Neil French Talks to Creativity

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Veteran creative and all round advertising personality Neil French has announced that he is resigning from his role at WPP in the wake of reaction to controversial comments he made at a recent Toronto event hosted by ihaveanidea.org. The comments were in response to the question: 'Why aren’t there more female creative directors?' and made reference to women’s inability to commit to the CD job due to their role in child rearing. The remarks generated significant debate online and, says French, enough fallout for WPP that he will leave the company.

Here, Neil French responds to the “female creatives are crap” flap.

Why are you leaving WPP?

I resigned to save Martin (Sorrell) and to save WPP any further hassle. Because it’s not fair. They weren’t there. They weren’t involved. They didn’t book the event. They are just sitting there and the blogs started and they get caught in the crossfire. It’s not fair to Martin or the company or to the shareholders.

What kind of hassle were they getting?

From nobody who was there, they were getting a lot of ‘how can you let this sexist pig work for WPP?’ It’s a massive company. And if people are going to pillory the company for that- it’s unfair and wrong. If there’s anyone to blame it’s just me, and I don’t think I'm to blame. But nevertheless. The safest thing for them is to say we’ve accepted his resignation and let's move on.

Isn’t that giving in to the forces of political correctness – that’s not very you is it?

Several people have said that and I’ve had such a lot of emails today saying don’t give in. I’m not giving in--I’m preventing other people from being caught in the crossfire. It’s not fair to them. I’ve never walked away from a fight. But as far as I can see this isn’t a fight and if other people are getting caught in the drive by shooting it’s just not fair.

You’re really leaving because you want to leave and start your own agency aren’t you? (said humorously)

Ha. No I was just talking to Alex Bogusky today and he asked me the same thing. No absolutely not. I have no energy left for that.

To what degree do you think the remarks you made were taken out of context, and to what degree does the reporting reflect what you actually said?

Well, you can’t storyboard a smile. In order to entertain the troops as it were...there were a lot of questions, some of them serious some of them silly. The question ‘why are there so few female creative directors’ is a silly question when you think about it. Like I’d know? But if you really want an answer the answer is they don’t have time to commit to the job. They’re likely to either get pregnant or have to go take their kid to the hospital. I haven’t seen my child in three months. That, believe me is a real sacrifice. It’s hell and I hate it but that’s how I keep them fed. Women are the only ones who can have babies number one, and secondly they are accepted caregivers generally more than men. In America I think there are more househusbands which is great but in the rest of the world there really aren’t. Now, you can be a writer or an art director with all that. You can do that and go home at night at a sensible time, but you can’t be a creative director.

So you didn’t say that women aren’t good creative directors inherently?

No, of course that’s all it is. I was married to one of Asia’s best art directors for several years then she became a creative director and I was married to her for another few years and we decided not to have kids for that reason. Simple. Everyone has to make a sacrifice.

When are you leaving?

I don’t know really. I assume I’m working out my notice. I’ll do so until told otherwise.

Are you sad to leave?

I’m very sad not to be seeing all the fabulous creative people--of both genders. I enjoy them and respect them and I kick them and they roll with the punches and they come back. I’ll miss that enormously but I won't miss this kind of bullshit.

How would you describe the role you’ve been occupying at WPP lately?

Well, every now and again there’s a client that lets me write an ad but generally speaking I’m going to regional conferences and looking at the work from an agency in a region and finding out what can make them better. Because I’ve been doing this for 40 years there is usually a little key. Like, what if I press this button. And it usually works. It’s almost like being a teacher but it’s very rewarding. Seeing someone who wasn’t that great become great is very rewarding.

What do you want to do now?

Well first I want to see my kid. I have a few things I have to do because I’ve given my word and then I’ll get on the next plane home and play with my kid and then I’ll worry about what to do.

Looking around the industry now, what interests you – what sort of agency do you think works? And what will you do next?

It depends which way it all swings, doesn’t it? I think it’s important that all agencies should have their own character, their own brand. The size of a holding company is irrelevant as long as each company has its own character. I’m not bothered about the holding company argument. There are agencies I’d quite like to work with and I’m working with them now. I’m having great fun with Grey, for example. They don’t know how good they are. It’s nice to go somewhere and say I think we can move you up a notch. I love that job. But I’m not making any assumptions about what I’m going to do next. I might no nothing. Or I’ll write a book. I think it might sell now, don’t you? (TI)

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