iTunes podcast: Neil French & Jeremy Hildreth in conversation
Now in his seventies, Neil French is a Hemingway-esque figure. Neil’s checkered past includes a stint as Judas Priest’s band manager and a foray into Soho’s pornographic underworld that lasted until the Maltese mafia threatened his life.
It was Neil’s stratospheric success in advertising that made him rich and famous, yet for reasons left unexplained, he can’t stomach being compared to Don Draper of MAD MEN.
In 2005, he finished his career with Sir Martin Sorrell at WPP with the exalted title “worldwide creative director,” then went into the business of being a dad full time.
This podcast presents a single hour of coherent conversation (distilled from several hours of discursive dialogue).
In this recording, we get into random & fascinating topics like:
• How to know when to give up bullfighting
• David Ogilvy: from boardroom to bedroom
• Why you should try to write the way you talk
• Ozzy Osbourne’s incredible ear for accents
• The mindsets and practices that create and sell-in effective advertisements
• Banging heads with the chairman of Mitsubishi, and how that can be avoided by using a 4-foot “cultural exclusion zone”
• The generous spirit of Thai women
• Which airline serves the best curry
• The genius of Jimmy Buffett and the poetry of country music
• How to get the best out of your clients while helping them get the best out of you
• Being likeable versus ingratiating
• Living without regrets
Read it in full below, or, if you prefer, on Medium.
So, this is Jeremy Hildreth, and who am I talking to?!
I’m talking to Neil French, who’s one of the most straight-shooting, strong-willed, self-revealing and self-determined men that I have ever had the pleasure to discourse with. I would characterize Neil as an amalgam of Roger Sterling, Ernest Hemingway and Errol Flynn, but you can draw your own conclusions about that.
This podcast is brought to you by… nobody. I made it myself very much in a, “Look, Ma, no hands!” kind of way. You can probably look forward to better audio quality in future broadcasts. But this one is still pretty listenable, and you do get the ambiance of Neil’s villa high up on the hillside of the village of Deia in Majorca, Spain where the following conversation was recorded.
Music: [music: Judas Priest, “Victim of Changes”]
So… thank you for agreeing to be on my first podcast, which might be my last podcast too.
Certainly, in which case, it will be the best.
Yes. Or it could be the beginning of something. I’ve been told many times I have a great face for radio.
Yeah, you do have a terrific face for radio.
And you have a great voice for radio. So, between the two of us….
Well, I earned a living at this for awhile….
For the audience’s benefit, I’ll say that I first heard of you, Neil French, after I did my MBA at Oxford, and I got my first job at a branding and design agency in London. And I was a strategist teamed up with designers. And in the little library that the agency next to the kitchen they had a book called The Copy Book, which had I think 47 or 48 different copywriters.
32. I always thought that was a bizarre number. Why 32?
’Cause out of 50, that’s how many responded.
Oh, is that right?
No, I just made that up.
You made that up as well? You’re very good.
I’m learning from you how to sound authoritative when you make something up.
I’m so impressed.
So, that chapter in The Copy Book had a big influence on me. And now, changing the subject slightly, I tease people that I have a variegated history, not to be confused with a checkered past. I’ve had several careers up till now, but, sir, you take the cake in terms of a career history, which may, if I could put it politely, verge on a checkered past.
Well, it wouldn’t verge! I worked at it being a checkered past! Christ!
That was by design? Okay.
How much more checkered do you want it?!
So I’ll read, briefly, from your bio in The Copy Book: “Neil French, born 1944, expelled from minor public school at 16, rent collector, account executive, bouncer, waiter, singer, matador — we’ll come back to that — pornographer, rock band manager — which was Judas Priest, you managed Judas Priest in the 1970s? How cool is that? — promoter, account executive again, and most famously of all, a copywriter.
You became a huge big-shot in Asia in the ’80s and ’90s. You’re credited with only slight exaggeration of kind of inventing advertising in Asia. And so on and so forth all the way up to becoming worldwide creative director of Ogilvy which doesn’t seem like it could be topped. But then you became worldwide creative director for WPP, Wire and Plastic Products, the noble house that owns Ogilvy and Gray and Y&R and all of those. It’s like being the pope… like being God’s representative of creative direction on Earth!
Yeah, it’s exactly like that, assuming that Martin [Sorrell] is God, which he thinks he is… which is fair. The Ogilvy job was much nicer than the WPP one, because I was actually fairly hands on. I could go and talk to the bunny rabbits and suggest, with a fist like this, that they did it my way. And that was good. I never had the hiring and firing power, but I had as near to it as you can get as long as I had the agreement of the other people in the company, and usually I could get that. So if I said, “Your creative director sucks.” And they’d say “Well he’s such a nice man.” “Yeah, I know, I know… however, he’s gotta be changed.” And they’d say, “All right, as long as it isn’t me that has to do the firing.” “Oh no, I’ll do the firing, don’t worry about it.”
And so we just upped the grade of the people. And once you’ve done that, the work comes naturally. If you’ve got the right people, the work comes out. It’s garbage in, garbage out, and the reverse applies as well. So that was a lovely job. WPP was less lovely because the other agencies didn’t have the same ethos that Ogilvy had. Ogilvy has, or had, an ethos, I don’t know that it still has, but I wasn’t as welcome as the flowers of spring every time I turned up at an office, to be honest.
