"I like words too much."

Interview with Neil French, Creative Director of WPP

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Neil French is a legend in the advertising industry. He was born in 1944 and was expelled from minor Public School at 16, which prevented him from becoming an Army-Officer, his first ambition.With eclectic experience, Neil has done a wide range of things over the last 30 year, including being a rent collector, account executive, advertising-manager, waiter, singer, pornographer, concert-promoter, nightclub owner, rock-band manager, copywriter, art-director, creative director, film director, actor, television station owner, etc; some of which were concurrent with other things. He started his own agency in 1967, and we "spectacularly bust" in his own words. After 1975, he joined a series of agencies, sometimes for a couple of years, sometimes for a couple of weeks, until he joined The Ball Partnership as Vice Chairman and Group Creative Director. In 1992 he joined Ogilvy & Mather for the second time as Regional Creative Director, where he became Worldwide Creative Director in 1997. In 2002 Neil French was named Worldwide Creative Director of WPP.

T: You always talk about the importance of copy.When you are flicking through a magazine, for example, you see a lot of images, and you keep flicking. Should a good ad be like a good book that you don't want to stop reading?

NF: Well, the short answer is yes, of course. But while you're flicking, you need an art-director to make you stop flicking and start reading! Only then can you concentrate on making the copy work. There's one recent ad I wrote that many people have asked for reprints of; it's on walls of copywriters' offices all over the world...if not on the walls of art-directors. The headline is "Nobody reads long copy anymore. Here's why." And of course there are columns of copy. Basically what it says is that if you can write interestingly then people will read. And if they don't, it's your fault for not being interesting.

T: Would you say something about advertising today?

NF: I don't think it has changed that much since I started. It was like being an apprentice, so when I started I looked at all the stuff that had been done before. But I think I was the first bloke to do an ad which was entirely copy. No picture at all. No, actually there was one before. The first one was written by an American chap and I think it was written for Cadillac in the 1930s or something. No picture, just text. I loved that. I fell in love with it. For years I carried it around in a folder with me to remind me what the masters do. It was the Mona Lisa of copywriting.

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TBWA/Paris for Aides, 2005
TBWA/Paris for Aides, 2005