While bystanders seem a little surprised by this scene, it's not nearly as outlandish as you might think. French is, after all, something of a deity in the ad business these days, particularly in the Far East. Says Ken McKenzie, publisher of Media magazine in Hong Kong, "Neil French is the closest thing Asia has to a creative icon." To which he appends, "It's a pity he's white trash."
Clearly there's no shortage of opinion about this increasingly legendary creative director. An expatriate Brit who's been in Singapore for over a decade, French turned 50 last month, just in time to celebrate his signing on for a second year as O&M's regional CD in Asia, a move that surprised even French himself. That's because he went into the post a year ago not exactly sure how it would turn out. Given his godlike status in Asia-indeed, the prostrations of that AD in New York underscore just how far-flung his reputation is-there was an assumption that he'd be able to do something with the job. Still, it's one thing to turn around the single office of an agency, like French helped to do at O&M in Singapore in the '80s and later at The Ball Partnership, where he over saw the creation of a series of award-winning print campaigns. But an entire region? At Ball, says French, "if I said jump, it was how high and how often, whereas here it's taking a little bit longer, obviously. But things are easier to change quickly here in the East, because you've generally got a younger management who are able to take in what you're saying. And they all want to get rich and famous and good at their jobs, and doing nothing isn't going to do it."
For French, "doing nothing" is about how he would appraise the performance of numerous people who've served as various agencies' regional CDs in the past. (This position is a first for O&M in Asia, so French has no immediate predecessor.) In general, French feels the job has been handled wrong, "which is why no one has been a success at it." There are a number of problems, he says, one of which being that agencies tend to treat it as a liaison post used to mollify big multinational clients. Another is his contention that too many regional CDs don't spend enough time with the kids, passing on their tricks. If they did, he says, there would be a noticeable difference in the work, and there isn't. "It's pretty easy to turn someone who's good into someone who's very good," he states, "and that's the purview of the CD, whether it's regional or worldwide."
But most of his complaints have to do with the Chinese concept of having face. To French, that means being able to walk into a creative department and command instant respect, not for what you've done in the past but for what you're doing now. The analogy of the Old West gunfighter works best for him, and he sounds like he relishes the image. "You've got to be able to draw before the other guy has his hand on the hilt," he boasts. "By nature advertising people are arrogant, and you've got to out-arrogant them, and then they'll listen to you.
"This is a business of rebels, after all," he adds, "and rebels don't listen to old fogies. There are too many nice old gentlemen running around with this title who have brought disrepute to the job because the kids won't listen to them. And the only reason to have them around is to make the work better. What else do you need the bastards for?"
French took the job to do just that, although friends add that he harbors a soft spot for his old agency, which he feels has lost its creative reputation in the region. He's also an unabashed fan of David Ogilvy and considers this, if anything, an honorable mission. And while it's still too soon to tell whether his year of living dangerously has made the work of O&M's Asian agencies any better, he isn't taking any chances in the shootout department.
His recent campaign for Spin detergent, like the X.O. beer campaign he pulled off for Singapore's Straits Times newspaper last year (see Creativity, May 1993), has carved another notch in his belt. (French's deal with O&M allows him to continue working for his own small clients, which gives him the opportunity to do work like this.)
For anyone who still doesn't know about X.O., the story is simple: French concocted a bogus beer brand notable primarily for its kick-ass alcohol content, then created a series of hysterical print ads featuring drinkers who had for the most part fallen on their faces. The ads all ran in The Straits Times, which commissioned the work as a way of demonstrating the power of newspapers as an ad medium. The campaign was a raucous success in one respect-demand for the nonexistent beer was so great that the newspaper actually brewed a few hundred cases and sold them in a day. As for attracting beer advertisers, well, that's another story.
Nonetheless, the campaign generated a ton of awareness and a flood of publicity, which is essentially what Spin asked French to do (along with selling some soap), again in the pages of The Straits Times. The newspaper angle was a key, French says, because the client only has a fraction of its rivals' media budget. Besides, he's a big fan of newspaper advertising. "One is capable of making a big noise in a newspaper, and it has topicality, which television and magazines don't have," he says. "So it has that kind of everyday, instant thump."
After doing some research, French decided that the product attribute they'd play up would be how Spin makes clothes smell, and from that he thought it would be neat to find a way to get the newspaper ads to smell like the product-not via a scent strip, but to actually infuse the page with a fragrance. (In a recent speech in Minneapolis, French said the resulting printed pages "smelled like a Turkish brothel.") The newspaper was so keen to show off this capability, again for the benefit of potential advertisers, that it contacted its Swiss ink suppliers, who somehow developed a way for the inks in the color ad to be scented.
