Close-up: Why Abbott still regrets the brief that got away

By John Tylee, campaignlive.co.uk, Friday, 16 April 2010 12:00AM

On the eve of his book launch, the AMV founder David Abbott reflects on advertising's past and present.

Did Thomson Holidays unwittingly pull down the curtain prematurely on the advertising career of David Abbott, one of Britain's greatest copywriters now forging a new career as a novelist at the age of 71?

It's impossible to say for certain. But there's little doubt that the failure of Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO to capture the Thomson account in 1999 was a watershed moment and a crushing personal disappointment for the agency's then creative driving force.

Abbott remains hugely proud of his work for the pitch. So much so that, more than a decade later, he was eager to show the animatics at an IPA-sponsored evening, hosted by Lord Tim Bell, to coincide with the publication of his debut novel, The Upright Piano Player.

The films - under the theme "You need a holiday" - are a testament to Abbott's eloquence in articulating the importance of holidays as an antidote to the stresses of everyday life. It wasn't enough to move Thomson, though, which awarded the business to HHCL & Partners.

While warning his youthful audience at the London College of Fashion that disappointment would be a constant companion during their agency careers, Abbott clearly took the Thomson rebuff to heart. So sure was he about the work that he'd been ready to delay his retirement to see it through.

Today, the inability of some clients "to appreciate what's put in front of them" still rankles. And he winces at the memory of the subsequent Thomson campaign with Roland Rivron berating a penny-pinching fellow passenger for taking his wife on a cut-price holiday.

Whether or not Abbott's departure from the agency scene in 2000 after 40 years was a pivotal moment in advertising's growing emphasis on the visual - and of the slipping moral standards Abbott has always championed - will be a perpetual debate. What's unarguable is that no creative has produced more literate or engaging advertising than him. "There's nobody with a body of work like David's," Lord Bell, the Chime chairman, said.

For his part, Abbott's belief that, in advertising, power and responsibility go hand-in-hand, is undiminished: "People don't like ads that are boring, tasteless and offensive. And we should stop doing them."

However, adapting his copywriting genius to more literary challenges hasn't caused him to disparage his former life, in which, he insisted, hard work bonded people and many a holiday got interrupted for the sake of a pitch.

"I love advertising and most of my friends are still in it," he declared. "I think it is a vastly underrated profession, even though we're rated just above estate agents and just below arms dealers."

Abbott's advertising philosophy was born in the 60s, when he arrived at the then Mather & Crowther via Kodak's in-house creative department. His hero-worshipping of Bill Bernbach led him to the London office of DDB, where he became the managing director while still in his twenties. Later, with Mike Gold and Richard French, he set up French Gold Abbott.

Abbott recalls the period as "the changing of the guard", when the old industry order faded and people entered advertising intent on making it their career. "The industry was becoming democratised and we all felt we were on a crusade," he said. "Us younger agencies were all up against the likes of McCann Erickson and Young & Rubicam. They hated us."

Were these barnstorming days also easier for agencies? Abbott claims not. "It was very exciting but we also worked very hard," he said. "Getting good ads through was always difficult even in the 60s. You always had to fight because creativity was always under threat."

Sometimes, the threat is the result of client impatience, he argued, pointing out how long it took for AMV's iconic Economist campaign to evolve. "That work wasn't the first we did on the account,"

he said. "It just shows that clients need to allow agencies time to bed themselves in."

In helping found what was to become the UK's largest agency in 1977 with Adrian Vickers and Peter Mead, Abbott said he was able to put what he had learned into practice. He went into the AMV venture "because I wanted to be happy" and none of the partners regarded making profits as an end in itself. "Good ads ought to lead to good profits," he added. "There's no point in doing them if they don't. I never started a business to make money. The money is a by-product of doing something well."

The philosophy extended into the way AMV was run. He and his partners wanted it to be a humane place to work because it made commercial sense. "We weren't political and we never hired nasty geniuses," Abbott remembers.

However, he's adamant that all his life and experiences do not manifest themselves in Henry Cage, the central character of his novel. He's a former management consultant whose personal life begins unravelling as he faces retirement. "He's made up of bits of people, including me," he explained. "We're all flawed characters."

Unlike Cage, Abbott seems to have found contentment in retirement: "I loved the business and I miss it in a way. But I'd never want to go back. There really is life after advertising."

This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk

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