Editorial: Neil French's mals mots give WPP no real choice

Characters such as WPP's global creative director, Neil French, are a journalist's dream. He dares to say what he thinks and delivers his views in the form of a pithy quote. As everyone knows by now, unfortunately, at a recent conference in Canada, the quote was too pithy: he called female creative directors "crap".

Worse still, he meant it. His explanation for the dearth of senior female creatives is that their loyalty is split between work and home. In an interview subsequent to his resignation, he explained: "If you can't commit yourself to any job, then, by definition, you're crap at it."

In the amazing aftermath, he proffered his resignation, though it appears WPP was reluctant to accept it. However, given the massive global media storm the comments prompted, it seems unlikely French will be able to grace the doors of Farm Street again. There's no doubt his departure is a loss to the holding company; French lent WPP colour, a flattering contrast to the otherwise military efficiency of its global networks. Had he been an employee of IPG or Omnicom, you can bet there would have been no delay in sending out a press release confirming his sad departure.

That this was not the case with WPP reflects not only how much it values French, but also that it is a British company. US companies are so terrified of lawyers, they see outbursts such as French's in financial terms: "How much could it cost us?" A lot - some HR professionals say any female who now leaves WPP under a cloud could argue a legal case that the company is institutionally sexist.

Fear of lawyers is a terrible shame and something that is percolating, thankfully slowly, across the Atlantic. Talk to US agency heads who have earned their stripes in other advertising markets and they will tell you the hiring process is a political minefield. They complain that they end up with a sketchy idea of the individual's character, because all personal questions can be construed as discriminatory.

What French said was wrong. He shouldn't have said it. But it has put the issue of women in the business back centre stage, which is no bad thing. Unfortunately, it seems adland has to wave goodbye to one of its most entertaining, outspoken and talented practitioners as a result.

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