Remembering David Abbott

By Yash Egami Posted on May 19, 2014

David Abbott, legendary British ad man, founder of Abbott Mead Vickers and 2001 One Club Hall of Fame inductee, passed away on May 17, 2014. The One Club was fortunate enough to have celebrated Abbott's career over the years and become acquainted with him and his wife, Eve. Soft-spoken and down-to-earth, David influenced many creatives and was a trailblazer in the art of copy. We spoke with Abbott in 2007 about his storied career in advertising for ONE. A MAGAZINE, which is reprinted below.
You’re one of the legendary copywriters in the business. What kind of advice would you give to someone who was interested in becoming a copywriter?
I’ve had four children and I’ve got 8 grandchildren and they’re skeptical enough to ignore everything I’ve ever said. But somebody said the best piece of advice he’d ever gotten was the best way to peel a banana is not from the stalk end but from the other end. I started doing that a few years ago and it’s true—it’s a very good piece of advice that I freely pass on that I didn’t invent.
But I suppose what I’d say is that the first bit of advice would be to stop thinking of yourself as a copywriter. Don’t define yourself. Your job isn’t about writing, it’s about having ideas.
You should also carry on creating ads and copywriting for as long as you can. I got through 40 years and I was still doing ads when I retired, even after having other titles. I think the skills that you have that make you in line for management and supervision jobs are the skills that you should hang on to. Be the chairman who can do ads or the chief operating officer who’s great at television. I think you’ll find it more rewarding because being the person who creates the ads is still the most rewarding thing to do in advertising.
But I also think you’re leading by example and that gives you a particular kind of strength. It’s good for your soul and helps you stay in touch. You’re not up there on some deep-carpeted floor isolated from the work. You’re actually there doing the work trying to solve the problems. You know when the planners come and give you a rotten brief and you can start yelling about the briefs needing to be better. So that would be my advice—don’t give up your day job.
Speaking of the craft, how has the nature of copywriting changed with the new media?
I don’t think it has, really. People were saying that in the ’60s looking back at the ’30s. I used to find great inspiration from reading the great ads of the ’30s and ’40s. I think it’s still the same task. Sure, the media has changed and it still takes a lot of different forms. But it’s still the idea that counts, though it may now have to work across more media. The client still needs that creative leap and that has to be born from having the correct strategic insight. Copywriting and the choice of good words is one of the crafts that makes that happen. If Bob Levinson were entering the business today, he’d still be a fantastic and successful copywriter because he has the skill to think and the skill to express himself in persuasive and different ways.
One of things that would excite me about working today is these new opportunities and the technology that has made everything possible. In my day, after writing 30-second and 60-second scripts, you never had a chance to write anything longer because there wasn’t any opportunity to do a BMW Films on the web. So I think it’s a wonderful time to be around and the disciplines that drove us in the old days are still pretty much the disciplines that are needed to do well today.
Looking back on your career, talk about some of the highlights.
Well, it was all good, actually. I find it very hard to think about highlights and low points.  By and large, I was proud of it all, though obviously through a 40-year career, work does get out that you’d rather not own up to. But the quest was to always have stuff you wouldn’t mind saying was yours or the agency’s.
The Economist was a great client that let us do brave work that was different and successful. The work we did for Volvo for 25 years was sometimes as good as the stuff Scali McCabe Sloves did in the US and we did it in a slightly different British way. But that was a long-term client where we had years and years of great outdoor and print, in those days they didn’t go on television. Sainsbury’s was a very good retail client for us—I started writing ads that weren’t about price which, 25 years ago, was rather novel. But we helped them build a great business. Some of the work we did for the RSPCA was strong. But even some of my favorite ads were little ads that I just did for very, very small clients.  I just liked doing ads, basically, and was always eager to do whatever came along—trade ads, radio, commercials.
Is there anything that if you had a chance to do differently you would?
Oh yes, probably, most of it. But if you had a long-running campaign, then you do get a chance to do it again because you probably don’t do the best work the first year with a client. You have to get to know if and find the right tone of voice. We had The Economist for probably three years before we finally came out with the poster campaign. The work we did early on was very good and won a few awards, but it wasn’t as good as the eventual campaign. So that’s the advantage of long relationships and it’s something that clients should think about. Agencies get better the longer they get to know you.
Any low points?
The low points are when you lose a client or lose a campaign that you really love, but they’re not low points in life, it’s not like a death in the family. Part of being successful in advertising is being resilient—you’re down for an evening but the next day you come in and say, well, we’ll get another car account or we’ll do better ads and make them sorry that they ever fired us.
Who has been most influential in your career?
I was very lucky. When I first started, I went to work for the in-house advertising department at Kodak because I couldn’t get into an agency. There was a man named Gordon Kooms who was a very lively writer. Then my first agency, which was Mather and Crowther, I came under the influence of David Ogilvy, first at a distance and then a little more personally after I’d been there a couple of years. And then I went to Doyle Dane Bernbach in their London office in 1965. I started seeing a lot of Bill Bernbach. I had always wanted to work for DDB because I had always followed their ads in the New Yorker, etc and tried to write like a DDB writer, but as I said before, nobody seemed to notice. But then I was much more directly involved with Bill and I went to work in the New York office in 1966 and there I worked with Bob Levinson and his group. So they became tutors and then when I came back and ended up running the London office I still used to see a lot of Bill. And the creative director in London at the time was a great writer named John Withers who worked with an art director called Dave Larson and he taught me a lot. And then after that all the good people I gathered around me at Abbott Mead Vickers influenced me. Because I wanted to go on writing and doing ads, I just surrounded myself with good people who in other agencies would have been the creative director themselves, like Richard Foster or John Horton. It was kind of like a college where we all learned from each other.
Were you more hands-on than most managers?
Well I kept more hands-on because that’s what I wanted to do, I would have been bored stiff just being management. I had a great art director in Ron Brown who didn’t mind being left on his own for a little while if I had to go to a meeting. We used to work irregular hours and I used to write body copy throughout the night so that I could supervise during the day. It was the thing that made me most happy and I was doing it right until the end. I think the day before I finally left the agency, I was still fixing somebody’s script who was on holiday. So it was right for me and it didn’t seem to be too bad for the agency. But there have been great creative directors who have been editors. Bill Bernbach himself didn’t write very many ads and most that he wrote were done during the early days of his career. But he was a great creative leader, so it’s not the only way to do it the way I did it, but it was the only way for me to do it.
Who do you think of among today’s advertising elite?
The agencies today here in the UK and the work that they produce that I like are usually from BBH or DDB or AMV. I’ve been outside of it for a little while, but I like a little agency called Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy and some of the things they do. In the States, I’m really not qualified to answer that, but all the well-known creative agencies like Goodby still seem to be turning out work that I feel envious of. But I’m sure that there are scores of names that I should know but don’t.
What about advertising today? What do you like or dislike about it?
The thing I dislike about it is that I’m 30 years too old to be taking part of it. But the thing I like about it is that one of the things Bernbach used to say is, your ad should be talking like you’re having a one-to-one conversation with someone, and a lot of today’s media gives you the chance to do that.
But I do regret one thing about the fragmentation of media. Because we had national broadcasting, you could run a fantastic commercial over the weekend and people would be talking about it at the water cooler afterwards. It was possible to make a very quick impression and I think that’s diminished, and it’s reflected in the fortunes of the television companies.  But there’s no good bleating about it, it’s just a fact of life and you have to find your impact in other ways. It means we just have to be a bit more ingenious.
I’m not someone who thinks, my God, it’s all changed and it’s not possible to do great work anymore. I think the mechanics may be more difficult—certainly it’s much more 24/7 now with emails waiting for you when you get up in the morning and mobile phones. I think it’s harder to get thinking time, and thinking time is what we all need. If I were running an agency today, that’s what I would be protecting my people from. If the agency doesn’t have thinking time, the client doesn’t get the benefits of that thinking time. And it leads to a kind of impatience, this sort of, “I know you can do it quickly because I’ve got a screen, too, and I’m only going to wait until Thursday and what’s good by then and not what’s good by the following Tuesday.” So I think those kinds of pressures are probably more acute.
Has the consumer changed? Are people more interested in funny and short commercials?

