Deafened by their canister-like headphones following several hours listening to entries, the radio jury have forgotten all about their ‘indoor voice’. Neil French, holding court with a dozen or so young creatives at the other end of the patio, is not impressed. The Buddha, who will crop up later in the session, never had to contend with the aural assault of a Vegas hotel poolside as he dispensed wisdom from underneath his tree.
The assembled creatives giggle nervously. They’re in the presence of an advertising Jabberwocky, an outspoken renegade from a bygone age when the industry attracted and accommodated the kind of person who wasn’t afraid to deck a client. The audience, on the other hand are the products of this current climate of economic retrenchment, corporate politeness and client ruthlessness.
It’s the second ‘Creative Conversation’ group session that I’ve attended at the LIA 2012 judging week in Las Vegas. This new format has seen young creatives from around the world flown out to Sin City to learn from leading industry figures by sitting and chatting in small groups. Frenchie (as I think I’m allowed to call him) has been someone I’ve been looking forward to hearing from and the rapt expressions on the group’s faces suggests I’m not the only one.
Pablo Jimenez, a Spanish art director at Leo Burnett Chicago gets things started by asking French what particular piece of wisdom he wishes he had known at the beginning of his career. Neil responds with an answer which shocks the creatives and frames the rest of the discussion.
“I wish someone had told me how unimportant it was. There was a period of time when I thought it was unimportant, and then I started to think it was important, but thankfully I grew out of that. Only when I realised it was trivial did I start doing anything that was any good,” answers French. “The trouble is that young people think it matters. It doesn’t. Nobody dies.”
He shares an anecdote about David Ogilvy, who wrote in his book Ogilvy on Advertising that no one buys from clowns; Ogilvy’s personal copy of the book was filled with red-ink corrections and that particular opinion had certainly been revised.
French characterises advertising as the ‘silliest business in the world’, but far from being dismissive the irreverence he espouses engenders fearlessness, which in turn liberates the creative brain. It’s a fearlessness which has also informed his relationships with clients. Rather than rely on account directors and brand managers French has always had preferred to bypass all that and go straight to the organ grinder. He reckons anyone who can get to the top has to be a bit of a crook – and they see in French a kindred spirit. Once he’s got that personal relationship going, his flattery, persuasiveness and sheer manipulation gets them hooked.
Kind of like a charming psychopath, I suggest.
“I don’t know about the charming bit,” he replies, “but I think I might be a bit psychopathic.” It transpires that the novel he’s currently writing is all about a smiling serial killer and French comes to the realisation that it might be a bit more autobiographical than he initially thought.
‘Sorry for the Lobsters’, Neil’s most recent book is a proper autobiography – and what tales lie within. Over the years he’s been a bullfighter, a pornographer, a gangster – and yet adland has kept yanking him back. We discuss the benefits of taking time out of advertising to re-engage with the real world, or even getting a ‘proper job’ before going anywhere near the industry. We come to the conclusion that agencies should allow their creatives a year off every five.
Bullfighting provides a fertile ground for discussion as we all crane our necks to get a load of the scar on Neil’s hand when he was gored by a bull. Enticed by the swirling cape and romance of the ring, French eventually abandoned this particular career path when an old hand informed him “You could be a matador, except for the presence of the bull.”
“That bullfighting story is just a metaphor for your attitude to advertising. You like everything about advertising apart from the ad,” observes Nimo Awil, a Toronto-based copywriter.
“Except an ad won’t kill you,” parries French.
As the conversation unfurls it becomes broader and more philosophical – I realise that French isn’t just sharing his insights about advertising, he’s sharing his insights about life.
When asked what his most creatively satisfying project in life has been, he replies, in a surprisingly soft voice, that it must be bringing up his son. “Being a Dad has taken more thought and creativity than anything else I’ve done.” The theme of fatherhood also arises when one of the group introduces himself as Ben Riney, son of the legendary Hal Riney. Neil, touchingly, shakes his hand.
French also discusses his relationship with Buddhism, something which has helped him gain new perspective on life. It’s not a supernatural, or even religious, take on it – the Buddhism he discusses is something altogether more philosophical.
“I’m a Buddhist – not a signed up member or anything but I have a favourite monk. A laughing man – I love laughing men,” he says. “He read my fortune – I don’t believe in that of course – and he said ‘you’re on the last turn of the wheel, you’re going to reach enlightenment and you won’t be reincarnated’.”
French jokes about his distress at the idea that he won’t be coming back as a cockroach.
The session overruns its allotted hour-long slot and, while some of the group members drift away to lunch, a hard core contingent stay to chat about everything from death to culture. We even get to hear Frenchie’s Desert Island Discs selection (F.Y.I his book of choice is a toss-up between Winnie the Pooh and Hemingway, his album is Dark Side of the Moon and his special item would be a ship-load of good wine).
At the end everyone – including I suspect, Neil – comes away having learnt a lot. There have been some challenging ideas shared and the experience may well be my high-point of the LIA week so far.
But the very, very best thing to come out of this discussion? The insight that Neil French LOVES Terry Pratchett books. Respect.