Neil French On the Spot

French has never abided the status quo—in his life or in his work. Born in Birmingham, England, in 1944, the former worldwide creative director of Ogilvy & Mather made waves early, getting expelled from school at 16 and thus ending his ambition to be an army officer. After French fell into advertising, he earned a reputation for irreverent copywriting—a Chivas Regal campaign showing the product sans label read, “If you don’t recognize it, you’re probably not ready for it.” (An array of work is posted at He also became known as a champion of creativity in Asia, beginning with his 1983 arrival at Ogilvy in Singapore, where he still lives. This week, French receives The Clio Awards’ lifetime achievement award.

How have you been keeping yourself busy since your tenure at Ogilvy ended last year?

I’m “on the beach,” or is it “resting”? The English would say, “Duckin’ an’ divin’ ” or, “Bit o’ this, bit o’ that.” In other words, I’m unemployed. I hope temporarily and that by the time this is printed, the position will be otherwise. I actually enjoy my work, when I can find people brave enough to pay to have me around! I have some TV programs waiting for some smart network to buy them—who doesn’t? I’m trying hard not to write a book. Various agencies and networks are making vague mooing noises. Meanwhile, I have to ensure that the sun rises and sets on my house in Spain and that I keep a shaded eye on its progress. Tough life.

You’ve won hundreds of awards during the course of your career. What stands out?

Over 500 at last count. And I stopped counting about eight years ago, because it was silly. None stands out more than others. I take that back—I was sent a One Show pencil last year by [Ogilvy copywriter] Al Jackson, who insisted that my minor acts of meddling in his work contributed to his award. That was incredibly nice of him.

You’ve said the award-show business is irrelevant to the ad business. How so?

Advertising is about getting results for your clients. That is the only purpose of the whole shebang. Awards are merely a way of showboating, of advertising yourself and of putting on record your admiration for the talent and work of your peers. As it happens, most award-winning ads work better than the boring stuff; stands to reason they do. But it’s the blurring of the perfectly visible line that irritates me.

You’ve had a colorful work history—matador, manager of Judas Priest, singer, pornographer. How did you end up in advertising?

I got fired from my day job, as a rent collector. My boss rang a pal who owned an ad agency and got me a job cleaning out the cellars. I drifted in and out of the racket, in various disguises, thereafter.

Which job best prepared you for advertising?

All of them. No experience is ever wasted, as long as you keep your wits about you and look for the lessons.

If you could change one thing about the industry, what would it be?

More concentration on the end product and way, way less on the process. Counting the beans has become more important than how to grow a better bean.

Name the last ad that made you think, I wish I had done that.

“Cog,” Honda.

Favorite ad of all time?

TV: Volkswagen, “Snow Plough.” Press: The first VW campaign, including “Mule.”

What was the most challenging aspect of your worldwide creative director role?

Getting a palpable and measurable creative result that would make the gig more relevant than it had ever been historically. And to show how an improved creative product can improve the bottom line in the short and long terms. I’m not a flesh presser, and I’m not a fireman.

Who had the greatest influence on your career?

Difficult to say, but if Michael Ball hadn’t given me the chance to run his agency creatively 15 years ago, I definitely would be in a different position now. Possibly richer, but definitely different. And Sir Martin Sorrell has been a huge support, especially considering what a pain in the arse I can be.

In Singapore, you’ve said, “literacy rules.” What “rules” in the U.S.?

Obesity. No, seriously … you can’t generalize about the U.S.A. Other than in the matter of obesity, that is.

Describe yourself in three words.

Honest. Persnickety. Melancholic.

You’ve been described in the press as “the adman from hell.” Is that deserved?

Probably justified. I don’t suffer fools at all, let alone gladly. And I have a lexicon of definitions of poltroonery. But I value honesty and integrity above all things, however wrong I believe you are. If you demonstrate these, I’ll support your right to an opinion. If you try and impose your opinion without the backing of those qualities, I can get rather Torquemadan. Or, if you prefer, a bit cross.

What did you do last weekend?

Went to the Feria in Arles. Read. Sat in the sun. Ate well. Drank well. Slept well.

What’s your personal motto?

I rather like the Jewish, “You live, you dance, you die.”

What’s your biggest fear?