5 minutes with Neil French – the greatest living adman

29 Jul

He will certainly howl at that headline, but tough T’s. It’s our blog.

Neil French is not just an advertising legend, former matador and rock band manager. He has also been a mentor and inspiration to an entire generation of copywriters, art directors and creative problem solvers everywhere.

I’m one of them and I know plenty of others, so this is not hyperbole but fact.

I like to say he re-invented the print ad, because during the 80s and 90s it was invariably a Neil French print ad that was taking home Best of Show in the various advertising awards shows around the planet. Not a TV commercial.

His approach to advertising is remarkably straightforward: The copy dominates, or the picture dominates. The idea is to get noticed and to be read. Imitators have flooded the market over the years, but none have managed his touch. He is worldly where others are wordy – you can’t fake being interesting.

Don’t take my word for it. Look at his ads!

He was drummed out of the world’s best job by a case of overly-enthusiastic Canadian political correctness in 2005, but is back in the spotlight with his memoirs, Sorry for the Lobsters, less of a How To and more of Why I Bothered in The First Place. You can buy the book exclusively here on Neil’s site.

Now living in Spain, after 25 years residing in Singapore, the city he single-handedly put on the advertising map, Neil continues to inspire with his unmistakable, rakish approach to communicating.

I caught up with him this week.

Sorry for the Lobsters is a big book. Did you foresee the heft of the finished product when you started?


No, not really…it just grew, like Topsy. In fact I had to edit it heavily! Trouble is, it has to be four-colour throughout if I’m going to have the relevant illustrations next to the relevant copy. Thus, heavy art-paper. Thus heavy and expensive book.

Who do you think will get the most out of your book?


Good question. First, people who can afford the effing thing! Secondly, people who wonder what life was like before we all got so bloody EARNEST! Thirdly, people who enjoy a good yarn…which is mostly what it is…a series of yarns.

In addition to their work, most of the advertising greats have left a self-named agency as their legacy. You’ve never had your name on an agency door?


I did once have my name on a door, but we went broke. After that I became a mercenary.


When I was working for you, you used to write out every ad in long hand, with your preferred pen (I’ve forgotten the nib!) in lieu of typing it out. In effect you wrote your own typography. Do you still?

Not the book! But on the rare occasions I’m asked to do an ad, yes.


How do you think we stimulate interest in the printed ad with the relentless audience shift to online and mobile?


I think the relentless shift is part of the dumbing-down process, which seems to be inexorable. But in the end, those who can read will have an advantage over the relatively illiterate, and those who can write will be their heroes.

Why are online ads so dreadful?


God knows. Lack of talent? Lack of understanding of the process? Lack of leadership? Plain stupidity?


There is another Neil French out there who claims to be the world’s foremost teacher of hypnosis. Is that you too and is this the secret of your success?


No….I’d be a lot richer if it HAD been me!


You can watch a terrific interview with Neil here.


9 Responses to “5 minutes with Neil French – the greatest living adman”

  1. neil french July 29, 2011 at 12:55 pm #

    Thanks, Doug; jolly nice of ya!
    As a matter of interest, the Brand Republic piece was, as almost all were at the time, misinformed and misquoting…but the checkable truth is in the book, if anyone still cares. Admen, after all, are not generally notable for being seekers after the truth, are they?

    Neil xx

  2. Doug Brown July 29, 2011 at 2:07 pm #

    I’m with Neil on this one: you can’t invite over a speaker known for his frankness and then widdle on him for being frank. Check out Neil’s account of the unfortunate bunfight here: http://www.neilfrench.com/apology/index.html

  3. Craig Redmond July 30, 2011 at 11:36 am #

    Neil’s parting words to me when I left Hong Kong were in reference to a dreadful debacle of a commercial I made for Arnott’s Biscuits. “Craig,” he said, “I’d like to thank you for providing me with a teaching tool to help educate future generations on how not to make a television ad.” Loved that man. Great read Doug.

  4. Doug Brown July 30, 2011 at 2:43 pm #

    Great comment Craig. Neil is as close to the real-life Dos Equis guy as I’ll ever meet, although I’ve never seen him stand on a running horse. He’s up there with Leonard Cohen in elegant put-downs too.

  5. Murray July 31, 2011 at 11:38 am #

    Neil’s comment on the “dumbing down” affect of current day mass advertising/communications may be accurate, but certainly nothing new. Achievements like those of Gutenburg, Gates and Zuckerberg merely multiply the opportunities, not the skillsets of the unwashed masses. Those who can actually read (and comprehend) and those who can write creatively (thus inspire) remain, as ever, the ones who make the difference, regardless the medium. Just my 2 cents.

  6. Doug Brown July 31, 2011 at 2:51 pm #

    Well students sure don’t seem less educated to me, but excellent writing skills play a less important role in our business all the time. Thankfully, the IDEA is still the crux of the matter. Thanks Murray.

  7. i March 10, 2012 at 11:05 am #

    Hi I am looking for Neal himself. We meat in London and become friends. I lost track in the last few years. anyone can help me with his email?
    Yoram Baumann


  8. neil french (@NeilAKAFrenchie) March 11, 2012 at 3:58 am #

    Hell’s teeth, Doug…just as an indication of how out of more loops than Dick Turpin, I have to admit that this is the first time I’ve seen this. I’m now blushing like a piece of undercooked pork!


  1. 5 minutes with Neil French – the greatest living adman - December 21, 2011

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