CLOSE-UP: NEWSMAKER - NEIL FRENCH. WPP's creative 'godfather' rules with an iron fist

Neil French's personality is large enough to match his role, Rachel Gardner writes.

As jobs in the advertising world go, they don't come more all-embracing than a roving global role for WPP. And if there's any truth in the belief that for every large job you need a personality of equivalent stature to carry it out, then there can be little doubting why Neil French was chosen for the position.

To describe him as "larger than life" would almost be an injustice; he has enough character to fill a whole edition of Campaign, and then some.

But rest assured he will need to call upon all his charisma and charm if he is to succeed in his new mission to raise worldwide creative standards at WPP.

In his new role, French plays the part of problem solver. He will be available to all of WPP's operating companies, from design agencies through to media planners and buyers, on a consultation basis.

It is something that has never been attempted before as WPP tries to evolve from the well-oiled acquisition machine of the 80s and 90s into a holding company that truly understands the importance of creativity.

Indeed, French's appointment is a small part of a long-term strategy by the chief executive, Sir Martin Sorrell, to add greater value to WPP's operating companies.

Sorrell is putting into place the mechanics to secure global integrated accounts. It managed this with Boots two years ago, although that relationship has subsequently soured.

But when asked to outline his own take on the purpose of his post, the man who started his career as a rent collector opts to describe himself as something of a "godfather".

"Your godfather is someone you go to with problems when you can't talk to your dad," he says.

"Creative guys, especially creative directors, feel that the buck stops with them and they have nobody to talk to. I'm the bloke they can turn to for help and advice and they know it won't go any further.

"People know they will always get a straight answer from me and often problems aren't as terrible as you think they are."

French gets results, often at the expense of people's feelings. The former Ogilvy Group chairman, Paul Simons, recalls: "He can be cutting and clients often want to keep him out of the room. He has been known to reduce people to tears and he's not afraid to humiliate someone if he feels it's necessary."

French appears to confirm his ruthless streak when he says: "People can either choose to take my advice or not. But if they don't, they might find a horse's head in their bed."

The aim is to help WPP's three networks establish a better reputation and push the creative standards higher while further developing the parent company role to support its operating brands and their clients.

But French is quick to add that this is not because the work is particularly bad at any of the agencies - it is just not remarkable.

With regards to the UK offices, he feels the recent appointments of Nick Bell at J.Walter Thompson and Malcolm Poyton at Ogilvy & Mather will push standards higher.

The former worldwide creative director of O&M is joined on his quest by the marketing strategist Peter Dart and the new-business planner Jon Steel.

Dart's global brief is to collaborate with the networks to help integrate key clients across the group while consulting directly with them on strategic marketing issues. Meanwhile, Steel, who was hired 18 months ago, has been commissioned to work on new business and communications, assisting agencies to improve the way they communicate in both written and verbal presentations.

Needless to say, all three positions are of a nomadic nature.

Although French will be stationed in Singapore, his home now for more than 20 years, over the next few weeks alone he will visit France, New York and Brazil.

While the level at which his role directly interacts with Steel and Dart has yet to become fully evident, if nothing else their paths are bound to regularly cross at 30,000ft.

"The three appointments are all part of the same strategy to get in some guys who have got experience to sort things out," French explains.

And as far as experience goes, he comes armed with bags of it. The winner of countless awards, few could argue he enjoyed a satisfactory degree of success while at O&M. During his time as regional and then worldwide creative director, the network jumped up the industry rankings from 13th to third. Nevertheless, French has his feet planted firmly on the ground.

"I'm hoping to achieve similar things at all three networks but I'm not a creative director of any one agency," he says. "And there may be times when I don't have any advice because really I'm only an advertising bloke."

That is obviously not an opinion shared by Sorrell, who hand-picked him for the position. In French's own words, he considered the job offer for some time before deciding to "stop mincing about like a virgin and get on with it".

He says: "Sir Martin knows that right now the economies are about to turn round and there's going to be that feeding frenzy when the client starts spending again.

"The client is going to be looking at suppliers and who can offer them the best. It is a very clever move to say: 'we have got these experienced guys in to help as well.'"

No interview with French would be complete without an explanation for the constant presence of his trademark cigar in photographs - he has near enough failed to strike a professional pose without one since his early days as a copywriter at Holmes Knight Ritchie in the late 70s and early 80s.

And when quizzed, French is quick to explain his obsession: "It just seemed to suit me and I've used it as a prop ever since. Now it has become part of the Neil French brand and it helps people know who this old geezer is."

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