Nevertheless, it’s a long way from Birmingham, where you began.
You can’t get far enough away from Birmingham.
On that subject, there’s another Brummie, Ozzy Osbourne, I mentioned the story the other day, when someone asked him in an interview, “Ozzy, if you hadn’t become this rock star that you are, what would you be doing?” And without a second’s hesitation, Ozzy said, “I’d be in jail.”
No he didn’t, he said, “I’d be in jayl.”
Yeah, do it in Brummie.
[Neil impersonates Ozzy in Brummie]. You know, that’s Brummie.
So, if you hadn’t risen to these heights in advertising, what do you think you’d be doing?
I’ve thought about this many times, obviously, and of all the other failures I’ve had, the only other, the one that wasn’t actually a failure, I was forced out by firebombs in Soho, I would’ve liked to have stuck to pornography, ’cause I thought that was fascinating. I loved it, not for the tits and pussies and things like that, but for the social engineering you do while you’re doing it. Really interesting.
It suited you.
Yeah, no, that’s right. You know, when I was in school, I wanted to be a priest. I didn’t believe in God, but that didn’t seem to be terribly important as far as I knew from the other priests I’d met. And somebody said, “Why?” And I said, “For the power.” And I do like power. I like power, power to change people’s opinions and thoughts and hopes and fears. And you can do that with porn. It’s a force for good, if you let it be.
It’s still funny to think that if it hadn’t have been Mad Men, it’d have been Boogie Nights for Neil French.
Yeah, I’m not hung enough of for Boogie Nights, but certainly Mad Men.
Some idiot put something on the Web the other day describing me as “the real Don Draper” which I found insulting beyond words! Oh, God!
Well, I made a comparison between you and Hemingway, and felt like I’d stepped in it… “This guy bristles at a comparison to Hemingway?!” What’s the deal? Do you prefer Hemingway to Don Draper?
Of course, anybody’s better than Don Draper, fuck me! Hemingway would be a fair role model, ’cause he tried a lot of shit, wasn’t very good at boxing, wasn’t the best big game shooter in the world, tried everything. And ended up, sadly, having to write, poor bugger. And I understand his feelings, really.
Segueing back to Ozzy Osbourne —
I liked that story that you told about the time you met him, because he has, people have a perception of him as almost short a chromosome, or having an extra chromosome … What’s the? I forgot how it works…. A sandwich short of a picnic, anyway, whatever the chromosomal situation underlying may be. But the story you told me cast Ozzy in a different light, a light I’d never seen him in, where there’s certain kind of intelligence and aptitude that was surprising.
In a way, it didn’t surprise me, because very few very stupid people make it in any form of commerce — and it is commerce — so he must’ve been smart at some point, and there he was, a superstar of genre of music that I loathed. So… interesting, but not that interesting. Do you want me to tell the story?
Okay. I was in Los Angeles at a party, which had to do with Judas Priest, doesn’t matter. And a man in a seersucker suit sidled up to me and said, “Yeah, are you’re from England? Do you know Ozzy Osbourne?” And the funny thing was I hadn’t at that point. I said, “No, funnily enough, I haven’t.” “Would you like to meet him?” Well rather than talk to you, tit-head, yes, I would love to. So he walked me over to the settee.
Ozzy was sitting there with the trademark glasses and the hair down to here, with a bottle of Jack Daniels in his hand, swaying. Now, it takes talent to sway when you’re sitting down. You have to be well pissed!
I love the way people talk to drunks sometimes. He said, “Ozzy.” Like he’s a nitwit, “Ozzy, I’ve got a guy from England here.” And Ozzy kind of focused a bit. And I said, “Ahh, Oz, I’m sorry, I lost the… I’ve made an attempt to lose the Brummie accent so now I’ve got this rather plummy thing.” And he said, “Go on then, say something in Brummie.” And I’m standing there like in front of the headmaster. And I said [in Brummie], “Oh, Mary had a little lamb, its fleece was white as snow, and everywhere that Mary went the lamb would surely go.” And there was a silence. And he said: “Mosely.”
As in, you’re from Moseley?
No, I’m not from Moseley, but I was born there.
Well that’s a neighborhood, that’s a spot, I’m just clarifying, that’s a place.
Okay. And he said, “Wake Green Road.” Now that’s weird, ’cause I was born in Wake Green Road. I said, “Yeah, how do you know?” He said, “I don’t know, I can always tell you know. I think it must be a tonal thing. I can always tell which part of Brummie you come from, but anyway it’s all right, you’re a Brummie, sit down.” So then we had a long conversation. But I was very impressed that he actually got the part of Birmingham I was born in. Although I didn’t live there for very long, but I did work there for quite a long time collecting rents.
That’s in your book, that’s in your book [the rent collecting is]. Now, okay, next topic, David Ogilvy. I have, interestingly enough because of my own checkered past, I have never, or at least not yet, worked for an advertising agency of any sort. But I have learned so much from David Ogilvy and his books. And he puts so much of his own personality in his writing that I kind of feel like I know the guy, but I don’t. I mean, you actually knew him, he was a friend of yours. Tell us a David story and tell us how you feel about him.
I was very fond of David, and I met him very late in my career, and late in his life. So by that time, his opinions had softened a bit and he agreed that being funny was good, as opposed to absolutely terrible. He completely did a flip.
