The question is, of course, preposterous. But it arises from a careful comparison of the work of unarguably the greatest copywriter of modern advertising and those who are now producing what is judged to be the best print advertising of today. And the contrast is startling.
A good place to sample David Abbott's work is The Copy Book, published by D&AD. Here, 32 copywriters talk about their craft and they show examples of their best work. (Surprisingly, in view of what follows, the work is the biggest-selling book D&AD has ever published - it's now in its sixth edition. If you haven't yet read it, you should.)
In David Abbott's section, you will find an example of his magnificent campaign for Sainsbury's: "Guess what Sainsbury's new canned grapefruit tastes like?" sits beneath a can of Sainsbury's grapefruit counterpointed with a fresh grapefruit with its top sliced to mimic the lid of a can.
Sainsbury's is still living off the quality image this campaign created: eat your heart out Jamie Oliver.
Then there's a Chivas Regal Father's Day ad that has no headline, just a picture of a bottle of Chivas Regal beside a little hand-written note "To Dad". The copy is 50 paragraphs, each starting "Because". The first reads: "Because I've known you all my life." Copy doesn't just have to be dry logic.
In another ad, David Abbott is shown lying beneath a Volvo suspended from a single spot weld with the headline: "If the welding isn't strong enough the car will fall on the writer." Copy can provide a powerful demonstration.
Tony Brignull, Tim Delaney, Bob Levenson, Andrew Rutherford and others all have their work displayed in this hall of fame. And, almost without exception, there is one thing that separates these ads from much press advertising today. It's not just the quality of the idea but the fact that all of these executions contain words, particularly body copy.
The Chivas Regal ad has 285 words of copy. And another striking ad for the RSPCA, "When the Government killed the dog licence they left us to kill the dogs", actually has 460 words of copy.
And so, back to my headline: would a man so skilled with words be wanted in modern advertising? For modern advertising is largely wordless.
Word consumption elsewhere is on the increase (for example, The Henley Centre has shown that the time spent reading magazines and books is set to increase, despite competition from the internet).
But advertising is becoming increasingly wordless.
Look, for example, at the swankingly designed 2002 D&AD Annual. Twenty-two press advertisements (out of 2,206 submitted) are presented in the Press Advertising category. The majority of the ads selected have no body copy at all: Club 18-30, Reebok, Volkswagen, Land Rover, Nike, Harvey Nichols, Skoda ... David Abbott wasn't needed here!
Let's look at the Writing for Advertising section and see if we can hunt some words down there. Interestingly, this used to be called the Copy section. In an attempt to upgrade the status of copy a few years ago, it was rebranded as Writing for Advertising. Forty years ago this might have made some sense, as writers were often found working in advertising agencies: Fay Weldon, Len Deighton and Salman Rushdie were all copywriters in the first agency I ever worked for.
But today, Writing for Advertising is a thin joke when we actually look at what has been selected by the eminent jury. Most of the ads selected for this "writing" category have no text. And of those that do, in an unconscious but real demotion of the relevance of words, the words are displayed in such a way that none of the text is actually legible. So, despite the undoubted excellence of the "writing" for the Land Rover ad, the HSBC ad and the Heinz ad, none of it is deemed important enough by D&AD to be actually read in its annual.
We can hunt the word with equal lack of success in the Campaign Press Awards of recent years.
The Campaign Gold Award for 2002 (Land Rover "hippo"); for 2001 (VW "lost dog"); 2000 (Stella Artois "chair") and 1999 (VW "wedding") - all are press ads with no text.
Do I hear a rumble building up in the creative departments of adland to rebut the thrust of this argument?
In those temples of post-modern irony, is a crushing "so what?" being released as you read these very words? Is not "copy", in the sense of the text of an advertisement, merely - rather like the appendix in our bodies - just a leftover from another era, that serves no purpose most of the time and is pointless padding, filling up the visual space left at the bottom of most advertisements?
Is not the idea what matters? Is not a picture worth a thousand words?
Has not the other genius of modern advertising, my good friend John Hegarty, said: "Increasingly, the importance of craft is reducing and ideas and visions are coming to the fore"?
Where shall we start? Perhaps with Pablo Picasso, who first learned his craft skills before he discarded them. Today, as we shall see, those craft skills, certainly as far as the use of words in advertising are concerned, aren't being learned in the first place.
So when Abbott wrote: "Think visually ... sometimes the best copy is no copy", he was writing as a man who had already mastered the art of copywriting.
And, of course, he is right. As he demonstrated with his brilliant ad for The Economist: "I never read The Economist - management trainee. Aged 42."
My belief, however, is that the reason that words are in short supply in modern advertising (and I look to the lack of dialogue in most TV commercials as much as to the lack of body copy in most press ads) is less because the ads don't need them and more because the advertising industry can't write them.
