David Abbott: Advertising copywriter renowned for his integrity and acclaimed as one of the finest in the industry


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The Independent Online

David Abbott, founder of the advertising agency Abbott Mead Vickers (AMV), was widely considered one of Britain's finest copywriters, renowned for his integrity and serenity in a business famed for the immorality depicted in Mad Men. From 1979 onwards he turned AMV into the biggest and most financially successful agency in the UK – and saw it grow globally as AMV BBDO, as it is now known, with 288 offices in 80 countries and widely regarded as the world's most successful creative network. Handling such accounts as BT, Aviva and Sainsbury's, it now forms part of the Omnicom Group.

In the 1960s Abbott worked for the big Manhattan-based agency Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB), on which the fictional agency Sterling Cooper in Mad Men is said to be partly based. He was involved in several of DDB's groundbreaking Volkswagen ads emphasising the VW Beetle's smallness and relative poor looks. One ad carried a close-up of the eye-popping, wild-haired comedian Marty Feldman with the caption, "if he can make it, so can Volkswagen." The copy read: "No disrespect intended, Mr Feldman, but no one would mistake you for Gregory Peck. Yet you've made it right to the top. On talent ... The Volkswagen isn't pretty, Mr Feldman. But it's got talent."

After founding AMV in 1978 with Peter Mead and Adrian Vickers, Abbott created, via his blue ink Artline pen on sheets of A3 paper, numerous ads which changed the face of the industry and made London as much of an advertising hub as Manhattan. London admen took on a certain swagger, loud, hobnobbing with politicians and celebs. Not Abbott, though. Although tall, elegant, handsome and much sought-after, he remained low-key and soft-spoken, a family man, and let his work do the talking.

Among his biggest clients were Volvo, Chivas Regal, Ikea, the Yellow Pages and The Economist. One ad for the latter boldly stated, against the magazine's traditional red background: "I never read The Economist," signed below by "Management trainee. Aged 42." Abbott and AMV also created a campaign for Sainsbury's which was widely seen as turning the supermarket chain into a major player in the UK. It was the first campaign which treated women shoppers as intelligent, caring about quality rather than merely price. And Abbott didn't simply make his copy up. As with all his work, he had studied human nature, in this case by watching shoppers, so that the ads rang true.

He was also responsible for a series of ads for the RSPCA, including one that showed a bulging binliner with the caption: "This doggy bag contains a dead doggy." The ad hit the headlines in 1989 after the RSPCA posted it at Crufts Dog Show at Earls Court in 1989 but was forced to remove it after the Kennel Club said it was shocking and upsetting dog lovers.

In 2010, long after Abbott had retired, Claire Beale, editor of the influential Campaign magazine, wrote in The Independent: "London advertising has few Gods. David Abbott is one of them – a genius, a legend, a gentleman. A creative icon and a man whose legacy till infuses and enthuses adland, Abbott is quite possibly the best copywriter that we have ever had."

David Abbot was born in London in 1938, one of three brothers, and went to a local grammar school, a fact he remained proud of. At Merton College, Oxford in 1959 he met Adrian Vickers, with whom he would found AMV almost 20 years later with Peter Mead.

On his father's death Abbott left university to help his mother and brothers get by. He took up copywriting, starting in the ad department of Kodak before moving in 1963 to the Mather & Crowther agency, where he worked on advertisements for Shell and for Triumph cars. It was in 1965 that he moved to the Manhattan-based Doyle Dane Bernbach as a copywriter. After a year at their New York HQ, during the era in which Mad Men is set, he was sent back to London as Creative Director for DDB.

In 1971 he helped set up a new agency, French Gold Abbott, then in 1978 co-founded AMV, first at Bruton Place, Mayfair, then Babmaes Street, London, just off Jermyn Street and Piccadilly. So began a three-man operation that went public in 1985 and eventually went global. Approaching his 60th birthday in 1998, Abbott left his position as Chairman, handing over creative control to Peter Souter and intending to spend his retirement writing fiction.

His first novel, The Upright Piano Player, published in 2010 to fine reviews, tells the story of businessman Henry Cage and becomes a tale of pride, blame, guilt and compassion, compared by some to Graham Greene. He was planning another novel before his sudden death.

After Abbott's death, his co-founder Peter Mead told The Drum market and media website: "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. When he joined Adrian Vickers and me in our little agency, it was like Lionel Messi joining Millwall. His talent catapulted AMV into the advertising stratosphere."

In 2001 Abbott was inducted into the Creative Hall of Fame of the One Club for Art and Copy in New York. The following year he was recognised for his lifetime achievement in the prestigious Clio awards (named after the Greek muse Clio, said to be a source of inspiration and genius). He also received numerous Design and Art Direction awards, sometimes described as the Oscars of advertising. Giving advice to would-be copywriters once, he said: "Use your life to animate your copy. If something moves you, chances are it will touch someone else, too. Think visually. Ask someone to describe a spiral staircase and they'll use their hands as well as words ... Don't be boring."

Another advertising great, Sir Frank Lowe, told The Independent: "In the 1970s and '80s, in my view there were three great print copywriters – David, Tony Brignull and John Salmon. This does not mean that they did not write some marvellous television copy but their print writing was truly remarkable. There were times when I really felt quite jealous that David wasn't with us at CDP [Collett Dickenson Pearce]. He was a giant in the business and there are very few giants left." He is survived by his wife Eve, from the west of Ireland, four children and eight grandchildren.

David Abbott, advertising copywriter, executive and author: born London 11 October 1938; married Eve (four children); died London 17 May 2014.