Man Of Letters

Mike Dempsey meets legendary advertising copywriter David Abbott to talk about his first interview, famous colleagues and the power of the written word

If you mention the name David Abbott in advertising circles, there is an immediate rush to genuflect. Mention the name to a group of designers, however, and at most there is look of vague recognition. Over the course of this feature, I hope to change that.

‘Let’s start at the beginning,’ wrote Abbott in a 1968 essay on copywriting.

‘Abcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyz – you are looking at the copywriter’s toolbox. With these 26 little marks on paper we have to persuade people to buy our clients’ products, ideas or services. If we jumble them one way, we can sell with a laugh. Mix them up another way and we’re provocative. Another, and we’re sympathetic. It beats Scrabble. And we get paid for it.’

I was so taken by the charm and simple elegance of these words that I photocopied the pages and kept them in my briefcase. Abbott made me aware of the sheer craft involved in advertising copywriting. And over the years I followed his work with a great deal of pleasure and deep admiration.

Sitting in the drawing room of his elegant home in a leafy London crescent, a stone’s throw from Terence Conran’s Michelin building, Abbott, a graceful figure with a shock of grey hair and a reassuring voice that could easily narrate the many commercials he has written, reflects on his life.

He was born in London’s Hammersmith in 1938. During World War II, the family was bombed out during the Blitz and moved out to the slightly safer climes of Pinner. His father was a retailer and owned three Walk Around stores, which stocked a disparate range of products from lino to shoes, fabrics to underwear.

The frontages of these outlets were key selling areas, and as an eight-year-old, Abbott would help his father to set out the display on a series of trestle tables to attract passers-by, an act he would replicate in a far more sophisticated way many years later. In the process he earned himself pocket money, which he mostly spent on books and comics. He remembers loving the world of boarding schools conjured up in The Wizard with tales of tuck shops and midnight feasts. He finally managed to persuade his parents to send him away to school, but it wasn’t the rip-roaring fun it was perceived to be in the comics. So he ended up attending a local prep school as a day boy, along with his two younger brothers.

Academically he did well and at the age of 18 he won a scholarship to Oxford University to read history. But life in the city of dreaming spires was to be shortlived. With only two terms under his belt, Abbott was summoned home by his mother with news that his father was dying of lung cancer. As the eldest, it fell to him to help run the family business. His father became weaker and unable to work and eventually died. There was now no hope of returning to Oxford and Abbott struggled for two years trying to make a success of managing the stores. But they were woefully old fashioned and had been superseded by a new style of retailing. e e Abbott found himself presiding over the demise of his father’s life’s work. At 21, without a job and with few prospects, he toured the employment agencies in search of direction. While in one of his favourite haunts, a bookshop, he found the book Madison Avenue by Martin Mayer. It described life in the world of advertising and Abbott liked the sound of it.

A few months later, in 1959, he had secured a job at the industrial division of Kodak. Here he learned the art of writing trade ads. It was here too that he met his wife Eve. He was a fast learner and soon became aware that the kind of work he wanted to get his teeth into was to be found in the serious London ad agencies.

But getting a foot in the door was difficult. He recalls one interview he attended. Clutching a small folio of trade ads, he was sitting in a rather low chair in front of a man who continued writing for several minutes before raising his head in Abbott’s direction. He then asked Abbott, ‘Is there anything you desperately want to show me?’ The insensitivity and pomposity of this individual made Abbott vow that if he ever found himself in a position of power he would always treat people with dignity and respect. Eventually, he was given an opportunity to sit a copywriting test at Mather & Crowther. He failed. But somehow he persuaded them to give him another chance. This time he passed. At last he was with an agency of repute.

The early 1960s was still a period when copywriters worked in a pool separated from the creative department. At Mather & Crowther the most junior writer sat by the door with the most senior having the luxury of a window. Copy was collected from out-trays. That would be the last you’d see of it until an ad appeared in the press. Abbott remembers being responsible for a commercial script that went on to win an award. He was never told or credited. Even the first British Design & Art Directors’ D&AD Annual did not credit copywriters.