Oh, because he had the thing about people don’t buy from clowns. He was very anti-humor.
He was a tit. But he finally realized that people buy from people they like, and if you want people to like you, make them laugh. And then he actually wrote that down, so thank you very much, Dave. He was a darling old man, and I liked him a lot. Luckily he got a really nice wife, Herta, who was part Mexican, she was a sweetheart. And in fact, when he passed on, I went to the chateau to say hello to Herta, and she gave me his room that night, which is something you didn’t know. And the funny thing was it was fucking freezing. It had a fire, a nice big roaring fire, and it made no different to this massive stone room. And I wrapped myself in a carpet and laid in front of the fire all night, it was so cold.
That story is not in the book, but your book Sorry for the Lobsters is full of those kinds of wonderful anecdotes. And the title, which is not self-evident, is fully explained in the course of the narrative.
At some point, you get the hang of it. Because everybody says, “Why?” And I said, “Well, you’re gonna have to read to find out. I’m not telling you.”
Gotta read the book, yeah.
No, David’s great thing was… I wasn’t there, but this is the story they tell, and I’d loved to have been there. But David used to preside over dinner. And they used to send him posh clients, you know, top man from Ford and all that. To have dinners at his chateau. And truly enough, from one of the windows, you could just see the edge of his vineyard, and he was very proud of his wine. And he said, at one point, to these massive heroes of business and industry, he said, “Oh, um, you can, ah, just see my vineyard from here.”
And he said, “This, in fact, is my own wine, from my own vineyard.” And passed it around. And one of the guys picked it up [and tasted it] and said, “Doesn’t travel well, does it?”
True story. And Herta said it was truly taking the wind out of the old boy’s sails.
I bet, but in his defense, it’s very difficult to make your own wine. To make your own beer is not very difficult, for example, it takes a little doing. But wine is famously tough to crack.
Well you know, the more I know about wine, the more I know nothing about wine.
It’s one of those sorts of realms.
It’s really irritating. I used to think I knew everything, well, about wine, at least… more than most people… And the more I found out, the more [I realised] I knew nothing. So actually, the best wine is the one you like.
So on the subject of things that you do know about: bullfighting…. since we’re sitting here in Spain. You enjoy going to the bulls.
Oh, still going.
And you were actually, in your youth, a bullfighter for a little while. Tell us about that.
It’s the best word for it, because, I mean, a matador is by definition, a matador is a killer of bulls, and that’s what you do. But you start out as a novillero, that’s sort of apprentice bullfighter. And you get to fight smaller bulls, which is good, but faster bulls, which is not quite so good. I’m not sure I wouldn’t have rather gone in with the big buggers straight away, to be honest. And I had the benefit of being tall, so I could kill easily, and you learn to kill in a slaughterhouse — this is something I haven’t told you. You can’t just wonder into somebody’s field and start chopping his cows up. It’s frowned on in society. So you go to the slaughterhouse. Have you ever been to a slaughterhouse?
Don’t, it’s awful.
I’ve been to a leather hide place, but that’s better, but still pretty gruesome, I can extrapolate from there, and … get a picture.
It just smells worse, that’s all. So they come down the chute and there’s a bloke with a stun gun, and he, “Bang!” And they go off and they get filleted and frequently not actually dead, which is … ghastly! It’s enough to put you off meat forever.
But you are now learning, and you standing in the chute, and a bull comes along and has a go at you and you have to drop the sword in. And there’s a rope which the bloke can haul you up on if you get into trouble. But you start to learn where to put the sword. And that’s not a lot of fun, but it’s the only way.
Sorry to interrupt, but presumably, you have to push, it’s not like a hot knife through butter, you’ve got to put some force behind it.
No, it is. I mean it’s a pointed sword, and you know, law of physics says that will break [the surface], and once it’s in, it’s in. But you can aim it wrong, and there’s 1,000 ways to get it wrong, only one to get it right. You don’t want a long shot, you want a heart shot, so you have to… But I was tall enough to actually make that choice. I was lucky I was able to kill the bloody thing as quickly as possible, as you shouldn’t torture an animal to death. And, then you get in the ring and you can do it.
And I was a really shit matador. I learned all the tricks, but I didn’t learn the grace and all the other things. But I was only in for it performing for the tourists, and they didn’t care, or know. So I was able to make a short career of it, until I found out I was really shit. And then-
But it was a career that you were making? People were paying you? You were drawing a salary —
Occasionally paying me, yeah, promising to pay me all the time, but not necessarily in every case did I get the money. I only went to tourist places. As long as they were tourists, they’d come and see an English bullfighter. Like Henry.
Henry Higgins? The English bullfighter?
A lovely man, lovely guy. But he was so much better than I was.
I think bullfighting is certainly one of those careers where it’s good to know your limitations.
I didn’t know my limitations until somebody told me. I was lucky, I guess, to have gone into this thing where the managers were looking for the next year’s stars, and I didn’t get chosen. I couldn’t believe this, ’cause I was really flashy. I could do things with a cape that shorter blokes couldn’t do. And I asked this old bloke, I said, “Why not me? Presumably just waiting your time, until you sign me up.” And he looked like Jabba the Hut, I’ll never forget that. Had a cigarette, he smoked like, you know the two-fingered way? Prisoners, smoke like that.
