Word Merchant

How do you test your beliefs? If you’re David Abbott, you put yourself under a 3,200 pound Volvo to demonstrate its superior welding. He didn’t just regurgitate the car’s features, Abbott dramatized them. So it’s no surprise that Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, now the U.K.’s largest agency, stands as a legacy to its inventive founder. While other British shops in the ’80s pursued growth, “David’s agency,” as it became known, rose to the top by believing that size is a consequence of quality work. Until he retired two years ago, he wrote the intelligent, graceful ads that symbolized his 40-year career. For his excellence at his craft, Abbott was recently inducted into The One Club Hall of Fame. Here, he reflects on the work that earned him that honor, the influences that affected him and the difficulty of closing his office door.

Adweek: You’ve said [star Doyle Dane Bernbach copywriter] Bob Levenson has been a professional hero of yours. Why?

Abbott: My first was David Ogilvy, when I worked at Mather & Crowther. The book everyone received at the agency, called Observation, was a list of rules about how to do ads, which, after 40 years, I still found difficult to ignore. Things like always try to get the client’s name into the headline, and if you’re writing long copy, copy the editor, and always put a caption under a photograph.

I was somewhat familiar with DDB’s work, but it really registered with me when they opened in London in 1964. I saw an ad in the paper one day for Remington shavers, and I realized there was another way of doing ads. Another way of talking with courage. I admired the simpli-city and the impact of the art direction. I found out more about [DDB] and tried to start changing my copy so it would get me a job. Eventually, I did get the job in London as a copywriter in 1965.

I bought in pretty completely to DDB’s philosophy. In a way, it wasn’t that different from the Ogilvy discipline, but it added something on top of that: the need to get noticed. It also had a more folksy, more witty charm to it. … I never really changed my feeling about DDB and Bill Bernbach’s way of doing things. I think there comes a point in your career when you stop thinking about your mentors, and you just do what comes naturally. But if I had to trace my DNA, it would probably come from those two sources and predominantly to DDB in the ’60s.

Adweek: For most of your career, you had a particular way of writing in blue ink, not black, on layout pads. How did that work?

ABBOTT: I didn’t like black ink for some reason, and I used to write in a column width. That came from my early days of writing VW Beetle ads; the column widths were the same as when it was printed up, so I got used to writing like that. Occasionally, if I got stuck, I’d switch to a thick pencil and [create] all kinds of ideas, just to change the rhythm of writing.

Adweek: Was there a visual component to the way you developed ideas? Abbott: Often, I used to see an ad before I actually knew what it was going to say. An Economist poster became more like a poster if I put a box around the [copy] to help me judge whether it was any good. I got a reputation for writing long copy, but I wrote lots of things without long copy, like posters and Chivas ads. Copy and art ought to be indivisible, so you’d think of the two together and often of the visual first.

Adweek: Do you think the virtues of long body copy are still appreciated? Abbott: I have no fixed love for long copy and never have. I think you do what it takes to do the job. If you’re buying a car, for example, and you’re interested in a particular model, there’s almost a feeling that you can’t read too much about it. I love getting car catalogs and reading them, I love reading test reports in Car and Driver. But if somebody is trying to sell me a pair of sports shoes, I don’t really want to know how fit the rubber is and how well made the laces are. I’m going to buy on the basis of what the brand says about me, so you may not need much copy. I’m glad I could write long copy, because it’s a useful skill when it’s appropriate. But I have no kind of old timer’s nostalgia for long copy. I never wrote it for that reason.

Adweek: Is the level of craft in the U.S. and U.K. where it should be?

Abbott: Most advertising is fairly mundane and is average-to-good. There’s not much excellent stuff being done anywhere. But I don’t think there’s a drop in talent or craft. These things are cyclical, and I think it’s an inspirational business. If somebody does a great series of print ads, then other people want to do print ads. Most of the inspiration recently has come from great TV, and that creates its own momentum.

Adweek: You challenged [creative director, TBWA, London] Trevor Beattie in the press about his FCUK campaign for French Connection. It’s been proven highly successful in generating client sales. What were your objections?

Abbott: I thought it was just swearing to sell a pair of trousers, and I didn’t see anything particularly clever in that. I didn’t think it was the right thing to do, without getting pompous and priggish. If you really wanted to reach that young market, there were more discreet ways of doing it. Of course, they didn’t want discretion. Part of the appeal to that target market was that it was in public and was outrageous, like swearing in church. I thought that was cynical on the part of the advertising client and the agency.

Adweek: Do you think advertising in general has become more crass, particularly during the short-lived dot-com boom?

