Media: Not a saint but an Abbott, an advertisement for himself
Monday 29 September 1997
Ten days have passed since he handed over creative control and David Abbott is looking anything but composed. Admittedly it's only because he's tripped over a wire as he helped to move some furniture to allow our photographer to get a better picture, but even so it's a bit of a result. Because it's probably the only time during his 30 years in the advertising business that he's been caught off balance.
Abbott is the smoothest of the smooth. In an industry more noted for loud, brash images, his urbane, intelligent copy-writing skills and calm managerial manner have built the agency, Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO which he co-founded nearly 20 years ago, into the biggest in the country - surpassing even Saatchi & Saatchi. He has made the selling of sophisticated, middle- class values into a highly successful art form, and if one had to find two words to sum him up, they would be "Sainsbury's" and "Volvo". Which just happen to be two of his leading brands.
What's more, he's achieved all this without making a single enemy. He refused to make any of his staff redundant during the recession of the late 1980s and early 1990s, when other ad firms were firing willy-nilly. He won't take on any cigarette accounts - his father died of lung cancer - and he won't do toys either, because he feels that it puts too much pressure on parents. And the bitchiest remark you can get any of his rivals to come up with is that he likes to be the leading player on the team and that his ads tend towards the cosy and slushy. What is this guy? Some kind of saint?
Sitting opposite him, I'm struck by the fact that this is exactly what he does look like. He has a measured, patrician air, his face is lined and friendly, and his longish, elegantly coiffed hair is, well, just like something out of a Cadfael. All he needs is the halo and the picture would be complete.
Abbott enjoys the reverence in which he's held, but one senses that he's also slightly irritated by it. "We didn't establish the company with a particular ethos in mind," he says. "It just evolved as we went along. We just wanted to do things we felt comfortable with. We wanted to create honest, heartfelt advertising that didn't insult the public and that we weren't ashamed of owning up to."
His working methods haven't just inspired loyalty among his staff. Many of his major accounts, such as Sainsbury's, Volvo, The Economist and BT, have been with the agency for donkeys' years, because he has brought his own thoughtful values to their products and made them their own. Yet he is not just an aesthete; he is also a brilliant strategist. His Bob Hoskins "It's good to talk" ads, which won the IPA award for most effective campaign, were widely held to herald a new direction for advertising by trying to change the way people, particularly men, relate to each other. His deal with the American network, BBDO, which was instrumental in bringing in such big accounts as Pepsi and Wrangler, is the only one that a British agency has struck which has allowed it to retain overall control of the business.
But all good things come to an end. Abbott is now 58 and feels that the time is right to hand over the reins to a new creative director, Peter Souter. Like all things AMV, the handover has been done in a typically civilised manner. Unlike other agencies, where the old guard has been happy to take the money and run and to hell with the business, Abbott has managed his succession meticulously. Two years ago, he announced that Souter was his anointed heir, and since then he has eased him into the job, by letting him take key decisions and hiring the staff he wanted.
On the surface, Souter is no obvious Son of David. He's 33, has fashionably long sideburns, an asymmetric haircut, and wears a collarless suit, whose designer I feel sure I'm supposed to recognise. Sadly, all I can tell you is that it's definitely not M&S. And unlike Abbott's office which is furnished with an antique Austrian birdcage, a Bawden print and an immaculately arranged vase of flowers, the best that can be said for Souter's is that it has a couple of baseballs signed by Pamela Anderson on the shelf. All in all, he seems to be just another adland trendy. So what qualities marked him out for the most coveted job in advertising?
Scratch away and it is soon clear that Souter is an AMV man through and through. As a young art student, he stood outside Abbott's South Kensington home, with a placard saying, "Interview wanted, Volvo preferred". The stunt failed dismally as the short-sighted Abbott sped past in a Mercedes - he does own a Volvo, though - and it wasn't until five years ago that Souter achieved his ambition and got his foot through the door.
Comparatively soon after his arrival, it was obvious to Abbott that Souter was the man to replace him. "It was initially just intuition," he says, "but it was soon supported by the evidence. Peter is a good creative, he's outwardly calm, a good talent spotter and he has a stubborn streak that's prepared to fight for good work."
Outwardly calm he may be, but Souter admits that he's terrified about the challenges ahead. "I don't mind sharing the credit with David if things go well because a lot of it will be down to what he's already established, but I don't want to be the one who spoils everything."
Souter's critics accuse him of being sycophantic, but he insists that he's not going to be a mere Abbott clone. "I am going to do things differently," he claims. "We've got quite an old creative team, and I'm certainly going to look to hire younger people when the need arrives. I'm also going to delegate more. People got so used to David making the decisions that they tended to rely on him. If an account planning decision needs to be made, then I will see that the planning department makes it. But, he adds, "I won't be making changes just for the hell of it." All of which sounds to me as if it will be business as usual.
But changes may have to be made. Just as Sainsbury's has fallen behind Tesco in the supermarket wars, some people wonder just how long AMV's unique brand of middle-Englishness can survive. Rumour also has it that BT is less than happy with the new Hugh Laurie commercials. Souter believes that the company has shown it can keep pace with a younger market, and cites its Wrangler and Kiss FM ads in support. Others are not so sure.
If Souter is forced into some tough creative choices, he can't rely on Abbott bailing him out. "I'll be staying on as chairman of the company but I'll try not to interfere with what Peter's doing," says Abbott. So what will he do with most of his time? "I'll carry on writing ads. At my age I should be able to do some good work on pensions." Lucky old Prudential.
And then? "Well, I'm a non-executive director of Harvill publishing, which I find enjoyable. For my recent sabbatical, I bought 100 books from their back-list to wade through." This man is simply too much. Brand-loyal to the last.
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