People in advertising with short memories, or aged under 30, will be
unaware that it used to be said of David Abbott that he ‘couldn’t do
television’. It now seems almost as ludicrous as another historical
fact: Abbott Mead Vickers having to take a double-page ad to plead for
a grocery account (‘How long can these men survive without food?’). His
progression through Doyle Dane Bernbach, French Gold Abbott and indeed
the first few years of AMV had yielded many masterpieces in print -
particularly for Sainsbury’s and Volvo - but nothing as consistently
award-winning, or as widely admired, for TV.
The truth was that he hadn’t had many chances to shine. In his early
days few car advertisers used television (a further contrast with today;
TV was considered inappropriate to influence buying decisions on major
capital goods), and the TV slice of the Sainsbury’s account was a much
later arrival at AMV than the print portion.
As it happens, he won his first TV award in 1964, for a Triumph Herald
commercial in which the driver followed a girl down the steps at the
Royal Albert Hall. (David explained: ‘He was still in the car - not much
of a commercial if he’d got out.’)
Nevertheless, the one-dimensional reputation dogged him until the
mid-80s, when he produced the Volvo dummy driving a 340 through the
window of a tower block - a literal breakthrough.
That, together with the J. R. Hartley commercial for Yellow Pages,
prompted the industry to reappraise him. Complete rehabilitation swiftly
followed with further Yellow Pages executions, Ikea - including a gem-
like series of very short spots - Cellnet with John Cleese and the
wonderfully conceived and beautifully photographed Sainsbury’s recipes.
While David’s personal style of advertising is characterised by a
brilliant original proposition persuasively and elegantly expressed, his
unique gift as a leader is to inspire work that is as powerful as his
own, yet very different - for instance the Tony Kaye film for Dunlop,
the latest Volvo executions, and the under-appreciated Kiss FM campaign.
None of the other creative giants, not even David Ogilvy or Bob
Levinson, ever achieved this.
Is he a genius? Obviously the word is applied in the advertising
business, the home of hype, much more irresponsibly than it ought to be.
The number of so-called geniuses who have come and gone over the years,
leaving scarcely a ripple behind them, is remarkable. But David deserves
the title for his accomplishments as the agency world’s finest lateral
thinker, producing advertising solutions that are not only inventive but
somehow indubitably correct.
If he is known at AMV - even by his partners - as ‘God’, it is only
partly out of reverence for his work. He appears to be supreme at
everything he touches. His taste is impeccable; he wears his reputation
as the best copywriter in the world with genuine modesty; even his
youthful good looks have failed to desert him. It’s all very annoying.
Really, people ought to loathe him. It speaks volumes about his personal
qualities that nobody does.
Bernard Barnett is director of corporate affairs for Young and Rubicam