This was a world where, for many, the act of copywriting was to support more lofty literary pursuits. The novelist Fay Weldon, a colleague of Abbott’s at the time and famous for her copy line ‘Go to work on an egg’, spent her free time trying to hatch a novel.

Abbott was a keen reader of the New Yorker magazine and loved its renowned writers, Dorothy Parker, James Thurber and Nathaniel Benchley for their collective humour and rapier wit. But he was also noticing the magazine’s press ads and was deeply impressed by their originality in presentation and writing.

It was Bill Bernbach’s [founder of Doyle Dane Bernbach, now called BMP DDB] magic touch that impressed Abbott most. DDB had opened up a London office and Abbott set about systematically aping the DDB style in order to get a job there. It worked. At the agency, Abbott found himself working closely with art directors for the first time, which he found exhilarating. He blossomed and was soon singled out as being special.

In 1966 he was sent to the New York office to be groomed for greater things and in the process, breathed the same air as Bernbach. Eight months later he returned to London to find that there had been an exodus from DDB with many of his former colleagues now at other agencies. He inherited the mantle of copy chief and then became creative director. Abbott set about working on the cream of British advertising accounts: Volkswagen, Avis, Gillette and Uniroyal Tyres. With his persuasive prose the products and services sold and awards came tumbling through the door. Abbott had 26 pieces in the 1969 D&AD Annual.

From that point he became a force to be reckoned with. Inter-agency rivalry generated some of the best advertising in the world and, from then on, Abbott’s star was in the ascendant. He left DDB – much to its regret and a little bitterness – to start French Gold Abbott. This agency eventually metamorphosed into Abbott Mead Vickers, which he founded in 1978. And before he knew it, Abbott had clocked up a 40-year career and in the process left a legacy of some of the finest copywriting in British advertising history.

Some of Abbott’s finest work was created during his 30 years at AMV, where he became synonymous with five brands: he convinced us Volvo was safer than a tank; he made our mouths water with his sumptuous descriptions of Sainsbury’s food; he created J R Hartley for Yellow Pages, forever in search of an elusive copy of Fly Fishing; he engaged audiences to decode messages for The Economist; and, finally, shocked with his brutal RSPCA campaign, in which he showed the UK it was not the nation of animal lovers it professes to be.

Over the years, Abbott has picked up just about every award going on both sides of the Atlantic. Only last year he was given the great honour of being inaugurated into the New York Art Directors Club Hall of Fame. The only other British writer to receive this honour was David Ogilvy. And if you don’t know who he is, shame on you. I’m sure that Abbott wouldn’t forgive me if I didn’t single out two of the many art directors he has worked with over the years. During his early period it was Neil Godfrey. And at AMV it was his long-term collaborator Ron Brown. Both men were supreme perfectionists.

Retirement has not kept him idle, however. He serves as a non-executive director at a small breakaway agency, has an interest in publishing house, Harvill Press, and sits on the editorial board of Gardens Illustrated – gardening is a passion with him.

But his main task these days is to take a short trip each day from his home in Kensington to his office in the shadows of Peter Jones department store in Chelsea. Here he sits in quiet isolation to write. But this time not to persuade us to buy cars, shoes or food, but to write a novel that has been locked inside his head for some time. Giving birth to it is another matter.

Two and a half years in and he has only completed 100 neatly typed pages. He admits that not having the pressure of a deadline is an odd sensation, but he is enjoying the adventure. As he sits there, surrounded by the carefully chosen pieces of furniture, paintings and artefacts, echoes of his earlier life must punctuate his concentration. The small boy helping his father to set up the store, the faces of each of his four children as they open their eyes for the first time, the solid marriage, the fame of his agency and the many accolades and successes he has received over the years.

As Clarence said to George Bailey in the eponymous film: ‘You’ve had a wonderful life’. m

Mike Dempsey is chairman and founding partner of CDT Design

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