Our training of copywriting is abysmal. One of the few places where it is done properly is at Watford, where Tony Cunningham runs a course on copywriting. He tells me that there is significantly less writing ability in their applicants than there used to be. Every now and then, a graduate turns up with writing skills and he (or she) is warmly welcomed on to the course. Interestingly, he tells me afterwards these are the ones who seem to progress fastest up the industry career ladder. (A small ray of hope in all this is that D&AD has just started a copywriting course. Thank goodness.)
Copywriting can be self-taught, of course, as it was in the case of Abbott.
But just listen to his energy and enthusiasm for words: "I used to memorise Bob Levenson's copy and pick up cadences and rhythm." Is that enthusiasm being looked for in today's advertising?
Certainly, according to Cunningham, few agencies (with Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, under Peter Souter, being one exception) look at the copy seriously when they are reviewing the portfolios of Watford students.
Does all this matter? Is advertising less good because the words have been left in the dictionary? Is this but the sad reflections of an aged copywriter who never came to grips with the era of TV, anyhow?
Let's look at the evolution of advertising over the past half-century to see how advertising went wordless.
In the 50s, following in the footsteps of Claude Hopkins and his scientific advertising, advertising was very much a left-brain process. The left brain is the seat of logic, reason, calculating, language, reading and writing. It is linear, it does analysis.
The great revolution in advertising was because of two men: Ernest Dichter, who, in the Handbook of Consumer Motivation, used the understanding of Sigmund Freud to show the role of deep-seated emotions in product choice. And Bill Bernbach, who demonstrated conclusively that an ounce of candour was worth a pound of advertising pomposity.
Under their twin influences, the power of advertising shifted to the right brain. This is where images, co-ordination, creativity, and many emotions are seated.
And neuroscience's latest findings are well summarised by Wendy Gordon in the introduction to her book The Mental World of Brands. "Brands are coded in memory on a cognitive and emotional basis. They are inextricably linked but it is emotional coding rather than reasoned argument that determines whether or not we take notice," she writes.
Such a verdict should not be misunderstood for a rejection of words. For words can be as much a tool of emotion as reason. (As the words of poetry in WCRS's Prudential television campaign demonstrates.) Nor is reasoned argument to be abandoned either. Depending when in the selling process it is used, it can be of real merit. The great VW ads of the past, from "lemon" to Abbott's "If he can make it, so can Volkswagen" (with a picture of Marty Feldman), were reasoned arguments.
Just read the copy for the VW "lemon" ad and tell me that we've made progress in print advertising in the last 50 years.
This Volkswagen missed the boat.
The chrome strip on the glove compartment is blemished and must be replaced.
Chances are you wouldn't have noticed it; Inspector Kurt Kroner did.
There are 3,389 men at our Wolfsburg factory with only one job: to inspect Volkswagens at each stage of production. (3,000 Volkswagens are produced daily; there are more inspectors than cars.)
Every shock absorber is tested (spot checking won't do), every windshield is scanned. VWs have been rejected for surface scratches barely visible to the eye.
Final inspection is really something! VW inspectors run each car off the line onto the Funktionsprufstand (car test stand), tote up 189 check points, gun ahead to the automatic brake stand, and say "no" to one VW out of fifty.
This preoccupation with detail means the VW lasts longer and requires less maintenance, by and large, than other cars. (It also means a used VW depreciates less than any other car.)
We pluck the lemons; you get the plums.
By comparison, today's Volkswagen ads, for all their visual wit, look thin, insubstantial and lack real depth of engagement. Surely clients deserve more than a wry smile from consumers.
Look back at D&AD's excellent Rewind exhibition that reviewed 40 years of advertising and you'll see the same vacuum at the heart of modern print advertising.
Go back and review those historic ads for Stella Artois, for the Army, for Uniroyal, for Selfridges, for the Health Education Council, for Parker Pens et al, and see if you don't agree that they are better than their modern successors.
And modern television, for all its brilliant simplicity, its post-modern irony and its powerful use of imagery still lacks both the dialogue and the demonstration that the skills of a copywriter brought to the process in earlier eras.
Part of the traditional copywriters left-brain contribution (and the best copywriters have both active left and right brains) has been stolen by the planner.
So there has been some compensation inside the advertising agency by the development of the planning function to mirror the decline of the traditional copywriting function.
But even so, I believe balance towards the right brain has swung too far. The left brain has been left out of the picture for too long. Advertising has become unbalanced, we have become too much of a one-trick pony. No wonder clients see agencies as being too narrow. They are.
The evidence, both if you study historic D&AD annuals and, indeed, the new learnings of neuroscience, is that advertising would work better if it wasn't just powered by half a brain but by the whole head.
David Abbott - where are you now that we really need you?
- Many thanks to Alison Drummond of Carat Insight for lots of helpful data that have illuminated my prejudices.