Advertisers, be brave; agencies, be braver: Neil French

Gokul Krishnamurthy Mumbai | Updated on December 26, 2011 Published on October 31, 2011

Mr Neil French, former global creative head, WPP Group

Anyone who actually evaluates an agency by its award-performance is an idiot. — Mr Neil French, former global creative head, WPP Group, adasia 2011

He arrived in Singapore from England in 1983. On being asked why, he confesses, “I was on the run from the cops and the taxman in England; I'd have gone anywhere!”

But the former global creative head of the WPP Group stayed on, and according to Mr Indra Sinha, who has penned the foreword of Mr Neil French's book Sorry for the Lobsters, “He stayed 25 years and what he did there changed advertising, first in Asia, then in the rest of the world.”

Mr David Droga (renowned adman and Chairman, Droga5) calls him, ‘The most interesting and authentic person in our industry'.

In an e-mail exchange with Business Line in the context of Ad Asia, and his experiences in advertising in Asia, Mr French notes that the book is doing well. Not surprising, given that the author is one of the best copywriters of all time.

Can you recall the typical challenges in the market when you came to Asia?

The challenges were much as they always are; clients who want ads ‘just like theirs'... theirs being the competition; ‘rules' usually imposed by brands based in the States; suits who think they're the client. In those days we didn't have the scourge of planners, and research was something you did as an add-on for advertising, not a substitute.

Would it be fair to say that the advertising dollars - and executives - followed the market opportunities in Asia? Does that explain the sustained influx of people from the West?

It's a leading question, so I'll answer it thus: It was a while before many 'executives' followed, although some were in place already. Creatives go where the opportunities are first ... money is secondary. So they followed quite quickly.

Could you please name some of the leading lights beside yourself that you would credit for leading Asian advertising's rise?

It's generally recognised that in fact Barry Owen should be recognised as the front-runner.

What, in your view, would be some of the best work that has been created in Asia? Among your work, what would be the best done in the Asian market?

It's been a while since I made a point of remembering details like that, and in any case advertising is by its nature ephemeral, and old campaigns LOOK old ... as they probably should. But here are a couple ...

a) ‘Hungry'....a Japanese instant noodle campaign

b) ‘Black Cat Whisky' from Thailand

c) SIA's ‘Singapore Girl' from Singapore

Mine? I'd suggest ‘XO Beer', ‘Chivas Regal', and ‘Kaminomoto' for a start, with Becks Beer as a backup.

Asian advertising is still evaluated, at least by some of the professionals engaged in it, by the number of Cannes Lions and other global awards won. Is this relevant in today's market, and has it been the right approach in the first place?

Of course it's nonsense! And becoming more so as Cannes becomes even more ludicrous. It was merely a way of making my various agencies ‘hotter' quicker, and thus, becoming sought-after by clients and attractive to prospective employees. Anyone who actually evaluates an agency by its award performance is an idiot.

Mind you, if I started an agency tomorrow, I'd probably use the same trick.

Asian powerhouses like Dentsu are few and far between. Creative shops from the West are just about finding their feet in Asian markets. Will the status quo of global networks' supremacy in Asia change? Does it matter?

a) No, it doesn't really matter.

b) Global networks will still have to survive by their client-lists and, thus, their profits. They tend to be reactionary and risk-averse. It's convenient for clients to take advantage of their ‘one-stop-shopping' appeal. But with communication without travel becoming easier by the day, many clients are already finding that using smaller shops gets them a better return. The global networks that invest in smaller shops (without imposing rules that castrate them) will thereby stay ahead of the game.

I'm currently involved in helping to make this work, on behalf of a few carefully-chosen European-based businesses.

Friends of yours that you would like to say ‘Hi' to, in Asian advertising today (and in India)?

In Asia and the rest of the world, WAY too many!

Hi, y'all.

In India, most of all, there are dozens of lovely people with whom I'm in regular touch. But maybe a raise of the glass to my oldest pals there: Piyush P. (Pandey), Ranjan K. (Kapoor), Prasoon J. (Joshi), and Sonal D. (Dabral).

(I must say I'm eager to hear of my pals' adventures in Delhi: they will differ somewhat from despatches from the front in Pattaya, Cannes, and Singapore, I imagine!)

A message for advertisers in Asia?

Be brave!

A message for advertising agencies in Asia?

Be braver!

Anything else that you may want to add, in the context of Ad Asia 2011?

a) Have a nice boondoggle.

b) The last time I saw Droga for any length of time, we were standing in the snow, having a cigarette outside an Indian restaurant in New York! He'll go a long way for a decent curry, will Dave ...

More on the book:

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Published on October 31, 2011
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