Peter Mead: When In Doubt Be Nice

In extracts from his new book, the Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO founder Peter Mead reveals the valuable lessons he has learned over six decades in the ad business and the secrets of his agency's lasting success, sharing some colourful anecdotes along the way.

This week everyone at AMV will receive a copy fo the Book, When In Doubt Be Nice, with this message from chief executive, Ian Pearman explaining how the book impacts their lives. 

There aren’t many people on whom you can say your life depends.

Not life in the sense of your breathy, bloody physical existence.

But your life.

The job you do, the friends you have, the way you feel in the morning, the achievements you strive for, the way you pass your days and fill your mind.

Of course, we control our own destinies and we have the power to determine all or any of these things.

But ultimately, if we work at AMV, it’s also true that the lives we lead have been uniquely influenced by the actions of one man.

The man who persuaded Adrian, and then David, to join him on the little entrepreneurial gamble that was AMV.

Without that, and the countless actions that followed, none of us would be here.

Because there would be no "here".

In short, without him, all of our lives would be different.

(And as we’ve actively chosen this life, we can probably safely assume that the alternatives would probably be worse.)

These are the ripples of one man’s actions.

Actions driven by his values.

Values which pervade his life both in & out of the office.

Values that we can feel every day, but that he’s now written down.

With his usual humility he’s called the book a "buffet". Observations to be grazed on or left to the side.

I think they’re altogether more important than that.

As the founding principles of this company, they are what makes us, us.

And if you agree with any of the logic above, then to some degree, they are also what makes you, you.

And they are certainly, absolutely, what makes Peter, Peter. Enjoy the read.


The book’s title, When In Doubt Be Nice, is the unwritten mission statement at the heart of the agency from day one. This view of the world is at the core of this book and is central to what I believe about advertising, business and life in general. It is the most important lesson I ever learned.

So, how did David Abbott, Adrian Vickers and I do it?

At the very start of AMV, back at the end of 1977, we set out to create an atmosphere that would be an enjoyable as well as fulfilling environment for all of us. Much has been written about company cultures, how they can be created and protected, what kind is more productive and so on; but, for me, in the final analysis, company cultures have to emerge as a product of the people working within rather than being imposed from outside. It is created by choosing the right people and treating them in the right way. Then, once it is in place, the culture must be monitored, nurtured and even nudged, or else it can disappear through your fingers like fine sand.

Once it is in place, the culture must be monitored, nurtured and even nudged, or else it can disappear through your fingers like fine sand

When you are trying to create a company culture, there is an enormous advantage in starting a business from scratch. You have the ability to handpick your early disciples, who are then fundamental in the creation of the next wave of employees, who then become instrumental in influencing the next wave and so on.

Excerpts from the book

Back in 1977, we did not start out with any specific aspirations, except to want to be the best. The best work, the best people, the best employer we could be, the best public company in our field and, latterly, the best partner for our American parent. Twenty years later, we were the biggest advertising agency in the country – a position we have now held for more than 15 years. In 2012, The Sunday Times’ "Best Companies To Work For" survey ranked AMV as the best advertising agency in the UK to work for – a ranking based purely on what our staff relayed back anonymously to independent researchers. It was the second such award in the history of the agency and, to me, that validated everything we had tried to do since the very beginning of our company and was more precious than any craft award AMV had received.

‘Building a group’
At roughly the same time we acquired Redwood, I was introduced to a dynamic young PR person called Matthew Freud, and we bought his company too. The great-great-grandson of Sigmund, Matthew was extremely impressive and, much more importantly, wonderfully likeable. He remains to this day one of my closest friends, even though we haven’t been in business together for more than a decade.

Early in our relationship, we were given the task of informing the world that Pepsi was going to change the base colour on its cans to blue. We at AMV did the normal posters and a short television commercial. Matthew, on the other hand, rented a Concorde from Air France, painted it blue, added the Pepsi logo on the side and created a huge number of photo opportunities. Astonishingly, he also persuaded the Daily Mirror to print on blue paper. It was the first occasion of many when he demonstrated how smart we were to buy him. To this day, however, I still believe that, on my first visit to his office, he had gathered people from outside to sit at desks to give me the impression that the organisation was much bigger than it actually was.

