November 2005 – Strategy Magazine
One is enough
Q’s and cocktails with…Neil French, outgoing worldwide CD, WPP Group
by Lisa D’Innocenzo
By now, you surely must have heard about the Neil French kerfuffle. The short version: Last month, he resigned his post at WPP because of reaction to controversial comments he made about female CDs during a Toronto event, organized by ad site ihaveanidea.org.
Strategy interviewed French a day before that fateful night and felt he made some salient points about the state of the industry, as well as what it takes to be brilliant. So, despite the fact that he called said reporter “Sweetpea,” we thought this was still worth a read.
LD: What do you think of the state of the ad industry?
NF: What in Canada? Please don’t ask me, because I don’t know. I could have got somebody to brief me about Canadian advertising. That would have been wrong, because it’s like a politician being told what to say. I don’t do that shit. I’ve never been to Canada before – what the hell would I know about Canada? I like the place – I love the weather. [Spoken on a 28 degree day in late September.]
LD: How about overall?
NF: There’s this hysteria on at the moment about how television is dead and it’s all going to interactive. That’s such bollocks. Yes, in the Western World there are a lot of computers out there and interactive thingy-bobs. But actually 90% of the population of the earth is not sitting in front of an Apple tonight. You go to some huge shack city in Brazil, or Thailand, and that light from the shack is a television. Why is everybody panicking? I remember when radio was dead. I remember when newspapers were dead. They’re fine. Now television is dead. No it’s bloody not. It’s just a lot of inept people who think that with the next thing, there might be some good ads. There won’t be of course, because they are genetically inept.
LD: What do you think of the fact that more money is going into interactive then?
NF: If you put everything into mobile, it’s going to piss people off much more than the television ads. Mostly mobile’s used by kids. They are going to make the phone calls, they are going to text their mates, they do not want to be interrupted by some jerk who wants to sell them a soft drink. So this is more likely to burn out very quickly. They will watch the stuff they want to see, and that’s when you get them. Yes, TiVo can make sure you don’t watch the ads, but if it’s a really good ad that appears during the moto racing or the soccer, you’ll leave it on to hope the ad comes on. I’ve heard people say this: “I love this one. I’m not going out for a pee.” It’s human nature. If the media buyer’s clever enough, it’s going to always be in the same program. Having your ad liked by the consumer, that’s the Holy Grail. No more conversation needed on that subject; move on.
LD: So what does it take to make a good ad?
NF: Talk to people. That’s all it is. When Winston Churchill said: “We shall fight them on the beaches,” he was talking to one bloke. Every single person in his little house in the middle of England saw himself standing shoulder to shoulder with Winston, with a pitchfork in his hand on the seashore. And when Hitler said: “We’re going to take over the world; we’ve had a rough deal,” every soldier at Nuremberg, said: “He’s talking to me, and I must not let him down.” So good or evil, the great communicators talk to one person. That’s what advertising does – I’m talking to you, this is the right car for you, or beer, or insurance company, or whatever the hell it is. Only for you. Luckily, there are millions of people like you and they will all buy it, but you don’t say that in the ad. There’s no you plural in advertising, it’s you singular.
LD: How come more advertisers don’t get that?
NF: Because 95% of the people in this business are buffoons. They’re clowns. The creatives blame the clients and the suits, and that’s only because the suits frequently come into advertising because they couldn’t get into banking or retail, so you get an awful lot of those. But the client has every right to make his own decision on his own product. It is our responsibility to explain to him why this will work better than that, and if we fail to do that, we don’t deserve to do good advertising.
LD: What work have you seen recently that gets it right?
NF: I have to bring this one up, because it’s a great example of talking to the audience. It was an ad [I did] for [Panadol] in China. They researched aspirins and the Chinese got a bit upset that it said: “Take two,” because they thought: “It seems like such a waste, using all these aspirins up.” So they brought out the single pill.
If you want to talk to people, tell them something that’s relevant to them, and then twist it in the direction of your product. So I wrote the line of “One is enough,” and the picture was a picture of George Bush and George Bush. It was huge.
Next year’s big winner is going to be the Big Ad from Australia [for Carlton Draught]. It is the heaviest irony possibly ever used in advertising and utterly hilarious. If you look at it and deconstruct it, it’s the perfect ad for beer, without having to show a lot of people in the public going “yo-ho-ho.”
LD: Why do so many ads in categories like beer look the same?
NF: Why? I’ll tell you why, and this is where the client is to blame. He sees an ad, and says: “Oh, that’s good, can we have one like that?” And it’s the very thing he shouldn’t say. He should say: “Can we have one not like that.” Otherwise, how can a consumer, who doesn’t really care, ever differentiate? The client’s problem is only that his widget means to him his house, his wife, their kids, their education, their retirement and his funeral. Whereas to anyone in the street, it doesn’t come in the top million of things to worry about. Our job is to say: “This might be irrelevant, this widget,” but of course the client’s saying “No, no it’s really important; this is the best widget in the world.” But actually, they don’t care, mate. All we can say is: “When you need a widget, we do good ones.” So our job is to bridge the gap between the client’s enthusiasm and the audience’s apathy.
