Rally and Serve

While a stabbing upended Rick French’s life, he saw it as a blessing in disguise.
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The French Connection - The team at French/West/Vaughn, a leading advertising and digital media agency, was formed by Michigan native Rick French. // Courtesy of Rick French
The French Connection – The team at French/West/Vaughn, a leading advertising and digital media agency, was formed by Michigan native Rick French. // Courtesy of Rick French

As founder, CEO, and chairman of French/West/Vaughan, an advertising and digital media agency based in Raleigh, N.C., Rick French is nationally recognized as a leading influencer in the business of integrated marketing — the art of developing and delivering a unified message for any brand, across every conceivable marketing platform.

But before he could reach the top of his profession, he overcame a personal tragedy. His story begins at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, where he was born, and winds through stops in Troy and Berkley before his family settled in Shelby Township.

“It was pretty rural at the time,” French recalls. “I grew up on a street called Hummingbird Court and (there was) a man-made lake called Chestnut Lake. It was just a great place to grow up.

“In the summer we swam in the lake. There was an island in the middle of it, and we would play on the island. A couple of families built rafts out there, including my dad, so we would swim from raft to raft in the summer, and in the winter we were constantly sledding and ice skating and playing hockey.”

French attended Roberts Elementary and Malow Junior High before moving on to Eisenhower High, where he played football and baseball, captained the tennis team, and, as co-editor of the school paper, discovered a passion he was convinced would become his career. “I knew from the time I was in high school,” French says emphatically, “that I wanted to be a journalist.”

He had offers from various colleges to play tennis, but ultimately decided to stay close to home, attending Oakland University in Rochester Hills.

“I grew up in a squarely middle-class family; both of my parents worked,” he says. “My dad ran his own painting and decorating company, and my mom worked in accounting. I rarely saw either of them take a day off work. In fact, in 40 years, I can only remember my dad being sick enough one day (to the point that he was) unable to go to work.

“We chose Oakland University in part because of what (my parents) could afford at the time. I looked at the fact that they had a journalism program, and also a solid tennis program that was nationally ranked, and decided it was a good starting point as a commuter student. I had every intention of transferring to a bigger school, but then I moved onto campus. As soon as I did that, I fell in love with it and decided to stay and pursue journalism.”

In addition to his studies, French worked as a freelance writer for a variety of local papers.

The Oakland Press, Romeo Observer, Rochester Clarion …,” he reels them off, staccato. “I was covering city council meetings and sports, too. Upon graduation, I started working for the Lake Orion Review, and then C&G Publishing, writing for about eight or nine of its Macomb and Wayne County community newspapers.”

French received awards from the Michigan Press Association for his investigative work for C&G Publishing. “I even did freelance work for WXYZ,” he says. “Any assignment that I could take, whether it was on air or in print, I was pursuing and building up a resume. (Soon I) had a really deep book of clips I could show. And I was still pursuing a career on the satellite professional tennis tour, playing in some regional events.”

At 24 years old, and with a B.A. in journalism, French was on his way to the career he’d always dreamed of, while making a mark in the sport he loved. But one fateful night, everything in his life changed in a terrifying flash.

“It was March 13, 1987, which happened to be a Friday the 13th,” he says, unaffectedly. “I was backing out of a driveway in Grosse Pointe Woods to go back home.”

That’s the moment things went horribly wrong for the lifelong devotee of sports cars. “I was driving a brand-new Ford EXP,” French reveals, “and it was at the time where those two-seaters were the hottest cars out there. My car was blocked, and I was jumped by three kids who were high on drugs — 18, 17, and 16. I was able to fight two of them off, but the third one had a 9-inch Buck hunting knife and I was stabbed in the back multiple times. That set several things in motion.”

For starters, his career as an aspiring professional tennis player was over.

“I’ve always believed that success is forged through adversity, which is how I’ve always viewed my brush with death,” he explains. “I was never going to become Bjorn Borg or Jimmy Connors, so the stabbing brought me to a fork in the road and helped me turn my attention toward a business career as opposed to slogging along in small tournaments that really only paid a few bucks. So I saw the incident as a blessing in disguise.”

As for that career in journalism, it turns out even before his brush with death, French was already having second thoughts.

“I remember my first full-time job out of school as a journalist, I was making $180 a week,” he says with a laugh. “I got bumped up to $200 a week, working for the Lake Orion Review. I knew this wasn’t a profession you were pursuing to get rich, so at that time I was already interviewing for a position with Comerica Bank, thinking there might be a better future in shaping stories than telling stories, and that’s what really caused me to pivot into PR. While on leave from C&G as I recovered from my injuries, I was offered a PR position at Comerica, which I accepted.”

