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7 June 2014

In Memoriam David Abbott

Tag(s): People, Marketing
David Abbott, who died at the age of 75 on May 17th, may have been the greatest copywriter this country has produced. He was also a man of principles. He was a founder with Peter Mead and Adrian Vickers of Abbott Mead Vickers (AMV)  which created famous, award-winning campaigns for clients such as Chivas Regal, The Economist, Ikea, the RSPCA, Sainsbury’s and  ‘good old’ Yellow Pages. They also produced an excellent, if not award-winning, series of ads for Green’s of Brighton when I was its General Manager in the 1980s. He retired as chairman and creative director in 1998 from the boutique he helped start in 1978 which went on to become the largest agency group in the UK. AMV built a reputation not only for its outstanding advertising but also for its principled approach to agency management. David Abbott had lost his father to an aggressive lung cancer brought on by heavy cigarette smoking and so the agency refused to take any tobacco manufacturer as a client. All three of the partners had young children so they also declined any toy manufacturer believing, as I do, that young children are too young to filter advertising, a subject that remains controversial today.

In addition, Peter Mead once told me that if the agency had difficult times the partners would have fired themselves before making any of their staff redundant.  David once said “I like to believe that when staff or clients move on from AMV, they take with them a conviction that advertising is an honourable and effective trade, that hard work can be exhilarating, that ambition doesn’t have to be cut-throat, that a good idea deserves reverence and that talent grows best in the sunshine of security and encouragement.”

Because of his father’s early death at the age of 52 David gave up his scholarship at Merton College, Oxford after just one term to return home to his family. He decided he wanted to try “something that involved writing”. In a Shepherd’s Bush market stall he came across a book called Madison Avenue. “I discovered there was a job called Copywriting. I never thought about who wrote the words for ads before, and I tried to become a copywriter, and eventually I got a job in the Kodak advertising department.”

He was offered the chance to work at Mather & Crowther in London where he developed his trade under the incomparable David Ogilvy. He then moved to New York to work for Bill Bernbach at DDB in New York. Thus very early in his career he had benefitted from studying under two of the giants of advertising. In 1960 he returned to London to run the DDB office there but struck out on his own in 1971 co-founding French Gold Abbott before setting up AMV.

He always set out to bring wit and intelligence to his work. For Yellow Pages, he created the fictional JR Hartley who explores second-hand bookshops seeking out a copy of his out-of-print book on fly-fishing. He was behind the long-running BT campaign –It’s Good to Talk- featuring Bob Hoskins. This was a particularly successful campaign as the late Stafford Taylor, then head of BT’s retail division, explained to me. BT’s fixed costs were such that if they could persuade BT subscribers to talk on the line for just one more minute every day BT profits would increase by £500m! David also came up with the line for a Volvo ad featuring a car full of children- “Always keep your valuables in a safe place”.

My account director at AMV was Hamish Pringle who went on to have his own distinguished career as Director General of the Institute of Practitioners of Advertising and as a writer of several best-selling books on advertising and brands. Following David’s death Hamish published an article featuring ‘Five things we can learn from David Abbott.’ I summarise these as follows:
  1. A “no” is far more distinctive than a “yes.” Here Hamish refers to AMV’s principled stance on cigarettes and toys and quotes Bill Bernbach, who no doubt inspired David: “A principle isn’t a principle unless it costs you money”. This refusal to work on tobacco was rewarded in the early 1980s when AMV won the anti-smoking account from the Health Education Authority which it held for over a decade. This in turn allowed AMV to easily reject any tobacco account as a “conflict”! Hamish describes other principles of leading agencies including Bartle Bogle and Hegarty who refused to do “full creative pitches” and Boase Massimi Pollitt who declined to air ads “without qualitative pre-testing”. I am fortunate to have worked with both of these agencies as well.
  2. Snooker can create social glue’ There can be a tension in a creative agency as account managers will bring bad news to their creative colleagues in terms of lack of time, too little money, or worse, an adverse verdict from a client or research. Bearing this bad news is easier if there is an established rapport. David Abbott and Peter Mead were both keen snooker players and so set up a table in their office basement where all staff could meet and socialise thus developing those vital relationships.
  3. Content and channel should combine.’ David would work closely with Ken New, AMV’s media director, whom I respected greatly, to develop synergy between content and channel. A famous example was the ‘red out of white’ poster campaign for The Economist to which I will return.
  4. Emotional is more powerful than rational in communications.’ David understood the power of engaging the emotions in advertising. Much of his work was criticised for an excess of sentimentality but he has been proved right not only by the long-running campaigns for Chivas Regal, Yellow Pages and the rest but also by subsequent academic validation. The Sainsbury’s campaign is my favourite example and again I will return to this.
  5. New business credentials should be tailored.’ ‘Powerful listening’ was one of his many strengths. Unfortunately I never had the pleasure of being pitched to by AMV; they already held Green’s account when I arrived. But I have received countless pitches in my career and the best were always by people who understood this point.
David will be remembered as a brilliant strategist, a believer in the corporate ethos, but most of all as one of the best copywriters who ever lived. Peter Mead said of him: “He meant more to me than I can possibly express in words. He transformed my life from the moment I met him some 45 years ago… His talent catapulted AMV into the advertising stratosphere. I never saw him write a bad line of copy, could count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I saw him lose his temper and remember countless times when the three of us were helpless with laughter.”

Even The Economist found space to mark his passing. Under the headline 'The Economist’s ad man' they wrote “David Abbott, who died on May 17th, was a creative genius with principles. His advertising agency, Abbott Mead Vickers, refused to do campaigns for tobacco or toys. In 1984 when a small but ambitious newspaper invited him to design ads for it, he had to be talked into it. But the campaign he devised, featuring white letters on a plain red background, captured the essence of the product’s appeal simply and memorably. The first poster ran: “‘I never read The Economist.’ Management trainee. Aged 42.” The campaign, which included the poster opposite, was hugely successful. Thanks from a grateful client.” ‘The poster opposite’ has the famous white letters out of red simply reading “Utter brilliance.” And then at the foot of the page “David Abbott 1938-2014"

At least in my experience such a tribute is unprecedented. In my book The 20 Ps of Marketing I described the cleverness of AMV’s long-running campaign for Sainsbury’s “Good food costs less at' Sainsbury’s” which David once explained to me as I was trying to understand how our own campaign would work. I wrote:

“Advertising works on two levels as with all human understanding - the rational and the emotional; the left and the right brain. Perhaps people who say it does not work on them are rational People; they are more left-brain and able to resist the emotional appeal of a particular advert. However, great advertising usually does both. One campaign that has always stuck in my mind was run by Abbott, Mead, Vickers for Sainsbury. It simply said, “Good food costs less at Sainsbury.” However, this simple statement has both emotional and rational elements. “Good food” is an emotional idea. It is difficult to prove in the rational sense but we all know what it means. “Costs less” is entirely rational and is capable of explicit demonstration. The really clever part was that they ran the campaign in two halves. “Good food” was demonstrated in magazine advertising with beautiful food, lovingly photographed in colour and rapturously described with some of David Abbott’s best copy. “Costs less” was more prosaically explained in black and white in the daily newspapers with details of this week’s special offers. But the strapline "Good food costs less at Sainsbury" was the sign off on both.”

I count myself fortunate to have known him and worked with him if only in a minor way. He touched all our lives and set a fine example to those of us who have worked in marketing.

Copyright David C Pearson 2014 All rights reserved

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