So I went up and asked him, and he said, “Neil, you could be a great matador.” I was thinking, “Yeah, of course. Don’t need to tell me.” And then he said, “Were it not… for the presence… [inhale]… of the bull.”
Good point. That was the only part I didn’t like — that fuckin’ thing trying to kill me!
And for the benefit of any members of the audience who might end up at a bullfight, you were sharing with me the other evening that the secret to appreciating, if not enjoying, the bullfight is to concentrate on the bull.
Concentrate on the bull, of course.
It’s about the bull.
Yeah, it’s all about the bull. This is why, if you ever do go to bullfight, check on the bulls first, because if it’s not from a good ranch, it’s not gonna be a good day.
Okay. So different career moves, all of these things, I get the sense that the most satisfying and successful careers in general are the ones that happen by trial and error and you kind of obliquely happen into, slot into something, I mean, some people know they have a calling from early days… I’ve always envied that… but otherwise keep moving along until your skillset matches —
What you are doing… yeah
— what the market wants, what they pay you for. And from talking to you the last couple of days, I take it that your motivation throughout your career has pretty much been money and fun. And that you’ve done pretty well for yourself on both fronts.
Yeah, both, in reverse order, I have to say. Fun was most important, and money tends to follow if you’re any good at it.
There was a wonderful interview with Sir John Betjemen, who I like his work anyway, it’s peculiar, but it’s good. And he was drifting in and out of lucidity, he had Parkinsons or something, he wasn’t a well boy, and he was in a bath chair and being wheeled about. But he had moments of lucidity. And they said, “So John, is there anything that you regret in your life?” And he very clearly said, “I wish I’d done more fucking.” Simple as that.
Apparently that’s one of the things on the deathbed that people… There was a nurse, a hospice nurse, that wrote a, not a book quite, but a monograph, about what people… she had a lot of experience with people dying, and what were their regrets. Should’ve fooled around more [was a big one].
I think that’s probably true.
Number one was I wish I’d lived my own life. Wish I hadn’t lived someone else’s idea of —
Yeah, I believe that. Neither of those are gonna be my last words.
That’s true. You’ve avoided those.
Can’t think of any regrets, actually, that I wouldn’t have just done again.
Hitchens, one of Hitchens’ lines was “You have to choose your regret.” He gave some great interviews in his dying days, I don’t know if you saw those.
Yeah, I saw him quite a lot, never consciously looking for his dying days.
Another thing that you write in The Copy Book that resonated with me, is you would write an ad the way it needed to be done, and build the strategy around that. So effectively, what you’re doing there is deconstructing, intuiting … You’re bringing a lot of powers to bear, and also just a feel for it. All kinds of conscious and unconscious things, and then sort of reverse engineering, “Okay, what’ve we done?”
It’s more reverse engineering. And also if you can read the brief, and you write the ad first because you know instinctively what to do, then read the brief again, then think, “Actually, I can shoehorn this into that. That’d be all right.” And just by a little bit of subtraction and addition, you can make sense of what you started with. You did the right thing and then found out how to fix it. That works.
One of the great tricks, of course, is to find out what everybody else is doing, have a good look at it and say, “Well that’s not what we’re doing then. Okay, team, see all this? Now don’t do that. Anything looks like that, don’t bring it. Start off like that.”
That’s always a good trick. Put ’em all on the wall. All the competition’s work. Play with it, take it in. Some of it may be good. Not much. And then look through all the press ads. And then make sure yours don’t look like any of that. Now go to work. It’s wonderful. Subtraction. Soon as you think, “No, it’s been done….”
There’s always that thing when you first sit down to work on something, you come up with an idea, you think “That’s a good idea.” And then you realize that’s actually the first idea that anyone with half a brain would’ve come around to, and then you keep going. It’s not terrible, but it’s the obvious one. As soon as something becomes obvious, then you’ve gotta throw that out.
Well, you’ve got to. Frequently, as you probably seen in that video I did, you work and work and work, and when you got the perfect idea, absolutely perfect, throw it away. Throw it away, start again, and see if you can do better. And eight times out of 10 you can do better. And then, even then, you pick it up, you go, “Actually, it was good, but it wasn’t good enough. What I can do is take that out, move that, yeah, now, now it’s good.”
I don’t think that there’s a trick to creativity. I think all it is is being fresh.
David — I’m calling him David now, just for fun — Ogilvy, has the line about creativity being just another word for the work he’s got to do between now and Tuesday.
I understand his point. I mean he was saying, “Don’t sit around and look at the wall.” Whereas I would say, actually, “Sitting around and looking at the wall, David, is sometimes more creative than picking up a piece of paper and starting to scribble.”
Yeah, but he must’ve known that.
No, he really believed in hard work, and I understand that — that’s Scottish.
But you know, he used to say, “When you run your office, do you find people just sitting and looking around the room there?” “Always, yeah, lots.” He said, “Why you don’t just tell them to get on with it?” I said, “They are getting on. They are getting on, that is getting on with it.”
And he was very anti-committee.
Yeah. Was he really, though? I mean, in practice.
In practice he was very anti-committee. “Are you going to a meeting?” “Yeah.” “Who’s gonna make the decision?” That was a great one, did you hear that one? He went to a presentation once and there was a room full of people, and they said, “Right, you have a half an hour, Mr Ogilvy. And at the end of the half hour, I shall ring the bell, and you must stop,” said the client. And David said, “And who here is gonna make the decision?” And the guy said, “We all are.” He said, “Ring the bell.” Not worth my time. Yep.