‘Where our business is today’
I’m amazed that the processes we go through now will approve media expenditure of, in some cases, millions of pounds but will then spend time arguing at length about the cost of producing the very best piece of creative work to fill that media offering. Sure, the Guinness "surfer" commercial (pictured, right) could have been made for less money by cutting out some of the special post-production effects. But that saving would have reduced the efficacy of the commercial and turned it into just another piece of film. It’s a bit like spending a fortune on the production of two pieces of bread and then skimping on the cost of the filling to go between the slices when, as we all know, it’s the filling that makes the difference between an acceptable sandwich and a great one.

I have already highlighted the value of relationships in business generally. In some senses, I worry that we have lost the ability to create great relationships with our clients. These relationships are at the heart of our skills to persuade our client base to trust us in our assessment of what’s needed in creative terms to solve problems and create whole new markets. Everywhere in the world, there are examples of great creative work making a real difference, and it’s no accident that most of those have resulted from a close working relationship and mutual respect between client and agency. None more so, I suspect, than the relationship that has endured over the years between Apple and its agency.

‘If you don’t believe in it how can I?’
After my surprising and rapid rise through the ranks of my first ad agency [SH Benson], one day I had to go down to Hotpoint (a white-goods manufacturer), whose offices were then very close to Buckingham Palace. The purpose of the meeting was to present for approval a relatively small advertisement that we had developed for one of its products for insertion in the Hong Kong newspaper the South China Morning Post. To my horror, the rather junior man who I should have presented the advertisement to was away sick and I was ushered into the large office of the worldwide marketing director.

I was terrified as I passed over the advertisement for him to look at because I had done no preparation at all for selling it to him. He looked at it and peered over his glasses and said: "What do you think?" I told him that I thought it was all right. He then became quietly menacing and said to me: "I never want you to come down here again with something that you think is ‘all right’. If you don’t think this is the best your company can produce and aren’t prepared to say that in front of me, then I’m not prepared to give you the time of day." It was a lesson I never forgot.

‘I part company with my first job’
Around this time, a couple of major clients fired the agency. This was a very nasty wake-up call to the board. After a root-and-branch review of all the resources they had at 129 Kingsway, they concluded that they had too many account men, some of whom should be culled together with a number of the ageing creative people. Having announced that I didn’t want to be in the marketing department but wanted to be an account man, I was a classic and irresistible candidate for redundancy.

I worry that we have lost the ability to create great relationships with our clients

There was a day of the long knives at 129 where, for the first time in its history, Benson’s "let people go". I was one of the first, joined later in the day by a lady called Helen Bonington, the mother of the soon-to-be-world-famous mountaineer Chris Bonington. I can’t remember who got rid of me, but I know that, in Helen’s case, she was fired by the hawkish head of copy. She responded to the shock of hearing that her services were to be dispensed with by hitting him with her handbag.

‘I need a job’
I frantically started writing to advertising agencies to get a job and, as luck would have it, I heard a rumour that the hottest agency at that time, Collett Dickenson Pearce, had a vacancy in its account handling department. An old friend David Puttnam had been a star at the agency but was leaving to pursue a new career representing the very best photographers of the day. I managed to get an interview and I went through the process of meeting the whole of the top management of CDP. I appeared to be doing OK, although I suspect that my slight desperation did shine through. I had my final meeting with Ronnie Dickenson and we had a very interesting discussion about advertising campaigns they were doing at that time. There was one campaign that was personality-led by a controversial figure of the time. When Dickenson asked me what I thought about that particular campaign, I said I was surprised they were using a personality who was roundly disliked by what I estimated as half the population. He concurred with this assessment but said that the other half loved him to bits and that delivering that intensity of loyalty was worth alienating those who disliked him.

We came to the defining moment in the last meeting I was to have at CDP. Dickenson asked how much money I was looking for. I swallowed hard and said that I didn’t think I could take a new job paying anything less than £3,250 a year. Taken aback, he told me that this particular post was going to be advertised at £4,500 a year. It might have been the first time but it was certainly not the last time I undervalued my potential contribution to an employer. Two days later, I got the letter which told me that, although I was very close, they didn’t feel that I was absolutely right for the vacant post. I never managed to talk to Dickenson subsequently, but I’m sure the fact that I asked for so little money decided my fate.

When In Doubt Be Nice is published by Silvertail Books, priced £20