Whatever you think of advertising, David Abbott was a genius

You might not have heard of him but you would have seen his work - Abbott was one of advertising's greatest minds



“Words for me are the servants of the argument,” said the great David Abbott, who died at the weekend, aged 75, “and on the whole I like them to be plain, simple and familiar.”

You may not know who Abbott was, but you will be very familiar with his work. As the co-founder and creative genius behind Britain’s largest advertising agency, Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO (and several before that), he was one of the key cultural and business forces in British life over the past 40 years. Yes, genius, is appropriate..

Not every reader will accept this. Some may feel a mild antipathy towards advertising. Others, violently so. You may reject the notion of advertising as a culturally significant contributor to British life. I would demur.

What’s more, in David Abbott’s case, I am not just talking about the absolute skill and mastery of his craft that lay behind his work for The Economist, Sainsbury’s, Volkswagen, Yellow Pages (J.R.Hartley), Chivas Regal, Volvo, the RSPCA and so many more.

At a time when we were all exposed to mass advertising with very little hope of escape, he created campaigns with intelligence, wit and above all, humanity.

His philosophy is best encapsulated in perhaps his most famous ad: “I never read The Economist” – Management Trainee, Aged 42.

When Abbott was in his prime I was a young marketing journalist who spent a good few years covering the industry, particularly as it went global in the post-Saatchi era. Abbott never achieved the name recognition of Charles, Maurice or Sir Martin Sorrell; arguably not even that of Sir John Hegarty or more latterly, Trevor Beattie - largely because it would have been the last thing he sought.

Instead, he focused on his other achievement: building an agency - with partners Peter Mead, Adrian Vickers and Michael Baulk – that not only became Britain’s biggest and – arguably – best, but one which grew on the back of stated principles.

Trained directly by the two most famous admen of all time, David Ogilvy and Bill Bernbach, Abbott was the Briton, who could best reach back through history to the era of Mad Men’s Don Draper.

However, he differed from the fictional Draper through his commitment to corporate culture and personal ethics. Like Draper, he refused to accept tobacco clients; but, unlike the fictional Sterling Cooper, Abbott Mead Vickers had a policy – at least during the 1989-1993 recession – of no redundancies.

A principle is not a principle until it costs you money? Well, AMV made a lot of money out of being quietly principled, a reaction against the loud greed, showmanship and excess of other 80s ad agencies; red braces, hostile takeover bids for famous banks and all.

The charming Abbott had a personal quality I’ve seldom encountered: serenity. He spoke softly, so listeners would pay more attention. Rejecting cynicism, he genuinely cared about what he did and the people who worked with him. Perhaps If I had his immense talent and ability to lead others I too would be serene.

In all the years I was around ad agencies, his was the only one I ever secretly wanted to work for. I know many who did work with him, and they share those same decent, humane qualities, which they now articulate through their own businesses. That is as fine a legacy as anyone could wish to leave. RIP David.

Stefano Hatfield is editor-in-chief of High50


React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page


In Sickness and in Health: 'I'm really happy to be alive and to see Rebecca'

Rebecca Armstrong
Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine