French, Neil (1944- )

Published on .

Reprints Reprints

An expatriate English copywriter with an eclectic background, Neil French is widely regarded as the man who taught Asian ad agencies how to do great print advertising.

Mr. French was born Sept. 9, 1944, in Birmingham, England. After being expelled from school at the age of 16, he worked as a debt collector and sold encyclopedias door to door. He landed his first job in advertising at the age of 18, joining a Birmingham agency called Sterling Advertising. He initially worked as a studio assistant before being promoted, after less than two years, to account exec.

Within a year, Mr. French left the agency to briefly work for his client, a motorcycle manufacturer. When the company folded shortly thereafter, he took off for Spain, where he spent two years dabbling in bullfighting, singing in nightclubs and waiting on tables.

When he returned to England, Mr. French went back to the agency business, where he worked as an account exec at a small Birmingham agency before moving to London and making the transition to the creative side of advertising, initially as a writer, then as an art director.

In 1970, he became a partner in his own agency, Blacker Hyde Associates, during which time he also claims to have run a discotheque and a concert hall and managed a rock band. The agency folded in 1978, a move that wiped him out financially. He briefly joined a London agency, Clements Frankis Powell, before his first, short-lived job in Asia: He took over—for three days in 1980—as creative director of Batey Ads in Singapore.

He returned to London, but in 1983 moved back to Singapore, recruited by Michael Ball, an executive with Ogilvy & Mather in Asia, to become creative director of the agency's office there.

In 1986, Mr. French took over as creative director of Batey Ads, then moved six months later to the Ball Partnership, working again for Michael Ball. He was eventually named vice chairman of the agency, which was acquired by London-based WCRS.

Mr. French left Ball in 1994 and spent a year freelancing and directing TV commercials before returning to Ogilvy as regional creative director for Asia/Pacific in 1995. In 1998, the agency reformed its global creative council and he was named worldwide creative director.

Mr. French's success in Asia resulted from a combination of many factors. The ad industry in the region was in its infancy, and he was able to train a cadre of young Asians in his approach, resulting in a reputation not only as a star in his own right but also as a teacher and mentor.

The style popularized by Mr. French is typically a minimalist visual approach, one that reflects both an elegance in layout and an economy of graphic elements. The text, which reflects Mr. French's fondness for long copy, is written in a literate, sophisticated and impertinent tone.

Further, the print work that blossomed under his creative direction was always meticulously crafted, with attention to everything from typography and letter spacing to photography, retouching and engraving.

One of Mr. French's claims to fame, in addition to a notorious ability to ruffle the corporate feathers of both his agency bosses and his clients, was his penchant for creating controversial ad campaigns. He did this twice in the early 1990s in Singapore, both times running ads in local newspapers that resulted in considerable media coverage and outright condemnation—results that often delighted Mr. French.

One of these campaigns has become legendary in the ad business. Retained by the Singapore Straits Times to produce a campaign that demonstrated the power of newspaper advertising to move beer consumers, Mr. French created a fictitious brand dubbed "XO" beer that was notable for its high alcohol content. He then created a series of humorous ads extolling this quality and ran them in the newspaper. As a result, Singapore bars were besieged with requests for the brand, which did not exist. In typical Neil French fashion, he had registered the name of the beer in his own name and profited nicely when, as a follow-up to its hoax, the newspaper actually brewed a few hundred cases of the stuff and quickly sold them.

Mr. French has posted many of his award-winning print ads on his Web site (, where they are accompanied by his own remarks about the ads and the circumstances behind their creation. Among these are works for Borders, Beck's beer, Chivas Regal and Parker pens.


Born in Birmingham, England, Sept. 9, 1944; got first ad agency job at Sterling Advertising, 1962; became partner in his own agency, Blacker Hyde Associates, 1970; Blacker Hyde Associates folded, 1978; named creative director of Singapore office of Ogilvy & Mather, 1983; named creative director, Batey Ads, 1986; six months later, moved to Ball Partnership, where he was eventually named vice chairman; left Ball, 1994; returned to Ogilvy as regional creative director for Asia/Pacific, 1995; named worldwide creative director of Ogilvy, 1998.

In this article:
Most Popular