French flap reignites gender debate

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Late in the evening of Oct. 6, ad legend Neil French was in a Toronto hotel contentedly ripping apart the reel of a young creative. The controversial WPP creative chief had just finished a public appearance in which, before more than 300 ad execs, he described female creative directors trying to balance work with family duties as "crap." But, it being a typically abrasive Neil French appearance, he wasn't at all ruffled afterward.

Two weeks later, following an online uproar led by women from his own company, he was out of a job. "It's a death by blog, isn't it?" said Mr. French in an interview last week, just days after he resigned from his post.

The man on the slab said it best. You could put the cigar-chomping Mr. French, a roving creative consultant for WPP, alongside any number of other advertising institutions done in by the Internet. But more than just a digital pillorying, the French imbroglio was notable for once again resurrecting an old conversation about whether women can balance work and family obligations in a demanding business environment.

Of course for many in the profession, that's not even a question anymore. "It's insulting, inappropriate, untrue, off-the-point, off-the mark," said Joyce King Thomas, chief creative officer at McCann Erickson, New York.

Asked whether there are enough prominent female creative directors, Ms. King Thomas said, "Probably not. But there aren't enough prominent women in a lot of fields because it just takes time. Businesses are slow and they perpetuate cycles." She concluded, "You can have children and a career."

How it started

Assuming you don't include the scantily-clad French maid serving drinks on stage at the event or the flamenco dancers that were a reference to his bullfighting past, Mr. French's gender trouble began when he was asked why there aren't that many top-level creatives. "I did not say female creatives are crap," Mr. French said, summing up his remarks from the event. "What I did say is that when somebody asked why are there so few creative directors it was because they can't put in the hours. Somebody has to look after the kids."

His answer set off at least one high-level ad woman in the audience. Writing later on IHaveAnIdea.org, Nancy Vonk, co-creative director at Ogilvy & Mather, Toronto, wrote, "What struck me so hard as he described a group that will inevitably wimp out and `go suckle something' after their short stint in advertising, was that in his honest opinion he was voicing the inner thoughts of legions of men in the senior ranks of our business."

Despite her fairly even-keeled reaction, Ms. Vonk's posting set off a chain reaction among a number of blogs, with some posters supporting him and others against. One, also on IHaveAnIdea.org, was representative: "Neil French is a dud. The money and cognac have gone to his head." (Mr. French corrected that, saying, "I hate cognac. I do drink a lot of red wine.")

The hubbub eventually reached London-based WPP Group Chief Executive Martin Sorrell early last week. As Mr. French put it, "Martin was spinning around like a top and, I'm sorry for the little chap, so I said I'd take it off him."

Provocateur

A WPP spokesman would only say that Mr. French's resignation had been received and declined to comment further.

Mr. French, formerly worldwide creative director at Ogilvy & Mather and a collector of odd jobs like manager of the heavy-metal band Judas Priest, is known as a provocateur. His October appearance, with two other well-known creatives, Rick Boyko and Kevin Fenske, was a heavily hyped local industry event, with a lead-up blitz that included a newspaper profile of the man and a Web site that featured a photo of Mr. French gazing rather manically through his trademark cigar smoke. He just looks like trouble.

"They paid [$125 Canadian] dollars to sit there," he said. "If they wanted Martin Luther King, they went to the wrong gig. I'm well known for being as outrageous as I can to make the point that I want to make. Advertising is hyperbole and I exercise hyperbole as much as I can."

On the Web

Read the full text of Matthew Creamer’s Q&A with Neil French on Adage.com QwikFIND aaro4y

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