In that Copy Book essay that so enamored me, you say: “There’s a school of thought that tells you to submerge your own personality and be the voice of the client. I can’t do that. I’m always me, chatting away on behalf of the client. If I always sound like me, that’s okay, because I am, and the public is nowhere near as gullible as they’re made out to be.”
Oh, I totally believe that. I mean, some people can be the voice of the client, I’m just not that good at it. And so I’m the salesman. And I can sell suits or booze or cars. But that’s not a problem, is it? I don’t have to be the voice of the client, I can be the salesman on behalf of the client. That’s what I do. I frequently put it as though I am the client, and no one’s ever fooled. That’s fine.
So the advent of brand tone of voice guidelines and things like that would’ve been your undoing? You got out before all of that, saying we have to sound this way or that way or —
I can do that. I can vary the way I speak according to the audience, if I have to. But in the end, I find that if I’m gonna be persuasive, I have to be me.
And so often, throwing those guidelines like that out the window is what makes your ad stand out, ’cause everybody wants to be, we all want to be this, we want to be that, and be the other, everybody says that, so why wouldn’t you be something else?
I think when people read my ads, they think, “What a frightful person.” But then they think, “Yeah, frightful person, but will I like to have a drink with this guy? Probably.” Yes! And you’re likeable. Nobody buys anything from anybody they don’t like. I mean, you go into to a shop and you don’t like the bloke who’s serving you, don’t buy anything, do you?
You’re saying to be likeable, but one of the things I strive for, sometimes in my own copywriting, well, I’m wary of it… is not to be your friend. Likability is different from ingratiating.
Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, very good choice of words, absolutely so. Oh absolutely. Well I’m lucky because I am kind of roguish character and people like rogues, so then they’ll read my stuff and think, “Oh dear, how did he get away with that? But you see, I’d quite like to know this bloke.” Then at least you’ve got them on your side. And say, while you’re at it, buy some of this crap.
Hemingway — and I do think of you as a kind of Hemingway of copywriting — but Hemingway said that writing is easy until you think about the reader. I think that’s true of all kinds of communication.
That’s terribly true, absolutely. On the other hand, in advertising, you think about the reader, whether you like it or not, that’s your job, and so you have to say, “Now, how am I gonna get what I want to say across in the tone I want to say it and not really get up this bloke’s nose?” So you do have to fall back a little bit. The first drafts of several of my ads are very funny, but they wouldn’t have actually gotten anybody on my side.
Those Air India ads that never ran, though, were, I think, marvellous. I think they were some of the best stuff we’ve ever done. I worked with Rob Speechley on the art direction. Do you remember I said “Get off the ‘no fucking way’ list?” And to a large extent Air India was on the no fucking way list. And for no real reason. Perfectly good airlines, and terrific pilots, but people had a worry about them.
And Air India would have a decision to make about whether to embrace their Indian-ness. They’re on the cusp, because India is a quite famous place with a lot of brand equity that you can steal bits and pieces of for your own benefit.
I worked some years ago with an Indian tire company that were trying to enter the European market, and they were ready to sell at a deep discount and kind of hide their origins.
Yeah, that was their plan, and they were selling to fleets, taxi fleets, rent-a-car companies, so a Michelin “Because so much is riding on your tires” with the baby, an emotional play like that, that wasn’t gonna work. But it just didn’t sit well with me to have them deny their Indian-ness. That seemed like too big an elephant in the room, almost literally.
You know? Plus a missed opportunity, ’cause you’re a tire company, so get fame, ride on the back of India if you can. Are there some coattails here or something?
Did it work?
Well, so I went off and thought about it, and what I came back to them with was I was thinking, I’d not been to India at the time, I still haven’t been to India, major hole in my travel history.
No, it’s not.
A lot of people who would buy tires have never been to India. I said, “Well what are the images that people have?” It’s terrible roads and traffic and disaster on the street —
All of it true.
They were the number one, or two, I can’t remember, tire company in India. So I said, “Why don’t you make the claim, ‘We make tires for the worst roads, and the worst drivers, on planet Earth, they’re definitely good enough for a British lorry or a German taxi.’”
I like that, I like that very much. No, I’d have bought that. In fact, I would’ve stolen it from you and had you killed.
It could’ve been almost anywhere, except India is the worst place in the world for driving.
Yeah, famously so.
And famously so, and demonstrably so. If you go there, you find out very quickly.
Absolutely. So I think that’s a wonderful line. I would’ve beaten them into senselessness to make them do it. Because it could’ve been, I mean that’s a very funny commercial. Just shoot Indian roads for a bit. Say “If our tires can stand up to this they can certainly stand up to Hemel Hempstead.”
No, that’s very good. I remember going on the main trunk road to Jaiphur to somewhere. And it’s famously the most dangerous road in the world, and the side of the road is littered with trucks and crashes and things. Littered with it. Fucking hell. It was the worst trip I’ve ever, ever, ever had. And I had to do it about three times. In the end, I found out the best way was to drink a lot of beer and go to sleep in the back, and they can pick my mangled carcass out if it, but at least I won’t know anything about it!
