“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