Me And My Partner: Andy Law and David Abraham
Wednesday 24 February 1999
ANDY LAW: What we thought was interesting was how David and I kept meeting. In 1988, I was the client services director of CDP. I'd done a degree in classics and had no qualifications in advertising, but I thought it was commercial and glamorous. I wanted to get into business but I wanted it to be fun.
In CDP there was this idea that the creatives did the work and the suits got out and sold it. I wanted to change that. I believe account people should all be creative. David was one of the people I hired. I thought he was very intelligent, academic - one of those brains that grips problems - but equally someone who knew the creative product.
We both realised the CDP agency management was not fulfilling. I was looking for a way out: what I didn't realise was that so was he. I joined Chiat/Day as creative business manager in 1990 and discovered a few months later that David was trying to get out. We won the Midland Bank account, and David had been involved with NatWest - so I kind of railroaded his appointment. I thought for a man of his age, in his mid-20s, he had this incredible ability to handle clients much older than him. (There's a big age difference, I'm 43 this year, he's in his thirties.)
Through intellect, he could sit with CEOs and really discuss with them. So I took him to the shell of the Chiat/Day building and talked about how the office was creative and how this would be a new model business.
Then we were chosen to join a task force looking at the future of the business. We were really interested about how you make decisions. Business is the most powerful force on the planet, and by and large it had no code of conduct or ethics. We had this zealous appetite for what we were doing.
We actually suggested we become a charitable concern. The chairman flipped his lid and we were left with nothing. It was intellectus interruptus. He said, `This is all pie in the sky thinking. Get back and do your jobs'. Because of this passion, I had fallen out, really, with the management and they sent me to the New Zealand office. Then, in Sydney, I got a call saying, `You're in the wrong continent; we have closed all our offices in south-east Asia'. I went to LA, then took over the London office; that was the summer of 1993. The first thing I did was make David my deputy.
We had begun to realise we were very different. I can throw a long ball, a vision, and believe it can happen. He can wire anything together. Creating the passion, rallying the troops - that was me.
We had been given our own little ad agency, and we recruited on the premise we wanted to change everything. Most of the previous management had gone. We put in some of our theories to see how we could become more ethical. We had notions of changing the interaction between humans, things like the value of keeping agreements, lack of coercion, removal of ego. There was also the redefinition of physical space. We were already working open-plan. All of a sudden, it just went, `Bang'. It worked. At that stage, once you make that decision, you liberate everybody else. It's everyone's idea.
We just got more and more successful, until we got a phone call saying, `We have sold the office'. David was the first person I called. My job was to secure the business and take it into a merged venture with the people I thought were necessary. But because we had immersed ourselves in this thinking, and valued human capital, we thought, `How can we fire people?' We decided to break away en masse. But it never entered our heads to set up as Law Abraham.
Thirty-five of us formed a co-operative. We set up on St Luke's Day, 18 October. David and I had had many conversations of, `What if?'. David and I took ourselves away to clear our heads for taking on Omnicom, which had bought Chiat/Day. We thought we would play, `Good cop bad cop': I would be the nice chap, and David would be unbelievably hard and pick up points on the deal. We went to Madison Avenue and said, `We haven't got any money'. We had to pay them a royalty every year for a minimum number of years, and they set the figure at $2m. We said, `We will have to consult our advisers'. We went to the bar and said, `One million. We'll halve it'. We pulled it off and came back with a deal.
In our second year, we were agency of the year. We decided to go on a 24-hour trip to Paris and recast what our roles were. Although it seems obvious now, I wasn't sure if I should be a chairman. In fact, we came out with me as chairman because I could set a vision to open minds. David was going to head up the mission in terms of operating by creating fascination. That was his job. I think he's much better at telling it as it is than I am. I believe in people and in the creative processes to make things happen. He's much better at bringing things to a head and saying, `This is what it's all about'. We still are people who are out there, looking and reading and researching. He plays the guitar; I read Latin.
We talk a lot about the clients; how does this affect that? We are constantly scoping out `What ifs' and `Perhaps we shoulds'. It's been incredibly valuable. We watch the radar, and nothing is a surprise.
DAVID ABRAHAM: We met in the Eighties when I was looking for a way out of a flat period in my career. I'd left Oxford after reading history, worked for large advertising agencies and was looking for a fresh start. I was pointed at CDP where Andy was the account director, responsible for a lot of the good work. Someone suggested I have a chat with him and it was a very interesting, because I had only known the management processes of a big US-owned advertising company.
Advertising appealed to me; my father is an architect, so creativity and business is something I feel comfortable with. I came to Andy in the hope that the job could be more than what it was; the conversation [with Andy] fulfilled my expectations because we talked a lot about how creativity comes out of organisations. I really enjoyed meeting someone who was young and more relaxed and with a good sense of humour. He had a healthy perspective on the advertising business. Everyone else was driving round in Porsches and really going for it; the very long lunches, key people flouncing around, the abuse of clients. That conversation defined a lot of what we subsequently did. He showed me some of the adverts he had been involved in. Here was someone who was doing this because he was intrigued by what made a good piece of communication. He talked a lot about teamwork. He was someone I subsequently came to understand is extremely quick in understanding what it is to talk to someone else. I was made to feel very relaxed. He listened to what I said.
But it was a big agency. When we did bump into each other, it was to reflect on what was going on in the company. It was beginning to eat itself up. I believed that the only salvation was to try to create a new methodology.
Andy seduced me into Chiat/Day by taking me to this new building, which was breathtaking, overlooking Covent Garden. It was a glass box on top of this tower block and I felt, `Crikey, these people are spending a lot of money and they have a breathless approach to physical impressions'. The most important thing they were doing was developing a way of working with clients. It was collaborative. They were teaching you to be client- service oriented. We were trying to synthesise the best of both - you can work with clients but you needn't produce rubbish. If you can't handle pressure and can't take risks, clients aren't challenged.
It was for that reason I went to work with Andy again. I could see there was a radical agenda. The second critical moment came when we were invited to contribute to this think-tank for Chiat/Day, looking at the future of the whole network. It was a really critical moment, because we were trying to reinvent this company because it was getting boring. It was frightening. We immersed ourselves in intellectual exploration; how things were changing and how they could be. We were reading a lot and discussing ideas. That's when the relationship was developing.
We share similar ideals but we have very different styles of working; Andy has high emotional intelligence. He is good at communicating with groups of people then reading the dynamics of people's minds. It's more to do with charisma; to say to people, `This is what we want to do. Follow us'. We realised what our partnership is really about. I was reading it from a chess view: he was playing it by asking what were the expectations of different parties - what were people feeling about it?
Setting up St Luke's was draining and there was a period of insecurity. We were creating a model of self-management yet you need leadership. There was a time when we felt embarrassed about the concept, and that did get difficult.
We work on radar, really. We scoop up things and debate them then do them. We have also learned a lot from each other. There was a time when I was doing, and he was inspiring. It's become much more blended.
Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes
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