The resulting four-color ads all play off the fact that the paper just might smell better than your clothes. As the campaign unfolded last summer, in true French fashion, it got more and more outrageous. First there was one with a bogus coupon, then a bouquet of flowers, followed by a man sniffing his armpit. "Then we ran the underpants ad," French says about an ad employing a doctored pair of men's briefs, "and the shit hit the fan in a huge way, to use a good pun." As if this ad weren't borderline enough, the next-and obvious-execution used a pair of women's panties accompanied by a headline you could never get away with here. At this point the client lost its nerve, and just in time, too, as government officials in Singapore complained about the ad and how it affronted Asian tastes and values. Which, of course, is just what French loves-a little officially-sanctioned controversy.
To French, it's vitally important that he maintain a presence doing this kind of work. "It's part of proving you can get your gun out quicker," he says. "But I'm lucky, you see-clients come to me specifically for this kind of stuff." He's also fortunate that he can get into this kind of mischief without jeopardizing his gig with O&M; in fact, if anything, it makes him more attractive to the agency. Says Simon Hayward, creative director at Batey Ads in Hong Kong and an old French crony, "It's a great feather in O&M's hat that they had the balls to rehire Neil in the first place."
There's another strategy at work here, a desire for French to transfer some of his appeal to the people he's currently putting in place. Referring to the kind of work he's done for Spin and X.O., he says, "With any luck people will come to O&M and say, 'Can we have a bit of that?' And we now have several people who can do it,"although he adds that if they came to the agency asking for him, "that would be hopeless, a complete reversal of what I'm trying to do."
As for the amount of freedom he has to accomplish this, again, he's living a charmed life. "The advantage of having me is that I don't need the job," he says, recounting what he was told by Rod Wright, O&M's chairman for the Asian and Pacific region and the man who hired him. "I'm not going to pull punches because I might get fired for being rude to people. So they're going to get an absolutely straight answer all the time." Asked if he's been rude, he chuckles. "I've been a little direct, perhaps. I'm not good at wrapping things up in pretty paper, because people might not unwrap it. And I've done a bit of that and stepped back and waited for the bang and nothing's happened."
This, apparently, is just what Wright wanted. "I absolutely expected him to rock the boat and ruffle feathers," he says. "This is a job that can only be done this way, not from some comfortable discussion around the table."
The big questions, says Hayward, are "how will O&M measure his success and what is his brief? Creative people in general are only interested in two things, profit and creativity. Conflict arises with agencies that are only interested in the former. There's no point in paying Neil a fortune to be a Leo Burnett style 'executive' CD."
"Apart from writing and art directing some campaigns with his own unmistakable stamp, Neil would be raising people's faith in their own talent," says Jim Aitch
ison, executive CD at Batey's Singapore office and another old French colleague. "In the role of a guru, he excels. Only a roomful of Luddites would fail to be inspired or motivated."
How about a roomful of jaded, cynical New Yorkers? The issue of whether or not the agency might want to import a little French culture to the main U.S. office is one that French himself demurs on, but Wright likes the sound of it. "I'd love to see it," he says, adding quickly, "how he'd get on here I don't know. It would be interesting for everyone. In Asia, Neil's word is absolute. He has a point of view and he expresses it forcefully. It would be interesting to see how clients here deal with that."
Marc Lucas, a young art copywriter at Ogilvy in New York, might have an inkling. He worked at Ball's Hong Kong office when French was in Singapore. "Neil bullies clients mercilessly, and yet sells some of the finest advertising in the world," he says. "He's the creative's champion and the account guy's worst nightmare." Aitchison concurs. "Neil doesn't suffer fools easily," he says. "Given a sound argument, he can be flexible, but he won't roll over for the convenience of an incompetent suit. He is very passionately committed to delivering the best work, so any agency sharing his passion will have no cause for complaint."
One person who doesn't see French in New York is Michael Fromowitz, the former chairman and executive creative director at Ball's Hong Kong office. "He'd never do it," he says. "He loves Asia, and I don't think he feels the need." Besides, says Fromowitz, who recently started Red Ball Tiger, an agency based in San Francisco, French wouldn't get the opportunities to do the same work here as he does in Singapore. "He's having a lot more fun traveling all over Asia."
Then again, says Hayward, "if the money was right, he'd go like a lamb to the