Monday 13 July 2009

Ad guru Neil French shares a secret over lunch

A number of years ago, I had lunch with Neil French.

You may not have heard of him, but he was - and still is - like the Michael Jackson of advertising copy. Like the King of Pop, this king of ads has won countless awards and is no stranger to controversy.

A larger-than-life ad man, the Brit made his mark with ground-breaking work in the '80s and '90s when he was based in Singapore.

In 2005, he left his position as the worldwide creative director of WPP Group amid uproar over sexist comments he made at an event called "A Night With Neil French". When asked why more women didn't make it to the top in the advertising profession, he replied it was because "they're crap". The word "suckle" was also bandied about.

My lunch with him took place some time before that infamous incident. It was the first and last time I had ever spoken to him. It was so long ago, I don't even remember the purpose of the meeting now. I think I might have been fishing for a job.

Perhaps it was to provide an anecdote for this article.

Anyway, just like today, there was some furore over some other ad campaign at the time.

Mr French wasn't involved in the campaign, but I asked the ad guru how an ad agency would react to such negative public response to its campaign.

He leaned forward and whispered: "Let me tell you a secret."

I leaned forward to hear better. "It's the Holy Grail," he said.

I didn't quite understand. This was long before The Da Vinci Code came out, so I wasn't thinking of Mary Magdalene.

Mr French explained that every ad agency was secretly gleeful when its ad campaign received public complaints because with the huge amount of advertising messages out there, controversy could help an ad cut through all the noise.

In other words, bad publicity is better than no publicity.

I wasn't sure if Mr French was yanking my chain, but because he was Neil French, I assumed he knew what he was talking about. Again, this was before the "crap" remark years later.

I thought it would've been impertinent of me to argue that sometimes, the controversy might be remembered, but not the product.

For instance, remember the jaw-dropping Zoe Tay's "I swallow" ad a couple of years ago? Yes, but can you name the product she claimed to have swallowed? Neither can I.

It would've also been presumptious of me to point out that courting controversy risks damaging the brand image.

For instance, back to the Zoe Tay ad again, would any mainstream brand (apart from Burger King) want to be associated with fellatio?

Unfortunately, Zoe Tay proclaimed her dietary habits some time after my meeting with Mr French, so I couldn't use her as an argument.

Also, I wanted Mr French to pay for lunch. To me, that was the Holy Grail.

- Published in The New Paper, 13 July 2009