CAMPAIGN CRAFT: PROFILE - ’The adman from hell’ who built a brand for O&M. Emma Hall interviews the larger-than-life worldwide creative director at O&M

’The quintessential adman from hell.’ Neil French, the new worldwide creative director of Ogilvy & Mather, is happy to assist my research by sending over an article in which he is described thus.

’The quintessential adman from hell.’ Neil French, the new

worldwide creative director of Ogilvy & Mather, is happy to assist my

research by sending over an article in which he is described thus.



As he is based in Singapore, we don’t get the chance to meet, so I can’t

make my own judgment on this assessment. But even during our telephone

interview, French came across as having more than enough personality to

fill an entire issue of Campaign.



Some readers may remember him from his days in London, in the late 70s

and early 80s, when he was a copywriter at Holmes Knight Ritchie. His

success there earnt him the job of creative director of O&M in

Singapore, and he’s never looked back.



Don’t be misguided into thinking that his career has been

straightforward.



Since moving to Singapore, French has hopped about between O&M, Batey

Advertising and the Ball Partnership. Throw in a couple of prolonged

spells of hanging about on the beach - and a not unsuccessful directing

career (he directed Young & Rubicam’s Union Bank of Switzerland

campaign) - and the picture gets a little more accurate.



Except we have failed to mention his stints back in England as a

nightclub singer, a bouncer and a matador in Spain. Then there was the

dodgy business he set up in Soho, which he declined to describe but he

admitted was ’politically incorrect’. Not to mention the fact that he

used to be the manager of the leather-and-studs Brummie rock band, Judas

Priest.



’If you’re in advertising, none of this experience is wasted,’ French

says cheerfully. ’As a singer I learnt how to handle an audience and in

Soho I learnt about what people really think and want.’



It took French quite a while to commit himself to a career in

advertising.



At 18 he had an ’incomprehensible’ Birmingham accent and was fired from

his first job as a rent collector. He even managed to lose his boss’s

Alsatian - the dog was supposed to frighten people into handing over

their cash.



His boss told French he was useless although he was a nice enough bloke,

to which French replied: ’Yes, but I don’t like work much.’



His boss then said advertising was just the job for useless people, rang

a pal and got French a job in a local agency. French flitted in and out

of advertising for a while before starting his own agency, Blacker Hyde,

in the mid-70s. (The surnames of the two partners were French and Style

which they didn’t think sounded much like an advertising agency so they

used their middle names instead.) Blacker Hyde did very well, mostly on

the back of a pounds 1 million client who made records of cover versions

of chart hits. But one Christmas K-Tel came out with the same

compilations using the original artists. ’Our client couldn’t give away

their records and we went spectacularly broke on Christmas Day,’ French

remembers.



He reluctantly realised that he would have to go to London to pursue his

advertising career. After a couple of relatively short-lived jobs, he

joined Holmes Knight Ritchie where, he says, he discovered he was ’not

bad’ at making ads and ’began to take it seriously’.



’Kevin in the kitchen’ - an award-winning campaign for Tefal - brought

French to the attention of adland. But there were some disasters too,

including what he calls ’the most tasteless ad of all time’. The

client’s name now escapes him, but it was a press campaign for a private

home nursing scheme.



French says: ’David Holmes went on holiday and left me to art direct it

myself.’ So instead of a tasteful photograph, the ad used a gruesome

illustration of terrified old people dying slowly and painfully in

hospital while the grim reaper stalked the wards. The copy said

something like: ’Don’t put your mum and dad in here. We’ll send a nurse

so that they can die at home.’ French recalls: ’There wasn’t a single

reply to the ad - not even from barmies.’



Things have improved since then, and he now claims to have built O&M

into Asia’s most successful agency. Talking of the regional creative

awards, he boasts: ’I traditionally win every year,’ adding, ’in the

country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.’



French has won Asia’s Campaign of the Decade award twice. Once for

Chivas Regal and once for XO, a spoof beer that was created to

demonstrate the power of press advertising for Singapore Press

Holdings.



With all his experience as a regional creative director, French has no

qualms whatsoever about taking on the worldwide role, a position that is

only filled sporadically by the O&M network and has not been occupied

since the 80s. His appointment was requested by regional creative

directors, so French is confident he will be fully supported in the

role.



True to form, French is elegantly dogmatic about his plans for the new

job. ’I have a formula,’ he declares, ’don’t get sidelined. Find good

people and back them.’ According to French, rule number one is: ’Don’t

become a firefighter. If there’s a fire you’ve screwed up anyway.’ And

rule number two: ’Avoid being a travelling roadshow. Life behind a

lectern as a pontificating wanker doesn’t get you anywhere.’



This same sort of ’benevolent fascism’ is what he likes about Singapore:

’It is clean, efficient, crime is low, the food is fantastic and the

girls are pretty.’



But French, whose own marriage failed, allows space for some mistakes

and says failures among O&M’s creative departments across the world will

always be given a second chance.



’Part of the job is to give creative people the right to be wrong. You

must take a risk for the client’s sake. And if you get fired - that’s

life,’ he says.



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