women in Asia have a harder time getting to the higher echelons of the ad business. I actually think women here have more opportunities than in North America or Europe,” “And that's not only true in creative departments. You see lots of senior management and CEO positions being occupied by women. And it's true all over.” From conducting our own impromptu head count, this is pretty much on the money. What for you are the most extraordinary misconceptions about Asia from outsiders looking in?

Neil French: Most of this is answered above, I think. But it remains a fact that Americans should get out more, however disagreeable this might be for the rest of us. The misconception is hilarious, and largely fueled by movies, internet porn-clips, and, very occasionally, from holidays. Women in Asia are not all geishas or Bangkok pole-dancers, oddly enough. One female buffoon in the Toronto audience actually said that my remark might be true of Asia, “where women are subservient”. This was not much reported, strangely enough, but it made a few women in Asia a bit cross…not least my terrifying but ultra-feminine ex-wife, Linda Locke, whose massive success prior to becoming a Mum was an object-lesson in dedication.

Agency.Asia: The custom of “giving face” leaves many foreigners scratching their head. Meetings that might be over in minutes in the West will grind on for hours and even days - very politely - in Asia. Tell us your most amusing coming together with Singaporean culture when you were fresh off the boat.

(Aged 21…note the hair!)
(Aged 21…note the hair!)

Neil French: Well, I quickly realized that I’m not Asian, and would always be a gweilo, farang, angmo, or whatever, however long I remained, and however much I tried to ‘fit in’. My response was to ignore all that and become even more English. Give ‘em the accepted stereotype, and they’ll just think you’re engagingly barmy, I thought.

It worked like a charm. I would sit through meetings in Chinese, and occasionally hear the word angmo (not quite as bad as being referred-to as a nigger, but not far off), and continue to smile in non-comprehension. I didn’t care what they called me as long as they bought me ads.

In Japan it was a tad more difficult. The Japanese and the English are very similar, I believe…or were before the Brits became a byword for vile social behaviour. In both cases the absurd concentration on politeness and form masks the fact that both nations are constantly on the brink of going berserk.

Politeness gives us time to control our incipient violence. The Englishman says ‘sorry’ when someone else steps on his toe; the Japanese bows and nods like a doggie in a car’s rear window. Without these formats, someone would find himself carrying his teeth home in a jiffy-bag. After a few occasions when I got the depth of the bow wrong, and ended up nutting the Chairman like a Glaswegian drunk, I realized that other measures were needed, and that ‘stitch that, Jimmy’, is not an acceptable form of address in Tokyo.

So I tried something totally original. I announced in advance that I was declaring a five-foot exclusion-zone: a five-foot semicircle in front of me was England. Inside that circle, I would shake hands and call people ‘old chap’ if that seemed the correct form. Outside the circle it was Japan and we could bow and nod to everyone’s delight. Thus not only were Brummie Kisses avoided, but the Englishman’s loony stereotype was amusedly accepted.

The only exception was when a Japanese creative started talking over a speechlet I was giving. He was apparently much feared in the department, and affected the dress of a Hell’s Angel, and a rather sad Zapata moustache. I stopped the meeting and explained that if he continued, I would come over and ‘pull his fucking lungs out’….in Engish, of course. He got the message though, and I’m told he subsequently resigned through ‘loss of face’. To my surprise, I became an instant hero with the rest of the crew! He was all talk and no pants anyway. There are prats in every country.

Agency.Asia: You are originally from the United Kingdom, yet you have spent many years of your life living in Singapore and travelling widely throughout Asia. Most recently, you chose Bali as the destination to host the World Press Awards. What is it about the region that led to this love affair? And another Quirky Question, “What annoys you most about the image of your country and its citizens abroad?”

(Aged 40…possibly my most-quoted line. Tragic, innit. Note the …um…hair?)
(Aged 40…possibly my most-quoted line. Tragic, innit. Note the …um…hair?)

Neil French: No I didn’t. The World Press Awards were always judged in Singapore. I found that a cocktail of Raffles and Top Ten provided the ideal atmosphere for deliberation.

