An AMV BBDO advertising supplement: Profile/David Abbott, Peter Mead, Adrian Vickers - The Dream Partnership. They’re different but they act as one. John Tylee on the AMV founders’ unique professional relationship

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.

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

business.



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

exclusive.



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

proposition.



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

in Norfolk.



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

endured.



’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

its conscience.



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

lucky’.



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

intellectualism.



It is he who drove the early transformation of AMV into a broad-based

communications group and the larger business arena has become his

natural habitat.



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

crucial.



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?’



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