October 13, 2005
Advertising industry legend Neil French hit Toronto last Thursday and something else hit the fan following a highly controversial speaking engagement to a crowd of ad industry folks that evening. It has shaken the industry. The scene was the $125-a-person event at the John Bassett Theatre held by ad industry website ihaveanidea.org. In the audience were local agency people, clients, many students (including some who made the pilgrimage from U.S. schools) and leading industry lights such as Bobby Pawar, VP of BBDO Chicago, Steve Hayden, vice-chairman and worldwide creative director of Ogilvy & Mather, and American ad greats Mark Fenske and Rick Boyke.
The entertainment included flamenco guitar music and dancers -- and a French maid who served drinks to the speakers on stage. Both were insider references to Mr. French, a bullfighting aficionado who is worldwide creative director for WPP Group PLC. He oversees advertising creative from agencies including Ogilvy, JWT, Young & Rubicam and Grey Worldwide. Mr. French enjoys such nomenclature as "iconic," "Godfather" and "legend of the industry" among his fellows. He also enjoys a reputation for being opinionated, brutally honest and politically incorrect.
So what hit the fan? Mr. French's answer to a question on why there weren't more women creative directors -- or CDs in industry argot. In the harshest possible terms, Mr. French said women don't make it to the top because they don't deserve to. "They're crap," he is quoted as saying. Labeling women "slacker-breeders," he elaborated, pointing to their role as child-bearers and caregivers and the time that takes away from burning the midnight oil at the office as a major impediment to the gender being seen as worthy of promotion on the creative side in the advertising world. Mr. French laced his remarks with "babe" and "bitch" -- two words not often heard in a public speech. As for his audience, reports indicate some people squirmed in their seats, some people left the event and most hung on his every word. One of ihaveanidea.org's columnists, Nancy Vonk, who is co-chief creative officer at Ogilvy in Toronto along with another columnist, Janet Keston, was appalled and posted an angry editorial on the website.
"What struck me so hard as he described a group that will inevitably wimp out and 'go suckle something' after their short stint in advertising, was that in his honest opinion he was voicing the inner thoughts of legions of men in the senior ranks of our business," she writes. "Advertising remains in the dark ages . . . Neil did us the favour of voicing a widely held view, albeit an extreme version . . . I'm snapping out of it awfully late, but it seems obvious we can't take this shit and expect to see any change." One post on the website dismissed him saying, "Neil French is a dud. The cognac and money has gone to his head." But other posts tolerated Mr. French's remarks. "He simply stated why women don't typically hold senior creative positions in our industry. And he did it in a shocking-showman-like way that is his style," said one. Indeed, the noise made by Ms. Vonk and some others prompted another advertising denizen to advise them: "Outraged? C'mon girls, put your ovaries back in your uterus."