I can identify with that. I once worked for… I want to say I worked for Muammar Gaddafi, just because that’s a great intro to a story.
Another of your great lines, thank you.
It doesn’t quite have, as Henry Kissinger put it in a different context, the added benefit of being true. That one’s not quite true. We ended up as part of a consortium. So we went to Libya, and I took a trip to Ghadames, which is in the Sahara. Ghadames was like being at sea. You were still, [because] it was a town, you know, anchored in the earth. But it was a caravan town, and so they had lookouts, like, for camels … So, it was a strange sensation to feel like you’re at sea, sort of waiting for the dynamic shifts around you, and things to appear on the horizon and so on.
But on the drive back from the Sahara to Tripoli, every few miles there was what’s left of some massive wreck. Like shipwrecks, you could tell how long ago it happened by the state of the decomposition. And it was harrowing.
I’m not a traveler, I’m not really a traveler. I am a bit of a tourist. I like if you package it up nicely, and then show it to me, and then take it away. Very nice, thank you! Tick the box. Been there, done that.
You have survived… One of your coping techniques for cultural differences is to have a circle around you, you were telling me, four feet, I think is. Four feet, that’s enough to get the job done? You don’t need 10 feet?
No, no, no, no, no, no. That was specifically for Japan. One of the problems was that the bowing system, I never got the hang of, because, you know, you go lower than so and so, when he’s not as important as you, and not as low when he’s … Oh God it’s fucking difficult!
And I once nutted the chairman of Mitsubishi. We both bowed at the same time, and I, “Bang!” hit two heads, and luckily, he had a sense of humor, and stood up, held his head, I did the same, and I thought, “This is going nowhere; this is not culturally sensitive or even amusing, unless you happen to be watching.” So we shook hands and laughed and carried on with life.
And I thought, now this is the answer: give myself an exclusion zone. Outside the four feet, we can happily bow, and do all the right things, but if you come inside, we shake hands and we talk, like normal people. And the funny thing was, the Japanese were great, ’cause they used to dart in and out of my circle.
Toy with the perimeter?
Now I’m in, now I’m out, now I’m in.
Yeah. They became very funny, because they got the hang of the game — and it is only a game, after all. But it prevents misunderstandings. So you’d say you’re in, okay, you’re out again.
And you can move it, too. By moving closer to them, you can decide whether they’re in or out.
I shuffled one guy right out of the room. I just kept on advancing on him and he kept on reversing, till he got to the door, then he went out the door. Which was good, because he was a prick.
The Japanese are hilarious, I think.
On an entirely different thing, do you know David Trott’s work?
Only recently, through Twitter. I know you guys are sort of pals, at least, from a distance.
We’re pals, but I mean, I’m John the Baptist and he’s Jesus. I mean, he’s fucking good.
Oh, okay, okay.
Whoa. Hats off. And he gives the same speech everywhere he goes, gives the same points. And it’s all clearly right. And he does it with an overhead projector.
Yeah, I noticed this about you, you have this in common with Wally [Olins], just completely bereft of jargon, you can’t use it, you could never, it’s just impossible to think of Neil French saying “strategize,” like whatever, you just can’t do it. It’s plain speak all the way, or … nothing.
Yeah, absolutely. Nah, jargon’s disgraceful. I always say, “Avoid clichés like the plague.”
Yeah, well I like the Jimmy Buffett approach, which is [in] a song, it’s called Clichés: “Cliché’s, good ways, to say what you mean and mean what you say.” I think there’s a role for clichés.
I like Buffett.
He’s great with language.
I think he’s terrific. I like Jimmy Buffett anyway. What was that one, just recently? “It’s Five O’ Clock Somewhere.” Excellent.
“If the Phone Doesn’t Ring, It’s Me”. They’re genius wisecracks.
“Last Mango in Paris.” He has the whole… he’s just great.
“Death of an Unpopular Poet”?
Super song. A lot his stuff that it isn’t sort of super well-known is very well thought.
“The Weather is Here, Wish You Were Beautiful.” I don’t know why, something about that song [has always] made me giggle.
My first one, of course, was almost everybody’s — “Margaritaville.”
And I was driving in my car, it was a Porsche, I remember, in Birmingham, and there’s disc jockey called Nicky somebody… I knew him. And he had the late night program, and I was coming back from the club, and Margaritaville came on, and I had to stop the car. Listened to it. Fucking hell, turned the car and did a U-turn, went back to BRNB radio, knocked on the front door, said, “Can I talk to Nicky, then?” “Hello, Frenchy, what are you doing?” I said, “I want the fucking record.” He said, “You can’t play in it, it’s on the playlist.” And I said, “But I want the record!” He said, “Oh god…I’ll do it to tape tape so you can have it.”
He gave me the little 45 that it was on.
So that was the first time you’d heard it? Wow.
And I played it until… it was a floppy disk when I finished with it. And then, of course, I looked up Jimmy Buffett, and then realized he was a thing.
Well it’s funny. He’s well-nigh unknown in Britain. And he’s, I think, the second or third wealthiest, let’s for argument’s sake, let’s call him the third wealthiest musician, musical entity, on Earth, after the estate of Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney. Jimmy Buffett’s like the third. I mean, it’s mostly the hotels and the gaming and the brand that he’s built, but still… to have someone who’s that huge be unknown to the entire population [of Britain].
