WPP Comments on French Controversy

NEW YORK WPP Group on Friday issued its first statement on the controversy surrounding creative consultant Neil French, who offered his resignation two weeks after he made disparaging remarks about women at an industry event in Toronto.

“These were personal remarks made by Neil French, who has since resigned his part-time position with the Group. If these alleged comments are accurate, they are totally inconsistent with WPP’s policies and long-standing approaches to equality and fairness,” the holding company said.

French told Adweek on Thursday that his offer to resign as a creative consultant to WPP is “an attempt to take the heat off [CEO] Martin [Sorrell] and WPP. They don’t deserve the hassle.”

“Personally, I’m sad to be leaving all the creatives I’ve met and [hopefully] helped. But as [Crispin Porter + Bogusky executive creative director] Alex Bogusky said to me today, sometimes free speech has a price,” French said.

Sorrell could not be reached for comment.

French’s disparaging comments prompted a barrage of e-mail complaints from female executives in WPP companies to Sorrell, sources said.

And at least one high-ranking woman executive at WPP has gone public with her anger at French’s remarks.

Nancy Vonk, a co-chief creative officer at WPP’s Ogilvy & Mather in Toronto, who attended the event, called French’s remarks about why there aren’t many women in senior agency roles “outrageous” and “derogatory.”

French shot back: “The point is that Nancy is an old friend, and should have raised this with me personally. The audience had paid to be entertained, not lectured to. And although I have a strong point of view, I’m always willing to listen to an opposing one. Trial by blog is a sad innovation, in my opinion.”

Vonk published her initial responses on www.ihaveanidea.org, the alliance of advertising creatives that co-sponsored French’s appearance.

That organization said it was considering whether to make a full account of French’s appearance available. (Ogilvy was also an event co-sponsor.)

“He said ‘because they are crap,'” Vonk told Adweek. “It felt like I got a shotgun blast in the face. I’ve had the experience of him being an excellent leader and very inspiring person. My head is still spinning because it was so outrageous. The upshot of what he said is that you give [women] a shot and they run off and have babies. It wasn’t in good humor. It was extremely painful the way he spoke.”

Attendees paid $125 a head to hear French discuss the creative side of advertising on Oct. 6 at the John Bassett Theatre. Creative stars Rick Boyko and Mark Fenske were also on hand, and the event featured a “French” barmaid serving drinks on stage, as well as a flamenco dance routine, alluding to French’s stint as a bullfighter.

French, a much-revered copywriter, is well known for his “politically incorrect” views. One source described him as “the Howard Stern of advertising,” adding that his shock value is part of what makes him such a big personality and a draw at industry events.

As a creative consultant to WPP since 2002, French’s job is to raise creative standards across the parent company’s agencies, keeping a scorecard, for example, on creative awards won by each. French also is charged with training and inspiring creative talent, particularly in Asia and Latin America.

Although Vonk described French as a longtime friend and mentor, she said she was shocked by the tone of his comments. “It was one of those experiences where you can hardly absorb what you are hearing,” Vonk continued. “Nothing prepared us. Even knowing him to be a boy’s boy. I never felt that he had such extreme views.”

Vonk, however, is looking on the bright side. She said if this incident shines a spotlight on an “obvious problem” within the industry among many men, then “there is a good thing that can come from it.”

—Adweek staff reports

This story updates an item posted on Oct. 20 with a statement from WPP.