Well, to answer the question, I had to leave England because the taxman and the rozzers were after me, and the first offer I got was from Asia. By the time my little difficulties in Blighty were sorted out, I’d cracked it in Singapore. Why would anyone return to obscurity in a grey, wet country full of grey, wet people, when multicoloured, sparkly Asia is your lobster?

I think the image of the British is appalling everywhere, and deservedly so.

Agency.Asia: Speaking of the World Press Awards, you have announced that your show is going to hibernate for a while - you won't be having a WPA judging in 2009. You predict that this year's awards-budgets are likely to be cut with “giant scythes”. There is a plethora of award shows that must also be affected. Just regionally there are Adfest, AWARD, Asia-Pacific Advertising Awards, Kancils, CCAs to name a few.

Then there are the excellent Long Xi Awards, touted as the Olympics of Chinese language advertising, and Hong Kong’s Kam Fan. The latter has introduced a handful of new categories to recognize the Best Use of Search Engine Marketing, Best Use of Ambient, and Best Social Media Applications, as well as Best New Ground-Breaking Innovation. Are there simply too many awards in Asia now and do you feel that the categories are perhaps unduly reinterpreting what is creative?

Neil French: Yes, of course there are way too many. My prediction is that all award-shows will suffer in the downturn, and quite right too. The exception, tragically, will be Cannes…being the only one that clients and suits have heard of, with the added incentive of a boondoggle where they can get smashed in the Gutter Bar, and pig out on bouillabaisse. The World Press Awards was conceived to be a reaction to the plethora of daft shows, from the various regional ‘best of the losers’ shows to the ‘best shelf-wobbler’ categories.

Agency.Asia: With your finger on the sickly pulse of the ad industry, do you think that anything good whatsoever can come from this global economic downturn?

Neil French: Certainly. Aside from the fact that my son and I are living on beans on toast, and I’m going to have to send him up chimneys, a few years of introspection may help people realize that they’re no worse off for not having a pointless certificate framed on the wall, and that the financial savings might even filter down to the troops. No, you’re right. That last bit won’t happen.

Agency.Asia: Shortly we will enter the fray with a regional award the likes of which has never been seen - and perhaps never again - the Agency Asia Awards. In a nutshell, this award involves the clients nominating their advertising agency to receive the plaudits - on the assumption that each brand’s success must be in part due to its advertising agency. It is sure to be a telling exercise to observe which agencies don’t get supported as to those which do. We feel that it quite an interesting departure from agency people congratulating themselves. Choosing Gold, Silver & Bronze for the work which impressed you, which global couplings of advertiser and agency are today’s dynamic duos?

(Unusually pensive. Or possibly drunk. Taken by my son)
(Unusually pensive. Or possibly drunk. Taken by my son)

Neil French: Can I not answer this? I live in Spain now, and haven’t see any Asian advertising for several years. And to be frank, I don’t take a lot of notice of who is doing what for who anywhere else either. Client Awards? Surely the best award a client can give to an agency is to ask them to handle his business? Bloody silliness, anything else.


Silver…… bleedin’………


Agency.Asia: And to put you on the spot again, of the inspiring creative people who have made the greatest impact over the last decade, who do you feel are the star performers in SE Asia? We’ll limit you to just five men or women so you don’t involuntarily put too many creative noses out of joint.

Neil French: In the last decade? Hmmm…hard one. Let’s try and be geographically and racially correct. Tham Khai Meng, Jureeporn Thaidumrong, David Droga, David Guerrero, Piyush Pandey. That’s five, and when I think about this later, I’ll probably kick myself for missing someone out.

Agency.Asia: This feels like a good time for a few more Quirky Questions, if that’s alright by you. Your son must be in junior school by now. What subject should be taught in school that isn’t currently on the curriculum? And do you think a person is better equipped for the modern world if they are a specialist or a generalist? Will you encourage your boy to follow in his dad’s footsteps?

In school, I wish teachers would avoid visiting their stupid and marginally-informed prejudices on their charges.

