A living legend in Asia, the ex-patriate English copywriter (who also dabbles in directing commercials) has been acting as O&M's regional creative director for Asia/Pacific.
Occasionally, he has put pen to paper to crank out advertising, too.
He hasn't written or directed any advertising for the agency since last year, however, and now that he's been named to fill the agency's long-vacant post of worldwide creative director, he doubts he'll have the chance.
Then again, O&M's loss is O&M's gain.
"Neil is one of the few people around the world who have a global reputation in the creative community, and one of few people in our network who has that," said Rick Boyko, O&M New York president and chief creative director. "He's proved in our Asia/Pacific region that he was able to improve the work."
The 54-year-old Mr. French's brief now is to do the same thing around the world that he did in Asia, where the agency claims its overall awards-show ranking has been on the rise.
Reporting to Chairman-CEO Shelly Lazarus, Mr. French was asked by the agency's Creative Council -- a group of six of the agency's top creatives -- to assume a leadership role and execute its mission around the world.
"The council was just beginning to feel its oats, and decided that a focus and a spokesman would be no bad thing," said Mr. French.
He professes to be unmoved about giving up his days as a copywriter, noting, "I'm a better creative director than a do-er, anyway."
In his new post, he won't bear direct responsibility for the work in individual O&M regions, as each office will continue to report to its regional creative director.
LEVEL OF ADEQUACY
"In principle," Mr. French said, "I shall formulate a plan that I hope the council will endorse that will make a certain level of adequacy mandated, and that will allow the offices that are willing to have a grab at glory to do so with the backing of the council and the board."
Mr. French is on his second stint with O&M. He began his career in the U.K. in the 1960s at Sterling Advertising and moved to O&M in Singapore, where he will continue to be based, in 1982. He left in '86 for the top creative job at the Ball Partnership, Singapore, where his reputation grew via a series of brilliantly written, startlingly art-directed print ads for a range of clients. He did a brief stint at Batey Ads, Singapore, before rejoining O&M in '93.
Soon after his return, Mr. French put in place in Asia a number of practices intended to increase the overall product of O&M's offices -- some of them bearing the telltale marks of his rogue, bad-boy nature.
A LITTLE MAFIA
One thing he did was to begin a series of conferences for creative directors. The first was held in Thailand; his goal was simple.
"I wanted all the guys to feel a sense of esprit de corps -- a little mafia, if you like, us against the rest," he said. "We played paintball a lot, and had go-cart championships, and hung out in disreputable bars. Once you've done all that together, you lose any sense of competition among yourselves, and feel like a military unit."
A tangible benefit that came out of the meeting was the creation of "The Book," an annual collection of the best work being done in the region, voted on by the creative directors themselves.
"Although there was nothing but good will, the judging was very tough," Mr. French claimed, "and people who didn't get in were mortified. We had tears from one guy, I recall. But the parting feeling was always to make it next time. And it worked. Several offices that were not represented in the first two books practically dominated the last two."
More draconian, Mr. French said he persuaded the agency's regional chairmen to "institute a system of withholding bonuses from any office that was seen not to be performing."
Another of Mr. French's initiatives in Asia has since been adopted throughout the world by the council -- the startup of creative and business-side teams.
"I tried to put partnerships together in each office of a creative director and a manager who would get along well and fight each others' battles," he said. "That definitely worked."
"In this way, we're not just figurehead leaders," said Mr. Boyko. "The responsibility of council members becomes to raise the level of work in their region. Neil was the guiding light behind this, and he was the first to do it."
As for Mr. French's new role, "If anyone can bring meaning to the post of worldwide creative director, it will be Neil," said David Guerrero, creative director and chairman of the newly formed BBDO Guerrero Ortega in the Philippines, who spent three years as executive creative director at O&M in the Philippines. "He has a ruthlessly creative focus, which concentrates the minds wonderfully of both creative and managing directors. . . . He has a simple and consistent message: The end product is all that counts."
Mr. French is more or less resigned to having one way to measure the performance of the various CDs under him.
"I wish there was a better dispassionate way of measuring this than awards, but there isn't. All other opinions, within your own company, are subjective. We're in a business that promotes competition, and we can only be judged by our peers, against our peers," said Mr. French.
Mr. French's hopes are that his own success will be judged by when O&M starts "to attract the sort of big client who specifically demands breakthrough work."
"If we can pull that off, and combine it with all the huge strengths of the agency as it stands, we'll steamroller every other [agency] group on the planet."