Abbott: Yes. Once you start with that kind of outrage, you have to keep escalating the outrage. I’m not priggish. In the book I’m writing, the “f” word appears several times because it’s part of life, and it’s what people say. But I don’t think we have to put it in ads where it can be seen by 6-year-olds and 8-year-olds. There are lots of parents in this country trying to stop their children using that language in inappropriate places. I just think a poster in Hyde Street, 40 yards from a school, is an inappropriate place. I don’t think that is the be-all and end-all of commercial success. There are other things in life. It goes back to something I learned from both David Ogilvy and Bill Bernbach. Ogilvy said, “You treat the consumer as though she was your wife.” I wouldn’t swear at my wife. Bernbach also said, “We are in a public arena, and you’re not invited into the newspapers and you’re not invited into people’s homes or television.” I think there’s a real sense of responsibility and manners that is a part of what we do. I don’t think there’s any point in talking to one segment by alienating others.

Adweek: You once said you’re not a fan of words. You see them as work-horse tools, with little literary pretension. Can you expand on that?

Abbott: I’m less interested in bon mots than bon motivators. In advertising, words are the servant of the argument. Choosing the precise word is important, but I don’t use words to impress the audience by their strangeness or their intellectual quality. Good plain words usually work better. The language we use in advertising should serve the argument. [It should] not stand out in a sense that makes one think, “Oh my God, that’s well-written.” It’s like typography. If something is well-written, you walk in and out, you don’t notice that it’s well-written. You just know you’re into the ad, and you’re liking what they’re saying. You might buy this product or go on that cruise ship or whatever. We’re not poets, we are salesmen.

Adweek: What were your criteria for hiring creatives at the agency?

Abbott: When we hired people, there was always something in their work we liked; there was always promise or fulfillment in their work. What you do in an agency is create a climate where creative people are encouraged to try really hard to match the standards of the other good people around them. You need to set up an environment where there’s a good chance that if they do good work, it will get sold. It’s where the culture of the place encourages you to fly. It isn’t a didactic process, it’s a liberating process. It’s about releasing the talent rather then shaping [it]. They shape themselves and develop certain strengths. There is teaching, but it’s informal. It happens in the supervision, when you look at a piece of copy and say, “Well this doesn’t work or that doesn’t work” rather than give big lectures.

Adweek: Why was it important to you to write ads until you retired?

Abbott: I never wanted to fit on the management floor. I was always, in a sense, a trade-union leader—a sort of spy in the enemy camp. I always felt I was a writer first. I think that helped the agency. It certainly helped me to stay interested.

Adweek: Was leaving the agency a difficult decision to make?

Abbott: I thought it was time for Peter Mead to have a go at being chairman, and for Peter Souter to become the creative director. It was time to bring in new impetus, but I didn’t necessary intend to disappear; I thought I could just enjoy myself being a veteran writer. I had a sort of handing-over period for three years. It was only about a year before I left that I decided a clean break was better than hanging around just writing ads. I’d run into a little bit of ill health with blood pressure. I started having grandchildren. And to be honest, I’d also discovered I had gotten used to being at the center of things. All these things conspired to make me feel it would be better for me, and for the new things that I wanted to do, if I made the break. I always had a target to get out before I was 60. Everything came together, and I got out of there two days before my 60th birthday. It was very difficult, and I do miss it.

ADWEEK: What do you miss most?

ABBOTT: I particularly miss the creative department. I miss the day-to-day battles and laughter. It probably took me nine months to a year to really come to terms with it. I wasn’t a walking cripple or anything, but I was slightly more nostalgic, slightly more wistful. It’s a big break after 40 years, but I’m sure it was the right thing to do. The agency has continued to thrive, and the work has gotten better. It’s all worked out well.

Adweek: How are you spending your days?

Abbott: I am writing a novel. I still have a relationship with AMV. I’m an executive director for another little cousin agency of AMV, Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy. There’s also a small independent publisher, The Harvill Press, I’m involved with. There’s gardening and my advisory role at Gardens Illustrated. I see a lot of my children and grandchildren.

Adweek: What would you have done if not advertising?

Abbott: In the days when I used to entertain the staff at the Christmas party, do conferences and give talks, I went through a phase where I used to think it would be quite fun to be a stand-up comic. That would be vanity. If I had been at all musical, I would have liked the idea of being a cocktail-bar pianist. It seems to me a totally self-indulgent job where you’re paid to sit and do something you really like and somebody puts a drink on the top of the piano and gives you some money at the end of it. It doesn’t matter whether anybody is listening or not. Whereas, I worked in a perfectionist industry. If nobody was listening, you got the sack.

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