Close-Up: Abbott Mead Vickers at 30 - how the agency became number one

AMV's founders look back on the highs and lows of building from scratch what has long been the UK's biggest-billing agency, Noel Bussey writes.

To start a piece in Campaign about 30 years of Abbott Mead Vickers, you might as well begin where the founding partners did in 1977, with a double-page ad in this very organ that read: "Watch out Colletts, we're only £34 million behind you."

It was cheeky, and suitably cocky for a start-up that included David Abbott. With the benefit of hindsight, the ad - which featured a picture of the three founders - was also extremely prescient, despite the derision it attracted at the time.

The trio subsequently littered the trade press with house ads that captured the essence of AMV - creativity, a family-like mentality and a lot of laughter - for "about three years until sense prevailed".

They all agree that the agency did not exactly have a mission when it started, but also concur that the phrase "creativity and civility" would do the job at a push.

That would, however, be a little misleading about the thought process that went into the agency - because it was much less structured than that. In fact, the only real plan was to not set it up "for the usual reasons of money, ambition and growth", but as a place for "three old friends" to work together.

One idea, which was quickly discarded, was to have only five clients "and drop one" when the agency picked up another.

Peter Mead, a non-university-educated East End boy, met Adrian Vickers and David Abbott in the 60s (the latter two having met at Oxford in 1959). He says that the trio "came together at a really good time".

He adds: "Fortunately, David was a genius. I remember the AdAge headline saying 'British advertising's answer to Robert Redford joins small shop', which made us all laugh."

In these circumstances, and especially in an industry such as advertising, it would have been easy to foresee egos being massaged and problems caused. However, it is testament to the founders' friendship and their personalities that neither happened.

Abbott, a copywriter who loved making ads above all else, worked hard to make sure that the new agency's creative product was to the highest standard without making himself the star, while the ever business-like Mead and Vickers created the atmosphere for him to do this.

"It was just how we worked," Mead says. "I remember one person described me and Adrian as 'the other half of a one-man band' while somebody else said 'Mead and Vickers must both feel like Ringo Starr'. No-one was above the agency; it was always like that."

Vickers adds: "I remember a client once said to me: 'All the key people will be at the meeting, so there's no need for you to come.' I'm still trying, to this day, to interpret this in a way that's flattering to me. But we always found the humour in those situations."

However, this isn't to say the agency lacked a tough competitive streak. You don't get to number one, which AMV achieved in 1997, without knowing how to fight.

Yet it appears that the tennis court was the outlet for the founders' competitive spirits, and one game even threatened the future of the agency. Mead and Abbott tell this story, unprompted, with open emotion. It was obviously a big point in their relationship.

Mead says: "We were playing and I'd gone over on my ankle, which meant David immediately took advantage by doing little drop serves that I couldn't get to."

Abbott adds: "There was an opportunity to win. I thought it was good tactics, Adrian thought it was cheating. It got quite heated."

In fact, it took the intervention of their respective spouses to get the pair talking again.

Abbott, obviously in memoir mood, then delivers a theory on why the agency was set up that, he says, "is so new that I haven't spoken to anyone else about it - not even the other guys".

He continues: "It was actually a refuge for broken admen. We'd all had pretty bad experiences at our last jobs and came into this slightly bruised - we just wanted to work somewhere that was safe, secure harmonious and creative."

Once they had this environment, the trio tried their hardest to make sure they retained it. "Tennis aside, we had a rule that you never let the sun go down on an argument," Mead says. "If we fell out, we sorted it out that day before leaving the office."

This goes some way to explaining the intrinsic qualities of the agency and its almost phenomenal staff retention.

"Because we wanted to create an atmosphere in which we enjoyed working, other people enjoyed working there as well," Mead says. "When your staff have 50 per cent of their mind on a problem, it's not on their work. We tried to take the problems away so we got 100 per cent of their mind, which came out in the creative product."

However, he adds: "This doesn't mean we were a soft touch, though. If somebody wasn't good enough and we couldn't help them any further, we made it very easy for them to leave."

Thirty years on and still no other agency in London can come close to the sort of stability enjoyed by AMV's senior management team.

Cilla Snowball, the chairman, has been at the agency for 15 years; Farah Ramzan Golant, the chief executive, for 17 years; Ian Pearman, the managing partner who started as a graduate, for 11 years; and Paul Brazier and Peter Souter, the present and former executive creative directors respectively, have notched up 16 years each.

And it doesn't stop there. Former AMV employees Andrew Robertson and Chris Thomas now practically run BBDO - which subsumed the agency in 1991 - with the former being the chairman of the network and the latter covering Asia as the regional chairman and chief executive.

"This is part of AMV's legacy," Helen Calcraft, the founding partner at the AMV breakaway Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy says. "Adrian, David and Peter proved that good guys can win. They just looked after their staff like they would want to be looked after.

"There are many stories about the good things they did for their staff - in fact, we nicknamed Peter the Caped Crusader. They take a real interest in the lives of their staff and this is why people stay."

Vickers adds: "The ambience this produced encouraged staff to give us more of their time and effort than we really deserved. OK, maybe the free breakfasts and the snooker table helped - which is pretty handy in a business where perspiration is at least as important as inspiration in the creation, nurturing and protection of ideas."

And the agency's influence has spread beyond the industry. After years of being "a refuge for broken admen", in 2002, AMV opened Big House, an actual refuge for the homeless that Snowball cites as the high point in her long and distinguished career.

"Since the opening, which was attended by Prince Charles, we've managed to take 33 people off of the streets," Snowball says.

All of this adds up to an agency that never set out to be the richest in the land ending up becoming exactly that and, thanks to its clever management succession, staying so.

