Peter Mead and the power of nice

On the heels of a book on the subject, the advertising legend says, "I think the world is full of repressed nice people"

Peter Mead.
Peter Mead.

Peter Mead, co-founder of Abbott Mead Vickers, has learned many lessons during his long and brilliant career in advertising. But none are more important than the one that forms the title of his new book.

Try telling Peter Mead that nice guys finish last. A lot has changed since he co-founded Abbott Mead Vickers in 1977. But there’s one thing that has endured since the very beginning, and it’s helped shape AMV BBDO into one of the industry’s most respected and highly awarded agencies.

When AMV was formed in the late '70s, its three founders (Mead, alongside David Abbott and Adrian Vickers) set out not only to build the best advertising agency in the U.K., but also to go about it a certain way. Almost 40 years on, a shared set of values that feels all too rare in business has formed the title of Mead’s new book: When In Doubt Be Nice.

"The truth is, I think the world is full of repressed nice people," says Mead. "People who want to be nice but feel they can’t be because of this idea that achievement is all; the means of achievement is subsidiary to the achievement itself. There’s this idea that you’ve got to win and it doesn’t matter how you win, and I think that’s appalling."

In 1995 AMV BBDO became the largest advertising agency in the U.K., a position it has held ever since. The agency’s ‘Surfer’ ad for Guinness was voted the best commercial of all time by TV viewers, and in 2012, The Sunday Times named AMV BBDO as the best media or advertising company in the UK to work for.

Mead had thought about writing a book for a number of years about the decent way of behaving being commercially viable in business. After a few detours along the way, When In Doubt Be Nice: Lessons From A Lifetime in Business landed in booksstores, and on the desks at AMV BBDO, last month.

He describes it as buffet book that people can drift in and out of. Former Campaign editor Bernard Barnett described it as "the best and wisest book on advertising I've ever read—and there are plenty of contenders."

"It’s 40 percent business lessons, 40 percent my life up until we got involved with Omnicom," says Mead. "Ten percent Millwall Football Club and 10 percent is about prostate cancer, which I thought I’d write about just to persuade old buggers to go and get their PSA tested."

Mead says his mother was the nicest person he’s ever met, someone who treated people properly and always had a smile on her face. This occurred to him as not being a bad way to go through life. And to understand his views on building a successful and sustainable business, you needn’t look much further than the book’s title.

"I think a lot of our success had been down to the philosophy, and the atmosphere we created, which allowed our people to be creative," he says. "I would argue that creativity flourishes in an environment of calm and well-being and warmth, as opposed to constant angst. I’m sure people will disagree with me, but it’s worked for us."

When In Doubt Be Nice attempts to throw out the notion that you have to be ruthless or tough to succeed in business, an idea that Mead describes as a huge misconception.

"Running a business is about capturing an unfair share of people’s heads and hearts," he says. "If 50 percent of the time people are worried about their job or job security, then you need twice as many of them.

"There are other ways of doing it. And I actually think it’s probably tougher. The easiest thing in the world is to tell someone to do as they’re told and to do it now. But our belief has always been that we would be inclusive; we would treat our people as well as we possibly could; and in return we’d get a commitment that was mind-blowing. And so it’s proved. AMV has been the biggest ad agency in the country for the best part of 20 years."

People spend a huge amount of their lives in the workplace, says Mead, so why not try and make it enjoyable?

"It’s a nice feeling to work in a company where people enjoy working and have things to believe in," Mead says. "Twinned with an affection for the company, the amount of productivity you get out of people is mind-blowing. I’ve always been constantly astonished over the years how many people I’ve had to kick out of the office at 9 o'clock at night."

But while a strong set of principles has shaped AMV on the inside, the world on the outside has "changed fundamentally," Mead says. He believes that the value of the great creative idea among many clients (and potential clients) is not where it used to be.

"The glory days when the majority of clients were convinced of the validity of the creative idea are gone. People are much more—that horrible word—expedient these days and pragmatic and it’s more difficult to take a creative risk than it used to be."

In the book, he talks about how some client will invest millions on media, only to try and cut costs in producing the creative to fill it. "I’ve suggested it’s a bit like spending a fortunate on two slices of bread and then nickel-and-diming on the filling, which is the thing that makes the sandwich," he says.

You can’t stop the external forces in business or in life, but you can decide a set of personal values and principles and stand by them. For David Abbott, Peter Mead and Adrian Vickers, this meant choosing to treat people with respect and creating a warm working environment that has successfully driven the company both commercially, and creativity for almost 40 years.

"Even if my little book raises the debate in one or two client offices, we will have succeeded I think," Mead says.

Peter Mead is currently chairman of Omnicom Europe and vice chairman of Omnicom Group. In 2013 he received a CBE for services to the creative industries. When In Doubt Be Nice is published by Silvertail Books and is available now.

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