Neil French: The Man Who Wrote The Ads

Advertising (and other) lessons from the master copywriter.

To describe Neil French as rakish is utterly wrong. There has never been anything “ish” about this giant of a man.

(You could classify him as a rake, but that probably does injustice to all the other tools in the shed.)

I recently finished reading his memoirs, whose title Sorry for the Lobsters will resonate with everyone who can recall what traveling around Asia was like 30+ years ago. I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to truly understand how powerful great advertising can be, and unfortunately how most of what the advertising industry produces is mere crap disguised in loudness, padded ideas and a pandering to the lower common denominator of a targeted (though not necessarily understood) audience.

This is a great book for those of us who have personally known Neil and admired the brilliance of his thinking and the profundity of his copywriting skills. As such it is a wonderful voyage down the numerous paths he has taken  from novice bullfighter in Spain to part-time gangster along the streets and back alleys of London, to a rock band promoter and eventually as a paradigm shift changing, Godlier than God Creative Director first in Asia and eventually globally.

A revealing and worthy narrative on his personal journey through what has certainly been a life truly lived, Sorry for the Lobsters is a fabulous read with just enough sidetracks in the tale to make the reader wonder what Neil will get up to next.

Far more important however, especially to those in the advertising industry who are unfortunate not to have been directly impacted by Neil’s devotion to creative thinking and execution excellence, is the book’s Appendix.

For in the Appendix are shared Neil’s frank and forthright gems on the pluses and minuses of advertising. These essays and short pieces, written in the latter stages of his career for various industry and in-house publications, include a plethora of golden nuggets, such as:

In any ad there is a minimum of four elements: headline, picture, copy, logo. If you can do an ad that really works using only one of these elements, you’ve got a winner. Two elements only, and it’ll be pretty good. If you can’t get below four, it’s possible that the basic idea isn’t strong enough, or that you haven’t expressed it well enough.

Reductio ad absurdum. Try it. It works.

* * * * *

To me, writing an ad is talking on paper.

It’s not really writing at all. It’s just a chat.

The art is all about knowing to whom you’re talking.

You lose them the moment you stop talking one-on-one, and start pontificating to “the audience.”

* * * * *

An ad that resembles what the competition is doing is likely to help the competition.

* * * * *

It’s your career. It’s your life. And I can assure you nobody’s last words were ever “I wish I’d made that logo a bit bigger.”

 

With katana sword precision, Neil gave a cutting and penetrating soliloquy on integrity, and the relative lack of it in the advertising business, in his acceptance speech when given a Clio Lifetime Achievement Award in 2003. If anything, his words are more relevant today, almost a decade later, and equally consignable to the worlds of business, politics and government. But that’s another story for another day.

In the meantime, if you want to see great advertising from a master of copywriting and strategic thinking, go to the Neil French website. The examples there will simply amaze.

He was a master craftsman and a crafty wordsmith (and undoubtedly still is).

In Neil’s words, he “just wrote the ads.”

And many a brand manager and CEO (not to mention agency heads) whose bonuses he enlarged were glad he did.

2 Comments

  • By Patrick, November 6, 2011 @ 11:05 pm

    You’re a good advertiser yourself as reading this blog makes me wish having the book to soak in more advertising wisdom.

  • By Steven Howard, November 7, 2011 @ 12:15 am

    Thanks Patrick for your comments.

    Perhaps I can convince Neil to make an e-book out of the Appendix, along with some of his other writing on advertising. It would be great for the advertising world to have a “Neil French on Advertising” epistle.

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