A few days ago I stumbled upon a letter I'd almost forgotten about. It was a message from Neil French.
It took me back to early 2007, when I was working as a copywriter for Grey Amsterdam. I was probably writing ads for margarine or toothpaste, when my Managing Director walked into my office with a grin on his face. He had news: I was selected, together with 6 other creatives from the European Grey network, to spend a week with Neil French.
I remember trembling with excitement - and fear.
Neil French, World Wide Creative Director of WPP, former bullfighter, former manager of metal band Judas Priest, former gangster, former inventor of 'scam ads'. If you Googled Neil French you got pictures of him with a satanic look in his eyes, chewing on a fat cigar.
But also, Neil French, one of the greatest copywriters alive, with a deliciously literate, sophisticated, irreverent style that had become a rarity in the industry. The man credited for bringing the 'creative revolution' to Asia and maker of classic ads like those for the Singapore Straits Times newspaper in 1993. In case you haven't seen them: to demonstrate the power of newspaper advertising he created a fake beer brand, XO Beer, notable for its high alcohol content. He then ran a series of ads promoting the beer, which led to consumers besieging Singapore bars, asking for the non-existent brand; point made about the power of print advertising. In typical Neil French fashion, he had registered the name of the beer in his own name and profited nicely when, as a follow-up to its hoax, the newspaper actually brewed a few hundred cases of the beer and sold them.
But I digress.
In 2007, Neil lived in Mallorca.
As the mountain wouldn't come to Muhammad, we were all flown to this Mediterranean island to stay in a small hotel in the village where he resided. I vividly recall our first meeting with him. We were huddled together in a local bar, somewhat nervous, waiting for him to arrive. When he finally did, he introduced himself to every one in the group with a friendly smile on his face. But when he reached me, his smile turned into a look of disgust. Was there something wrong? Was I not supposed to be here? Had someone made a mistake?? "My God", he said "You look despicably like Brad Pitt." A smile broke through his frown and he shook my hand. Ever since then he's called me Brad. Until today, I'm not sure he even knows my real name.
During the week that followed we were immersed in his world; creating ads together, discussing work together and reflecting on life together in his hillside villa. Looking back on it now, it was one of those catalytic moments in my professional life. I came back to Grey Amsterdam, more eager to make a difference, more hungry to create opportunities. Less than 3 years later, the Grey Amsterdam office got ranked as the most creative in its global network. Most certainly not just thanks to my efforts but the ambition and zeal that made me contribute to that milestone were to a large extent inspired by Neil.
When I was about to leave Grey Amsterdam in early 2012, to join J. Walter Thompson Dubai as a Creative Director, I hadn't really thought about that week in Mallorca for a long time. Until my then creative partner Ecco Vos handed me a special goodbye gift; a framed letter from Neil.
Without me knowing, Ecco had reached out to Neil and asked him if he'd mind writing a little note for the occasion.
Reading this letter the other day put a smile on my face. It made me realize once again Neil's not just a great (and witty) writer, he's also a guy who takes time to inspire others to rise above themselves. It's something I try to do in my role as an ECD these days; to help produce great work and to help elevate the people behind it. I'm grateful to have had Neil French as an example.
Here's the message he wrote:
Richard Hol? Richard? Richard?...who the fuck is Richard?! (Appropriate cue for song...)
And that's what I thought, five or six years ago, when I saw his name on the delegates' list for the Grey Wolves session in Mallorca.
Almost invariably, the attendees turned out to be charming; some were shy; some believed they were better than they were; and to be brutally frank, all 'needed a bit of work' as the house agents refer to a total redecoration job! One or two, like Stillacci, now of Herezie Paris, were bound for inevitable glory and success.
Imagine, then, my surprise when I strolled into the room to find Brad Pitt sitting there. Agreed, he's not exactly Shakespearean standard perhaps, but to decide, mid-career, to go into advertising was a brave move. In the event, it appeared that he'd adopted the nom du guerre of Richard Hol. Well, each to his own taste.
Brad turned out to be a natural. Simple ideas, simply expressed and fluently presented. After sitting opposite him for a few meals, it became clear that he should very swiftly make the leap from the film-set to a Creative Director's desk. And this is where it all went pear-shaped. Nothing I could say, and it seems nothing anyone else could say, would persuade him that he should do this; he thought he 'needed experience' or some nonsense like that. "Bugger experience." I said. "Get your experience while you get on with the gig!"
And into the no-doubt comfortable coziness of Amsterdam he retreated, and with regrets I thought that was that. End of story.
But then I had a note from Ecco...clearly a very caring friend and partner...telling me that at last he was to take up a starring role at JWT in Dubai.
BETTER LATE THAN NEVER, BRAD!
To speak directly for a moment; you'll do brilliantly, my friend. You'll stamp your personality on the work, and nurture the talent that doubtless is waiting to be terrified of you! Remember never to assume that the suits know more about anything than you do; they just talk more. Copy pages 370 and 371 of my book, and pin them on your wall for all to see; follow these Ten Tips for CDs and you cannot go wrong, trust me. And above all...WAY above all...have a great time!
Neil [if !supportLineBreakNewLine]
If you're interested: here's an extensive overview of Neil French's work: https://davedye.com/2017/07/17/podcast-neil-french/