He’s a sort of… cult.
Well, country music… So, I don’t like black cabs for lots of reasons, but when I get in, I talk to the driver, as a matter of course. And I’ve found a lot of black cab drivers have a penchant for country music.
Well, I do too.
Because of the storytelling.
Well, it’s that and it’s poetry. An argument I had with somebody the other day, and I said, “Oh yeah, well listen to it. It’s poetry, mate.” Doesn’t get better than that. Certainly applies to Jimmy Buffett. So it doesn’t mean to say it’s not all crap. [sic] An awful lot of it is, but I mean, who’s that horrible little boy? Hmmmmm….. Jason… mmm…. well-known little shit… Bieber!
Yeah, Justin Bieber.
Listen to some of his, it’s poetry.
Is it good, nicely crafted pop music?
Yes, and isn’t it? I mean, “My mama don’t like you, and she likes everyone.” Great line.
I remember, see, I grew up, so I was born in ’74, and we used to go out to the Colorado River to waterski. And we would drive my stepdad’s Mercury Cougar XR-7 down the Pear Blossom Highway. You know that David Hockney, it kind of looks like that, which I called, as a six year old, I called it the roller coaster road, ’cause it kind of, you know… And [the car] had an 8-track, so we had the Eagle’s Greatest Hits. We had Fleetwood Mac Rumours, we had quite a lot of Kenny Rogers, and some of that stuff is great, it still sticks in my head, the storytelling. Why don’t they tell stories in songs [nowadays]? “Ruby, don’t take your love to town,” that’s a …
For instance, or “The Gambler.”
Know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em …
“On a warm summer evening, on a train bound for nowhere, I met up with a gambler.” I got the picture already!
And the economy of it!
He’s painted a picture with three lines. Okay, now, the rest is, here are these blokes in this carriage. It’s great — life, death philosophy, everything in it, it’s wonderful.
So I was sitting in Colombia, not sure what I was going to talk about. I never am. And sitting next to me was a Colombian lady and a Colombian gentleman, young man, and he was asking her, she was obviously the expert on English, and he was asking her how to write this business letter. And he said, “Should I say ‘Your truly’ or ‘Yours faithfully’ at the end?” And then “Dear Sir or Dear Sirs?” All this sort of stuff you see, and he was asking her.
I said, “I hate to butt in, I know a bit about this, can I just give you some advice?” He said yes, even the woman said, “Yeah, please, yes, you’re on today, later aren’t you?”
I said, “When I get out of here, will you say ‘Goodbye’ and ‘Yours truly’? No, you’ll probably say, ‘Ciao, see ya later.’ So write that.” Nobody ever, no human being has ever said, “Yours truly” at the end of a conversation. Unless they’re taking the piss. Which is still okay. And they never say, “Dear sir.” My Dear Sir. Unless they’re from colonial English, which is possible, but again, taking the piss. So why don’t you just write like you speak? And when you finish, say I’ve said all I’ve got to say chap.
And he said, “Is that allowed?” And I said, “There’s nothing not allowed. All you require is to be read, understood, and left with a nice taste in your mouth.”
And so when I did my speech, I told them the story and I said, “Why don’t you all start writing like you talk? With the ums and buts and if you’ve got to stutter, put that in.”
It’s okay. You’ll know who this is from, it’s the bloke with the s-s-s-stammer. Put it in, okay, nobody minds, it’s a sort of charm if you put s-s-s-s-stammer. It’s funny. Now people are on your side, and they know who they’re talking to, it’s a real human being. I said, “Try that. Don’t go to copywriting conferences, don’t read books on it, write down what you’re gonna say, and then stop.”
And so many people came afterward, and said but it’s not how it’s done. I said, “It is how it’s done, if it’s done by me, and therefore, it’s good, so why don’t you just try it? What’ve you got to lose? Never any copywriter-ese, never.
Well it normally ends up, the sad fact of reality is that computers come issued with Word on them, but not Illustrator, and people, everyone know how to talk, so they think they know how to rewrite a headline. If everyone knew how to draw, you’d have logos bastardized by marketing directors, too, but they know they don’t have that ability so there’s a sort of deference to visual and graphical people that doesn’t get naturally get extended to writers. You’ve demanded it in the way you’ve gone about things, but it’s not given naturally.
No, it’s not. One of my tricks is to when somebody said, “How should I write this copy?” And I’d reach out of my pocket and take out a red Biro [pen], “Help yourself. Whatever you write will be in the ad.” “Me?” “Yeah, you. Tell me what you don’t like, put a line through it, put what you like instead.” “You’re the copywriter.” “Well I was just going to mention that, yes. You noticed? That’s why it’s like that. But by all means change it.”
Was that entirely fair, though? Because one of the things I have learned about clients, ’cause I was a bit of an angry young man for too much longer than it served me, if it ever served me, and I was kind of … un-necessarily difficult, I think, unhelpfully, for anyone a time. It also had to do with my own insecurity, I would fight for things that I shouldn’t really have been fighting for, and with an intensity that wasn’t called for.
That’s quite normal.