Roller Coaster - Today, Rick French is producing movies, with filming to start next spring on “Not Without Hope,” which is partly about Corey Smith of the Detroit Lions, who died in a boating accident. // Courtesy of Rick French
Roller Coaster – Today, Rick French is producing movies, with filming to start next spring on “Not Without Hope,” which is partly about Corey Smith of the Detroit Lions, who died in a boating accident. // Courtesy of Rick French

French spent about 18 months at Comerica, eventually being promoted to manager of internal communications before moving to Anthony M. Franco Public Relations (today Franco) for another two years. Then a recruiter for Reichhold Chemicals, a multinational chemical conglomerate based in the Research Triangle in Durham, N.C., began wooing him for a senior position in corporate communications.

“They were persistent in their pursuit of me, let’s put it that way,” French explains. “I wasn’t interested in leaving Detroit; I never thought I would leave Detroit.”

Until he experienced yet another scary incident involving a luxury vehicle, which also occurred while he was behind the wheel.

“It was one of those typical January Detroit mornings,” French recalls, “cold and icy, and my Ford Thunderbird hit a patch of ice and slid off the road into a ditch. Nobody was hurt, the car was fine, but I had to wait three hours for AAA to haul me out. And my phone was ringing as I walked into my office, and it was the recruiter from this company, making one final pitch. And I said, casually, to him, ‘So what’s the weather like today in North Carolina?’ And he said, ‘It’s 72 and sunny.’ And I said, ‘When would you like me there for the interview?’ ”

French spent two years as manager of corporate communications for Reichhold Chemicals before moving on to a five-year stretch at Rockett, Burkhead, Lewis, and Winslow, an advertising agency in Raleigh. The position proved to be the catalyst for the next and most important move of his life. “I felt like I’d built up the agency up substantially, and I didn’t have any equity in the firm,” he says. “And I thought well, you know, I could do this myself.”

It didn’t hurt that several colleagues had already left the firm for another startup agency. “One of their founders had a small angel fund, and they told me this guy was looking to invest in good people and good ideas, and he became my silent partner.”

French’s angel investor allowed him to venture out on his own, launching Richard French and Associates in Raleigh in 1997. Four years later he merged his firm with another area agency, West and Vaughan, to form what is now French/West/Vaughan. A leading advertising and digital media agency, the firm has been cited multiple times as the National Agency of the Year.

Apart from his practice, for the past 15 years French has offered his time and support to the Special Olympics and the Global Water Foundation, a charity focused on bringing clean water and adequate sanitation to underdeveloped parts of the world. He’s also been a driving force in a wide and eclectic array of business interests — more than a dozen in all — ranging from music to sports, media, entertainment properties, and a private equity fund.

“They all tend to be things that that align with my personal interests,” French says. “You know, a lot of people cite the Kevin Bacon rule of Six Degrees of Separation, but I generally have one degree of separation from the things I know very well, which happens to be the media, marketing, and public relations. So that makes it easy for me to bridge over and take investment positions in businesses and companies.”

Not to mention film production. French is the managing partner of Prix Productions, a company with offices in Raleigh and Los Angeles. The company is currently prepping a project with a heartfelt connection to his hometown.

“I’m producing a major motion picture, “Not Without Hope,” which is the story of the two NFL players and a college football player who perished in a boating accident in the Gulf of Mexico in 2009,” he says. “One of those players was Corey Smith of the Detroit Lions. It tells the story of Corey and some of his background and time in Detroit. It goes into production in March of 2022, so I’m really excited about that.”

The 59-year-old French is also in discussions about producing another film — about an unnamed “Detroit legend,” in his cryptic words — and says he’s serious about signing on, with an important caveat: “The studio has got to be willing to allow me to make the film largely in Detroit,” he says. “I will not sign on, despite the tax credit situation, if they want me to produce this elsewhere. I’ve been wanting to do a project like that in Detroit and, if they agree to that — and I think they will — then I’ll likely sign on. Then I can share more about who it’s about.”

French’s devotion is easy to distinguish. “I’m one of those ex-Detroiters who may have our own criticisms of the city,” he says, “but if anybody else ever says anything bad about Detroit, boy, you’ll find a very hostile person on the other side because I’m very defensive about Detroit and the stereotypes that come with it.

“My parents’ work ethic rubbed off on me,” French continues, “and it kind of personifies the spirit of just about everyone from Detroit that I’ve ever known. There’s a no-quit, roll-up-the-sleeves-and-get-the-job-done attitude, forged through difficult times and forks in the road. So when I speak to aspiring young professionals or consider backing companies or individuals with great ideas, I want to know what forged their identity and where the fork in the road was that led them to this particular moment. If they don’t have a story to share, it will probably be a pretty short conversation.”

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