The advantage of being around a long time is that you remember that’s what people have said before. When Doyle Dane started doing humorous commercials, David Ogilvy once said, “People don’t buy from comedians.” But people have always liked humor—they like to like your advertising and you have to be clever enough to make them like it and to also say something meaningful at the same time.
My grandchildren who range from ten to one at the moment, they have a different childhood than I had and are more self-contained in the sense that they do spend more time in front of screens and games and their attention span is different. But there’s still enough of the traditional market and traditional products like cars, which aren’t quick impulse decisions. People like to find out about them. Now they don’t get that information from advertising like they did in the old days. But it’s the balance that’s different. Car advertising on television today has basically become positioning advertising and then there’s a sub-strata where they can get their information and make comparisons, etc. And that’s probably the right thing to do in today’s market, but if I were doing it today, I’d be tempted to try and change it around because if everybody’s doing one thing, you stand out if you’re doing something different. Maybe it’s time to start doing car advertising that actually says something. The task remains the same to say something meaningful but to also stand out.
Do you still stop by the agency? Do you miss any of it?
I see people from AMV. I see Sam Scali and Joan Scali who I used to work with twice a year on holiday in France. I see Peter Clemenger who runs Clemenger BBDO in Australia. So I see lots of people, I see Mr. Mead and Mr. Vickers frequently and the people who run AMV. But the thing I missed the first 9 months after I walked out cold turkey right before my 60th birthday was the creative department and all the young people I used to work with. We have a luncheon club that meets in a small Greek restaurant near the old offices and it’s not very original—it’s called  “The Usual Suspects.” Ten of us get together probably once every ten weeks or so and chew the fat and remember the old days. But the thing I remember most is how much fun it was and the laughter in the corridors and we resurrect some of that every time we sit in this restaurant. I have nothing but good feeling about the time I spent in advertising and I made most of my friends there.


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