Neil French: He’s eleven now, and growing way too fast. Pretty soon I’ll need to grease him to get him up those chimneys. He’s not like me at all…he loves school, and his career ambitions so far have been to play cricket for England, to be a surgeon, an actor, a vet, a riding instructor, and recently, a sniper. I guess one or two of these will have to be shelved.

He’s a natural mimic and comedian, and a heartbreaker. Possibly a gigolo? He’s a crack-shot with both rifle and shotgun, so maybe sniper isn’t far off the mark. Paid assassin? Well-paid, for his old Dad’s sake?

In school, I wish teachers would avoid visiting their stupid and marginally-informed prejudices on their charges. It’s taking me long evenings to convince the boy that not all Palestinians are martyrs, and that not all Israelis are vampires in barely-human form. The answers to everything are more balanced, and balance is something that leftie twenty-somethings who take up teaching in the absence of any flair seem incapable of achieving.

I wish they taught art better. They do visits to olive-presses, and go abseiling in the Pyrenees…all to the good. But an informed trip round a gallery like the Reina Sofia in Madrid would be more useful than learning the life of Salvador Dali from a book. Art is a visual thing. Books are for literature.

I think that once a kid has decided he hates Maths, Chemistry and Physics, there’s no point in continuing the torture. Similarly if he hates art, or writing for its own sake. My boy, thankfully, seems bewildered by advertising. Can’t see the point. Good. There isn’t one. I took him on a trip to the local film studio (a massive an impressive place, by the way). He was unimpressed, but enjoyed the lunch.


Agency.Asia: We certainly wouldn’t be the first to ask one of the world’s most celebrated advertising writers what he himself reads. We believe that you don’t widely recommend any of the raft of ‘how to’ style books on creating good advertising. What are the books that you consider to be must reads and why?

Neil French: Hang on…I’ll look at my website (hint, hint).

  • Shakespeare. Astounding for grown-ups. And Bill Bryson’s recent little book about the bloke.
  • Dickens. Start with ‘A Christmas Carol’.
  • Terry Pratchett. Start with ‘The Colour of Magic’, and if you like the tone, do the rest. Funniest writer since P.G. Wodehouse.
  • P.G.Wodehouse. If you’re English and liked the TV series with Stephen Fry as Jeeves, the books are a beacon of easy humour in a nasty world.
  • Scott Fitzgerald. A mirror of his time, and a grand storyteller.
  • Hemingway. Underrated these days, but a master of clipped but telling understatement.
  • Alan Bennett. Again, peculiarly English, but then, that’s what I am. His genius is in hearing the patois of ‘the people’. He brings art to the banal.
  • Patrick O’Brian. Buckle yer swash, me hearties. Hornblower for grown ups. Girls hate the entire canon. And don’t be put of by the frightful mess that was the ‘Master and Commander’ movie.
  • Jan Morris. The queen of travel-writers. Also the ‘Empire Trilogy’ written when she was James Morris. The masterwork on the subject in my view.
  • Mary Frances Kennedy, who raised cookery writing to literature.

Will that do for now? I haven’t started on individual books, but this is possibly not the place.


Agency.Asia: Indeed, we'd heartily recommend that readers head on over to Neil's website at www.neilfrench.com. And that's not because he asked us to. It's a pretty glorious repository of many of his best advertisements - with really interesting insights into each. Come back when you've finished!  We’ll end with another question of our own: Is there anything you would care to say about yourself that indeed has not been written about you anywhere before?

Neil French: Nope. There’s been too much, anyway. What you see and hear is what you get.

Agency.Asia: We ask all of our guests to nominate a special someone that they feel our readers would be most interested to hear from in the next issue. Who do you wish to nominate? Thanks, Neil.

Neil French: Aside from Judee? I think Marcello Serpa is a bloody interesting chap. I like him enormously….and I didn’t expect to.

Quirky Questions’ by Sandy McCutcheon – Penguin Books ISBN 0 14 0299991 2 © 2000
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