Stefano Hatfield On Advertising

Ignore the apologists - French's words meant he had to go
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Sir Martin Sorrell will probably never take me seriously as a commentator now - what's new? - especially when instead of the soporific on-off Aegis-Publicis-Bollore-WPP battle I choose to write about the extraordinary resignation of the WPP creative guru Neil French last week, after controversial remarks uttered earlier this month in Canada. Notably, this marks the first time in living memory that Canada has been the centre of a global controversy in any walk of life. It is also the first time the ad industry has seen bloggers cause the downfall of one of its star names.

For those of you who don't devour news about the ad world online (a trend very germane to the denouement of this story) here's a recap: French, the revered, infamously outspoken and politically incorrect, Asian-based creative guru, was in Toronto recently at the invitation of ihaveanidea.com to talk about ads and creatives - as has been his wont for the best part of 40 years. His on-stage performance was extremely highly-hyped in advance, particularly by Canadian standards.

Apologies for reporting second-hand on the affair, but funnily enough I wasn't in Toronto for the speech. Apparently, French in a long, typically blunt, on-stage performance, made several disparaging remarks about why there is STILL such a dearth of senior female creatives.

French was reported as saying that female creatives didn't make it because they were "crap", that they were "slacker-breeders", whose role raising children would prevent them burning the midnight oil in agencies, and who would inevitably, eventually "wimp out and go suckle something" at some time in their careers.

It would be stunningly outrageous stuff in Singapore - where French is based - London or New York, let alone Toronto, the cultural capital of the world's most politically correct and inoffensive country. And, in a lesson for our times, the speech took on a life of its own out of context in the blogosphere.

The intemperate language, profoundly entrenched positions, Neanderthal attitudes and sheer downright coarseness exhibited by French on a night when he and other luminaries were being served drinks by a woman dressed up in a French maid's costume (gedditt?) were picked up, highlighted and dissected by various bloggers, largely female, and most notably Nancy Vonk, co-chief creative officer, Ogilvy & Mather Toronto, a colleague and sometime admirer of French's. She responded online, calling his remarks " outrageous" and "derogatory" - especially from someone she respected. And so began what French called sadly "death by blog".

The fuss rumbled on, there may or may not have been other WPP customers and staff who were extremely displeased with French's offensive remarks and on Wednesday he felt compelled to resign, "to take the heat off Martin [Sorrell] and WPP. They don't deserve the hassle."

Did Sir Martin come under any unique personal pressure to fire French? I am not sure, but find it a highly unlikely prospect. What I do know is that French and his words - thus expressed - don't have a place in a modern workplace environment, whatever the legion of online apologists for his behaviour say.

Yep. Really. And I know I am going up against the "Godfather" and his global legion of fans here. Sure, there are so many excuses: his words were taken out of context; he was merely stating an industry truth; he didn't mean crap when he said crap; French is the Howard Stern of world advertising, so you get what you pay for when you hire him to speak. But Howard Stern is past his sell-by date too - no matter what Sirius Radio is paying him.

Kate Stanners (see opposite), Rosie Arnold, Tiger Savage, Barbara Nokes, the late Rita Dempsey, Pat Doherty and Alex Taylor - it's a brave and foolish man who would suggest that any of these talented and committed female creative directors are or were "slacker breeders". The redoubtable Marie-Catherine Dupuy of TBWA France, still the ad world's female global creative superstar, is a workaholic mother of four sons aged 13 to 28, and a party animal to boot.

French admits that he was being deliberately provocative, and attempting to entertain. The whole show appears to have a surreal air to it: in addition to the French maid there was also a flamenco display in homage to his taste for bull-fighting. At least I think they said fighting.

HEINEKEN IS APPARENTLY pulling its brand advertising off TV for the short term, citing the clutter of the ad environment and the cost of airtime as impediments to getting noticed cost-effectively. Funny how in the days when Heineken used to spend a lot more than £6.5m on television in creating its much-loved and hugely successful "refreshes the parts" campaign these were never issues - although both problems existed. Back then they even had a beer that has the taste and strength of p*$#. Perhaps creating more adventurous and popular advertising for its much better modern product might help break through the clutter?

TOO MANY TIMES agencies and itinerant marketing directors throw away perfectly good strategies and straplines in the quest to make a new, personal mark. But, conversely, sometimes bringing back a campaign appears to be a lazy, backward-looking last resort. It's hard to escape the feeling that bringing back Toshiba's old GGT campaign "'Ello Tosh, Gotta Toshiba " falls into the latter category. That Eighties campaign, with voiceover from the late, great Ian Dury spoofing an Alexei Sayle novelty song "Ullo John, gotta a new motor?" advertised televisions. The new campaign will feature lap-tops and Madness's Suggs in Dury's place. The robot character will return in some guise too. Will it really mean anything to anyone under 40? Agency DFGW really is taking being GGT Lite too far. And, it's not even the first time the campaign has been revived. It's the advertising equivalent of Rocky.

ONE OF THE sure signs that an agency is having problems with an account is when the boss of the client company pops up in the ads - especially when he (it's always a "he") is portrayed in a ridiculously flattering light. What to make, then, of JWT's decision to put the struggling Ford Motor Company's chief executive officer Bill Ford Jr front and centre of its latest campaign, "Ford innovation"? Ford and GM in particular are flailing around looking for some bright ideas as the American public finally - belatedly - wakes up to its disastrous preference for monster SUVs, given the soaring petrol prices that were a consequence of Hurricane Katrina. Whatever the question, I am sure Bill Ford Jr is not the answer.

HATFIELD'S BEST IN SHOW: AMERICAN AIRLINES

Once again, I have some reservations about making the choice, not because of the ads, but because of the brand experience. But this space is about picking the ads, and to me McCann-Erickson's choice of spokesman, James Gandolfini, is a perfect modern-day Woody Allen or Robert De Niro in terms of being a celebrity who represents New York in the media. The spot in which he sits in the back of the car as the mayhem of the city assaults his driver made me homesick for Manhattan. Minor flaws: in real-life the driver almost certainly wouldn't be able to speak English, and where were the pot-hole induced bumps in the road? Compared to some of this brand's dire advertising in the past, this is a campaign that does make you want to try out American Airlines, arguably the least bad of a pretty terrible big four bunch of airlines that dispel the popular myth that America has a service ethic. It's not the advertising's fault that the product will be a let-down. Or is it?

E-mail stefanohat1@aol.com

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