Seeking out the stress fractures in such a well-bonded relationship
as exists between David Abbott, Peter Mead and Adrian Vickers gets
harder with the passing years.
The vexed question of smoking perhaps? What tensions must divide Abbott,
the passionate abstainer, Mead, whose Silk Cut consumption beggars
belief, and Vickers, a reformed addict who has kicked the habit.
No so. On smoking, as on all important matters, the founding fathers of
Abbott Mead Vickers BDDO are mutually tolerant and speak as one. The
agency refuses to handle a cigarette account or any tobacco related
The same goes for toys and alcopops.
Their 20-year history of ethically-driven business conduct belies Bill
Bernbach’s memorable dictum that a principle isn’t a principle until it
costs money. Abbott, Mead and Vickers are working testimony to the
proposition that principles and profits are not necessarily mutually
In contrast to the Saatchi brothers, nobody has ever suggested that
Abbott, Mead and Vickers are truly trustful only of each other and
resentful of any outside attempt to penetrate their inner sanctum.
Nevertheless, there is a belief within AMV that the agency’s founders
are the rightful guardians of their brand and a culture grown and
sustained by their own courage and graft. Even their most senior
managers are wary of coming too close for fear of diluting it.
Michael Baulk, the agency’s dapper and ebullient chief executive, hired
from Ogilvy & Mather in 1986, recalls a day, six years into the job,
when he was taken aside by the partners and presented with a tempting
Baulk was the agency’s most significant signing up to that time. Well
experienced in handling the kind of large, diverse and international
client list AMV coveted, he had brought focus and discipline to the
agency’s somewhat disorganised management structure.
The partners were delighted at how well their CEO had delivered and
wanted to show their thanks. Would he like to have his name on the door
alongside theirs? Baulk was immensely flattered but declined the offer.
The brand was Abbott Mead Vickers and the partners had earned their
entitlement to it, he told them. Today, Baulk has no misgivings about
his decision and remains firm in his belief that adding his name to
those of the founders would have been false pretence.
’I’m a manager who was hired to do a job. I wouldn’t have had the guts
to do what they did,’ he says. ’I didn’t take any risks and I wasn’t
there when they took turns to make the coffee, worried about the rent or
scrambled around trying to win their first client.’
Baulk doesn’t tell the story in order to boast - indeed it has never
before been made public - but only as an indication of the partners’
generosity and their inclusive style of management.
’They welcomed me from the first day, have never gone behind my back and
never made me operate as anything other than a CEO,’ he adds. ’As their
confidence in me grew, they gave me the room to be a manager in the
fullest sense. I couldn’t imagine working anywhere else.’
At first glance, the synergy between Vickers and Abbott, a pair of
Oxbridge types, and Mead, a working-class lad from Peckham, is hard to
fathom, even for insiders. ’It’s very difficult to put your finger on
how the place works,’ remarks Robert Campbell, a former AMV senior
creative, now a creative partner at Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe. ’But
the result is a very skilful and subtle style of management.’
The shared ups and downs of their early period in business together have
clearly drawn them close. At the same time, despite their different but
complementary personalities, a shared love of advertising and decency in
business unites them.
That said, they neither live in each other’s pockets nor constantly
crave each other’s company. They and their respective partners are not
to be found dining with each other every Saturday evening and Vickers
and Mead are not seen strolling beside the river of the spectacularly
beautiful garden beside Abbott’s home, an 18th-century former corn mill
Allen Rosenshine, the worldwide chairman of BBDO, AMV’s international
partner, cites the trio’s liking of and loyalty to each other with their
clearly-defined responsibilities as the reason their partnership
’Ego problems that crop up elsewhere in our business have never been an
issue with them,’ he says.
Time and chance threw the three together. Abbott and Vickers were
contemporaries at Oxford although Abbott never completed his history
degree. He was forced to quit after two terms to run his family’s
clothes store in Shepherds Bush after his father died of lung cancer.
Later, Abbott and Vickers encountered Mead at Doyle Dane Bernbach and
the S. H. Benson agency respectively.
Within their shared values, however, lie sharply contrasting
personalities. Where Mead has a laid-back attitude to work, Abbott is
consumed by it; where Mead and Abbott have been happy to be seen as the
public personification of the AMV brand, Vickers has shunned the
spotlight, preferring instead to be an internal influence and keeper of
Abbott is the most shy, private and solitary of the trio. He doesn’t
feel compelled to join the lunch circuit at Le Caprice, Langan’s or the
Ivy. A corner table at an unpretentious Greek restaurant in Marylebone
High Street with a good book for company is more his style.
All the more remarkable that AMV is generally regarded as having been
fashioned in Abbott’s elegant, cultured and caring likeness, because of,
say some, Mead’s ’minder’ role. ’Peter is very protective of David and
very loyal to him,’ a former AMV senior staffer comments. ’They are a
very powerful duo.’
What makes Abbott tick is an unswerving belief that advertising is an
honourable thing to do. He is not plagued by inner doubts, only a
passionate belief in the power of good creativity. As he nears 60 he has
deliberately chosen to hand over the chairmanship of the AMV group and
the agency creative directorship to return full-time to copywriting, a
job he loves above all else. ’He still loves the walk to the awards
podium,’ a colleague remarks.
Mead, aged 57, who shares Abbott’s appetite for great work, could hardly
be more different. Larger than life and a natural entrepreneur, he has
cultivated a celebrity profile which some believe is a compensation for
moments of self-doubt and a need to show he isn’t ’a Del Boy who got
Somebody once said that while Abbott has defined himself and built
himself around that definition, Mead allows himself to be defined by his
lifestyle and possessions. Mead’s working-class roots remain important
to him, though, and his failure to reverse the fortunes of Millwall FC,
a club he has supported since he stood in short trousers behind the
goal, is an open wound.
His instinctive personal skills, relationships with key clients and
talent-spotting techniques compensate for his lack of
It is he who drove the early transformation of AMV into a broad-based
communications group and the larger business arena has become his
If he has ever felt resentful that the profiles of his partners dwarf
his own, Vickers has never shown it. On the contrary, the man who is
said to ’use niceness like a martial art’, seems sanguine about allowing
Abbott and Mead be front of house, content to concentrate on client
service and certain in the knowledge that his role at AMV is
A self-effacing, intelligent, engaging conversationalist of great charm,
he has more than once deflected talk of the managing directorship,
simply because he has never seen himself as a manager.
Few doubt, however, that AMV’s reputation as advertising’s most paternal
employer owes much to him.
’It’s easy to underestimate Adrian’s importance but his role is
fundamental,’ a colleague says. ’If you send your kid to boarding school
the first person you want to meet is the one responsible for pastoral
care. Here, you meet Adrian.’
Now, with a new generation of managers, notably Andrew Robertson, the
managing director, and Peter Souter, Abbott’s successor as creative
director, emerging, the question is how long the founding fathers will
want to remain involved with their child and whether its culture is
robust enough to survive the break.
’The AMV culture won’t change but it may find different expressions as
new people take up senior posts in the years ahead,’ Baulk suggests.
’I don’t imagine David, Peter or Adrian will have any problem with that
because the culture here has never been codified or enshrined in a set
of rules. It’s more spontaneous than that.’
’But if the first 20 years serve as an example of anything, surely it’s
that decent, principled business behaviour and a committed belief in
great work can produce success and prosperity.
’Why would anyone want to change that?’