So now that I think I’ve healed from that, I have a quite different way of being with clients. But one thing that I did learn from that over-long period is that sometimes when clients say, “No, it shouldn’t be blue…” They’re wrong about that. It should be blue, but what they really meant, but didn’t have the grasp of, is that it shouldn’t be a square it should be a triangle. So they were absolutely wrong, exactly, but they just …
I’m totally with you. One of the things that I, again, the other thing that I just … Depends how much I respect I had or didn’t the person I’m showing to. If it’s a top client, saying “It’s really good Neil, I’m just really not quite happy with this.” And I say, “Okay, explain to me why.” And of course they never quite can. And I said, “What you actually mean, John, is you hate the fucking thing, am I right?” And he goes, “Ahh, actually yes.” “Fine, I’ll go away and do it again, don’t worry about it, relax. See ya tomorrow or the day after, when I’ve done it. I’ll come back with something really different, not that makes you feel uncomfortable.”
And you would just go off and do it as though it were a new assignment?
Yeah, there’s no one right answer to anything. So yeah.
Unless you have the idea that you have to … This is an execution of the strategy, that’s one of the flaws of the “build the strategy and then do the thing” approach. You end up really getting precious about the expression, because you know how much work it’s gonna be to go do another one mapped back in some uselessly conceptual way to the strategy.
Yeah. Quite. But in your drawer, you’ve got three or four campaigns that you didn’t show him.
You decided this one was the best. It may well be, and I’ll fight a long time for that, but if, in the end, the guy who’s actually paying is uncomfortable, I’d rather give him something else. And then he might say, “Actually, to tell you the truth, Frenchy, the first one wasn’t bad, was it?”
Yeah, that can happen, they can change their mind.
“Come to think of it, because you made an effort, this says the same thing, just in a different way.”
Because it never looked like the last one: one was copy heavy, the next one picture heavy, and so on.
Then they’ll say, “Actually, come to think of it, I quite like the other one.” And I said, “Well why don’t you just let it run? See what happens. If it works, it’ll work, if it doesn’t work, fire me or something.” “No, no, no, I wouldn’t do that.” “You probably should, you know, ’cause I’m a professional.”
And then you’d have that conversation, and by the end of that the ad was sold.
But the red pen job was for the people who were nigglers. If he’s a niggler: “Now, could this be a bit smaller?” “Yeah, it could.” “Could that be a bit bigger?” “Not really, because then you just made that smaller so it would over-balance the logo thing.” “Ahh. Okay. And I’m not quite sure about the — “ “I’ll tell you what: you do it. And then whatever you write down on this, I promise I will print.” “Me?” “Yeah, you. You’re obviously an expert.”
Oh so, there’s a bit of an attitude that’s coming out at that point.
Yeah, no, you’re the fucking genius, you write the fucking thing! And then he’d say, “But I’ve got to show it to marketing director.” I’d say, “I know, but we’ll show the marketing director your version, so at least it’ll have got past you, won’t it?” “What happens if he doesn’t like it?” “Then I shall point out who did it, and it won’t be me.” “So maybe I’ll just pass him this.” “I would, if I were you. And you can say ‘I have reservations, Mr. Marketing Director, but this is what they’re giving me.’”
But at least it’s got as far as him, and he can be a cunt instead of you.
So on that note, Neil, thank you so much for your hospitality the last couple of days, and for sharing your stories with me, and with so far my non-existent podcast audience. Thank you very much, sir.
It was a huge pleasure. I was quite surprised you didn’t you ask me more rude questions.
Well, we can do those now.
Let’s go edgy now, while the tape still runs.
Music: [Judas Priest, Victim of Changes]
And so that is exactly what we did, talking for quite a while about wine, women, and song. I think, for a professional podcast, it’s probably best if I leave the more ribald ones off. But I will add, as a coda to this podcast, one story about Neil and his womenfolk from his days in Thailand, which is quite representative and quite amusing. Here it is.
I had a girlfriend once, in Thailand, a lovely girl. And we had a house, and she lived in the house, I didn’t. And one day, we were out, and we were with a bunch a people, and she said, “Khun Neil, you need a new mistress!”
I thought, oh that’s really nice of you, but you’ll do fine, thank you very much. I said, “Why?” She said, “Oh, old now, old!”
I said, “You’re not that old, you’re only about 30, Christ!”
She said, “No, you need new mistress. Old and falling to bits.” And I said, “That’s terrible. You know, really darling, you’re a terrific looking girl — astounding….”
“Oh, no, no, no, tired, now.” Oh, fucking hell. “So we find you a new mistress.”
And I said, “Okay. Okay. If you say so…. When?”
She said, “Oh, tomorrow, we get new mistress.”
And I said, “That seems rather precise, but still…if you like.” And as I was drinking my coconut and thinking, she said, that’s when she suddenly said: “Oh, no… mattress!”
Ahhhh… this, I believe. So yeah, we had to go buy a new mattress.
Had you gotten your hopes up in the meantime, thinking about the advantages?
No, no. She was a very open little lady, she didn’t care what I did.
And I thought, what? I mean, that was a real shaker. Nobody’s ever said this to me before! Mattress. So we got a new mattress.
And there you are ladies and gentlemen: Neil French. I hope you enjoyed that half as much as I did, and now we fade out with a little more Judas Priest, “Victim of Changes.” See ya later.
Music: Once she was wonderful … Once she was fine … Once she was beautiful … Once she was mine … She was mine … Change has come over her body … She doesn’t see anymore … A change has come over her body … She doesn’t see me anymore …