AMV's uncanny knack of being able to retain huge accounts, such as those for Sainsbury's and BT, is well known in the industry.

Snowball says: "Clients need to feel they are choosing you, not inheriting you. Marketing teams change all the time so advertising is a process of constant renewal and restatement."

The agency's success in retaining clients can also be attributed to the principles on which the business was founded. If the staff are happy and the work is good, then why would a client - in the same way as a staff member - want to leave the business?

Vickers says: "Our instincts were to take the work, but not ourselves, seriously and to be honest with clients. I believe it was this attitude that kept business within the building for so long."

However, it is all well and good having decent intentions at the beginning, but any successful agency is going to expand. And as size becomes an issue, that business has to do a certain amount of growing up. This is where the fourth member of AMV comes in, the irrepressibly dapper Ferrari driver Michael Baulk. The man who, despite being just as important to the agency's growth as the founders, turned down the chance to have his name on the door because "it was their brand, not mine".

Moving from Ogilvy & Mather, where he was credited with transforming the image and financial fortunes of the agency, in 1986 (just a year after AMV went public), Baulk brought some much-needed business nous and savvy to the shop that was "just a group of friends" and steered its meteoric rise to the top.

Ramzan Golant says: "We didn't even have a new-business team. Michael came in and asked where it was and we just replied, 'well, people ring us'. He soon changed that. We were faced with becoming more commercial and Michael took that on."

Baulk actually did much more than that. He almost became the foil for the three friends so any problems could be mediated by him. This often meant him being on the receiving end of their numerous jokes, such as Abbott lampooning him at a Christmas party with the use of a home-made Baulk puppet and a toy Ferrari.

However, when it came to business, Abbott and Baulk worked extremely well together and were the main architects of AMV's most grown-up moment - its 1991 sale to BBDO.

Mead says: "It was an amazing move for us. We managed to find a major network that shared our almost unique approach to creative work and how a business should be run. The deal forced us to grow up even more, but didn't change the feel of the agency."

Snowball adds: "The actual effect of the BBDO relationship was to open a lot of international client relationships. We had seriously hit the big time then and the agency started getting out around the world."

It also gave the agency the money and confidence it needed to start investing in group companies. Having acquired PHD in 1996, AMV relinquished all in-house media functions by moving the department into PHD's offices.

But, as any teenager will tell you, growing up can involve bad times - and the first time the agency had to make redundancies is near the top of the list of low points for all involved.

Mead says: "That was the nature of the market at the time and it meant we had to face up to becoming a business. I know everybody felt bad about that though. Everybody."

Even today, this over-riding policy of making sure every single staff member feels appreciated and is treated correctly is very much at the fore in the agency - as is a desire to create long-lasting and highly creative campaigns, even if they don't seem to come with such regularity these days.

This may be helped by the fact that Mead is still in and around the business through his work with Omnicom, but it is more testament to the ideas the three founders stamped on the agency, and the wider industry.

Having enjoyed its best new-business year for some time - which has pushed it to more than £100 million ahead of second-placed JWT in the billings chart - AMV could realistically be in a similar position in ten years' time.

Abbott concludes by discussing his feelings when attending AMV's 30th birthday party in Knebworth last week which, in true style, saw the business close for the day and all staff treated to fun, food and drink.

He says: "I hadn't been into the agency for years, so that was odd. But when I got to the party and stood in front of 300-odd people all waiting for us, I was quite convinced that the agency will still be here for the next anniversary with a '0' on it. Even if I won't."

A BRIEF HISTORY
1977: AMV founded. Abbott joins last after turning down Vickers and Mead
on numerous occasions
1978: Picks up £1 million Volvo brief
1983: Wins Yellow Pages account
1984: Wins £230k Economist brief
1985: Becomes a public company, offering 3.66 million shares at 180p
1986: Michael Baulk joins
1991: AMV and BBDO merge under the Omnicom umbrella
1994: Wins £50 million BT account
1996: Buys PHD for £5 million
1997: Displaces Saatchis as top firm
1997: Baulk, Andrew Robertson and Peter Souter take over
2000: Makes first redundancies
2005: Retains Sainsbury's
2006: Wins Cannes Grand Prix for Guinness 'noitulove' ad

ABBOTT, MEAD AND VICKERS IN 60 SECONDS

What is AMV's legacy?

David Abbott: I don't think it has a legacy. I never wanted to leave a monument in advertising.

Peter Mead: I suspect we've spent longer than anyone else at number one. That must be it.

Adrian Vickers: At the core of the agency's DNA is respect for the work and respect for the people producing and contributing to it - that is to say almost everyone in the company.

- What was your high point?

DA: There are so many that you can't choose one, but as I walked back into the agency last week and saw that picture of the three of us laughing, I thought that sums it all up perfectly.

PM: Going public and being 33 times over-supplied. We needed £6 million and got £200 million - we actually had to give £194 million back.

AV: When David finally said yes, after Peter and I had asked him to join our fledgling agency in 1977. Maybe at the end of the day for him, we were the devils he knew.

- What was your low point?

PM: Having to make that first redundancy. It was just something that was never done at AMV.

AV: When David said no - more than once - during the course of the negotiations that preceded his joining us. Maybe we were the devils he knew too well.

- What is your favourite ad?

DA: After 40 years of making ads it gets difficult, but the Sainsbury's "recipes" work was an elegant piece of thinking. Marks & Spencer has definitely picked up on some things we did.

AV: The Economist poster: "It's lonely at the top, but at least there's something to read." Witty, concise, pointed, relevant - just like the product.

Topics