Tim Isaac
Aug 17, 2011

'Sorry for the Lobsters': Tim Isaac reviews Neil French's memoirs

ASIA-PACIFIC - In this exclusive review, Tim Isaac, chairman of Ogilvy & Mather Asia-Pacific, shares his thoughts on the recently published memoirs of Neil French.

'Sorry for the Lobsters' is Neil French's memoir
'Sorry for the Lobsters' is Neil French's memoir

A life well lived.  A story well told. Sorry for the Lobsters is a story of Neil French’s life - well told.  He is the supreme story teller and this book is as captivating and readable as his advertising long copy always was.  Neil advised young aspiring copy writers to imagine they were writing to a single individual so it is not surprising that you, dear reader, will feel that he is writing to you personally when you read this book.

A major reason why Neil is such good company is that he doesn’t bang on about advertising endlessly.  There’s a good amount of anecdote and good sense about advertising of course but he has so many other stories to tell.  Stories about his adventures as an estate agent, rent collector, waiter, singer, matador, porn star, bouncer, impresario, encyclopedia salesman, rock group manager, venture capitalist, film actor, voice over artist, account executive and father.

I am not sure that Neil had any particular ‘themes’ in mind when he set about writing these memoirs but there are at least four ‘riffs’ that resonated for me. 

Firstly  - the importance of overcoming fear if we are to achieve anything in life.  You will read how “…all you need in life is ‘more front than ‘Arrods’ and an apparent absence of fear.  Talent could be faked” . Very interesting, this, in the context of an analysis the other day in Campaign UK of why UK and Western ad agencies win so few awards at Cannes these days.  Too much Fear is their conclusion!!

Secondly -  Laughter. While Neil has always been the supreme perfectionist in his work he does not take himself, or his work, too seriously.  So, I thought, “He died laughing” would be a good epitaph when the time eventually comes. He openly admits as much and the humour of so many of the stories he tells is infectious.  And on page 372, he advises: “Die laughing if you can, I reckon”

Thirdly  - acting.  I once wrote a training piece about how selling creative work was like theatre in so many ways [eight actually] So I was amused to read that a good friend of Neil’s once told him:  “Ha! You’re acting all the time, you bugger! Your whole life is a series of roles, and you know it”.  The story of how he ‘sold’ the UBS bank campaign is the finest story of acting to sell that you are ever likely to hear.  And it was to such good effect, with such a wonderful outcome for all involved, that not even the most worthy of puritans could argue that ‘acting’ is dishonest.  Neil comments on his music hall singing period:  “And this was when I discovered that you don’t sing a song: you sell it. And so it is with public performance. Including client presentations and speeches.  You work the audience.  Make ‘em believe they’re having a good time, and they’ll love you, and hang on every word you say”

And fourthly – Simplicity.  I have increasingly felt that there is so much complexity invading our business that people think it is complicated. And as a result they confuse themselves and everyone around them.  So it was massively heartening to me – as it will be to you – to read Neil’s view that “This business doesn’t have to be complicated.”   Every page of this auto-biography illustrates that point of view. 

So whether it is a manual on ‘how to do Ads’ that you are expecting, or ‘how to win in life’ self help you are looking for,  this delivers both in spades.  In fact it is massively better than any ‘American’ self- help book as it avoids all the most characteristic traits of that genre - worthy, humourless, unreadable, self-important and long.

Over the many years that I worked with Neil and knew him well I never really worked out whether he was being serious – deadly serious – or taking the piss.  But one thing I did decide was that it didn’t really matter.  He was never unkind.  And always stimulating and good fun.  It would have been a major disappointment and surprise if his memoirs were any different.  He may be taking the piss – but lie back and enjoy it.


'This book review was commissioned by Adobo Magazine.

Sorry for the Lobsters has been produced only as a limited edition hard copy. It is available for order through Neil French's personal website, here.


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