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An Afternoon With Neil French

Posted on June 22, 2006 and read 14,032 times

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Eight months and a lifetime ago in Toronto, ihaveanidea hosted an event called A Night with Neil French, where the internationally acclaimed creative director gave an impressive show… and managed to get into a bit of trouble. Eight months later and thousands of miles away at the Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival, Brett McKenzie, ihaveanidea’s Lead Writer, SBN2 sits on the terrace of the Carlton International with Frenchie and a couple of cold drinks (no, no Jack and Cokes) to discuss the festival, his future, and that fateful night in October.

ihaveanidea: Here we are in beautiful, sunny Cannes, yet you never actually stay in Cannes proper, and you tend to shy away from the official festival goings-on. Why is that?

French: Well it’s a terrible festival, It’s badly judged, it’s a bit of a lottery, but it’s a good place to meet people you’d otherwise have to travel all over the place to see. Right here we have Spain, Argentina, India, Canada, and you can meet them all in one place. That part is fucking great.

ihaveanidea: So what would you do to change the actual awards section? The schmoozing part seems to be working fine…

French: Well the judging system is terrible. I believe that people get chosen as judges for all the wrong reasons. Basically, the reason to be a judge is to get more entries from a specific country, not necessarily because they’re any good. There are only so many truly great advertising people in the world, and some of them are here in Cannes. But there are also an awful lot of nobodies here, judging the work of good people, and that’s morally wrong, and that would have to change.


ihaveanidea: Or you could always go out and make your own award show…

French: (chuckles) Hmmm, that’s a thought, I don’t know why I didn’t think of that!

ihaveanidea: So what made you decide to actually do that? What made that particular light bulb go off?

French: Well I’m a big press person. I like press a lot. Even though I’ve somehow managed to win more Lions for TV than I have for press. But press is becoming the redheaded stepchild of media. Even here in Cannes, they do the press awards halfway through the week, and then they wait and have the big film awards on Saturday. But I think the big awards should be press, so let’s give it its own show. And then judge it with only great judges. And DON’T try to make money out of the show. You see, nearly every award show is owned by a moneymaking organisation. For my show, I will be perfectly happy if we break even. Of course I don’t wish to lose money if I can avoid it, but I’d be happy if we could break even each year. If I wanted to make a lot of money I’d include television, direct, whiz-bangs and all that other shit, because then I’d get more entries. No, this is to bring press back to being an important medium.

ihaveanidea: Since you mentioned you need to have great judges, how did you pick your panel of judges for the World Press Awards?

French: Well I did it electronically, and I gave points for different levels of ability or status. Somebody like a worldwide creative director doesn’t have to write ads anymore to prove that they are good enough, so long as they’re in a good agency. And if by chance you’re not a worldwide creative director, they have to be able to prove their worth by creating great work year after year. So I punched in all these points, and I came up with the top seven.

ihaveanidea: A cynic might note that there aren’t any women on this jury…

French: Sorry about that. I would be delighted if there was a woman in the top seven or eight, but there isn’t one.

ihaveanidea: So what’s the general response been thus far? Obviously the entries haven’t begun to come in yet, but what has the buzz about this new show been like?

French: There has been a good buzz, with little negative feedback. You’ll always get detractors, as no person is universally popular, and no award show is universally popular. But a lot of people have been saying it’s fresh, it’s new, it hasn’t been done before,” and that’s good.

ihaveanidea: Now the last time you and I sat down for a good long chat was back in Toronto…

French: (laughs) Ah, those were the days…

ihaveanidea: Well it’s been eight months since then. We don’t have to recap every little detail, since it has already been well documented, but do you feel any good has come out of the fall out of A Night With Neil French, for both the advertising industry and for yourself?

French: Well I think the fact that they brought the women in advertising issue into the limelight is a good thing. There is no reason why women shouldn’t be at the top of the list, but again, if you can’t spend all your time doing the job, you won’t make it to the very top. You can all make your own decisions if you’re going to make allowances in your life or not, but it’s not my problem anymore, and I’ve had my say on that.

Personally it’s been very liberating. You begin finding out who your friends are in a big way, as well as your enemies, and knowing both isn’t a bad thing.

You know, I never would’ve resigned from WPP, because I like WPP, and I like Sir Martin Sorrell very much. In a way, it kind of enabled me to leap free. I would have chosen a better way to do it, but really I wouldn’t have done it because I liked the people I was working for.

But then it was “okay, you’re out, now what are you going to do?” I sat around a bit to see what would happen, and eventually opportunities arose and I took them.

ihaveanidea: I hear you’re getting to spend more time with your family…

French: Well this is the best thing, I’m Mr. Mom now, and that’s the best job in the world. Doing your kid’s sandwiches in the morning, taking him to school, ironing his karate kit, well it’s the best job in the world. I love every minute of it! Taking care of him when he’s sick with the chicken pox… catching chicken pox off of your kid, it’s wonderful. The quality of my life has improved beyond recognition.

ihaveanidea: So after the World Press Awards, what’s next for the “Unemployed Ex-Creative Director of No Particular Interest”?

French: I don’t have any big plans or demands other than the awards. This award show has been in the back of mind for ten years, and now I have the opportunity to do it. Either my son will be a lot poorer when I die, or I’ll make an extra quid for the kid so he’ll go to a better university.

ihaveanidea: So who’s winning the World Cup?

French: Argentina.

ihaveanidea: Even with yesterday’s tie with the Netherlands?

French: Well that was shitty, but they’re a great team! I didn’t choose Spain in the beginning, and I’m now starting to think Spain might be a contender. I’ll be very surprised if the English do well. I’d be delighted if they did, but they won’t.

ihaveanidea: When are we going to see you back in Toronto?

French: (laughs) I’ve got nothing against Toronto as a place, and I have a lot of friends there, but I don’t have a reason to go back right now.


Brett McKenzie Lead Writer/SBN2 ihaveanidea






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