LD: How hard is that to do?
NF: It can be extremely difficult. The whole trick is to explain gently to the client why this is so. There are stupid people, but generally speaking the guy that runs the client is highly intelligent and highly motivated and a bit of a pirate. You don’t get to run a big brewery or big car company without being a little ballsy. Unfortunately for the hewers of wood and fetchers of water, further down the hierarchy, their interest is keeping their job.
I can’t remember a single occasion I’ve sold a decent campaign to anyone but the top guy. I did a campaign for Martel brandy, which was long copy and nobody had ever done long copy for brandy before. People down the line weren’t sure about it, but I made them let me present it to Edgar Bronfman, who in those days was the head of Seagram’s. The suits put me up front with great trepidation and I explained the ad. Edgar got it before I explained it to him. He understood the whole concept. He said: “Yeah, that’s great. We’ll go there. Looks like nothing we’ve ever seen before.” All the racks of suits sighed with relief because they didn’t have to make any decisions. At the end, he walked all the way down to the far end of the table, and said: “Neil, when these guys screw this up, you call me.” And I said: “You mean if?” And he said: “No, I mean when.”
LD: Are presidents getting more involved in marketing?
NF: No. I wish they bloody did. The only benefit of being old and wizened, like myself, is I can generally see the top man. Because I’ve been around forever, longer than God. The guy they want to see is the superstar, somebody like Bogusky, or an old bozo like me.
LD: How do you convince marketers to take a risk?
NF: Something I say to clients a lot is: “Are you actually just spending this money to mark time, or do you really want to make a difference? And how much of a difference do you want to make specifically? How much do you want sales to go up? How much can you supply if this was successful?” Ask all those questions and then you can say: “Now I know how brave you’re going to be. Not at all or very.” And of course, all bravery is risky, and so is safety.
LD: When do you know you can’t work with a marketer?
NF: There are three things important when running an ad agency. Someone called it the three F’s: fun, funds and fame. If a client gives you money and fame, that’s great. If he gives you fun and fame, but not much money, that’s still great. If he gives you lots of money and lots of fun, that’s ok. But if there’s no money in it, and no fun, but it will make you famous, you have to think about it. If it’s just fun, then you should have left years ago. One is bad. Two is ok, three is unbearably wonderful. After all, it is your life. The client doesn’t own you; you’re not a slave; you can say uncle.
LD: Why are boutique agencies becoming increasingly popular?
NF: The boutiques are attractive to big clients because they have a personal stake in the success of this relationship. The client joins and asks a smaller agency to help them in the knowledge that there might be a few moments of stress in this relationship, but in the end they will succeed. These are the mistresses, not the wives. The mistresses get the jewelry, the wives get the washing machine. It’s sad but true.
I was once talking to a boss of another very, very big agency. And I said: “You’ve had these clients so long. How do you do it?” He said: “Because they can’t be bothered to fire us.” It’s too much hassle.
LD: Like a divorce?
NF: Absolutely. “God, this is a problem. Oh, well, stick with it. It could be worse, not much, but it could be worse.” How sad is that? There comes a time, where you’re going to say: “Actually, screw this.” Or go get yourself a mistress, for just part of the time. And that’s what these big clients do. “We’re tied up to the teeth with these people, but I hate the bloody work, so I’m going to get a babe, and go out to dinner with a babe a lot, which will be great. It’s much more fun, makes us feel good, and hey, then we’ve got to get back to the sodding wife again.”
There will be more and more boutiques. There was a point where it was just about the big, big blocks taking over, but then the big, big blocks [started] buying the boutiques. Why do they buy the boutiques? Not for the money they’re making. They buy them to give themselves a certain sexiness – a nice set of legs, or high heels.
LD: A boob job?
NF: A boob job! Very good. Absolutely. That’s exactly it. Let’s stick them on to the front and it looks like we have big boobs. It doesn’t work.
LD: Does it help to have an ego in the ad business?
NF: I taught myself self confidence in my early teens. I was very shy. Pain and agony, and beating down embarrassment, teaching myself not to blush and all those awful things. Ego is really: “Do you really believe in yourself?”
[In Canada], there’s a cringe factor. There’s the permanent apology. I mean, I love the fact that people on the street are all saying “sorry” all the time. But, come on guys. Politeness is great, but sometimes it’s not said in a politeness way, as much as a “Please don’t hit me” way. That’s sad. I remember a young guy, saying: “You’re an egomaniac. You’re all ego and no talent.” That may be true. I said: “Do you have an ego?” “No,” he says. “Do you bathe? Then you have an ego. You care about what people think about you. You take a shower, you care.”