‘‘Volkswagen want us to pitch.’’
If you’ve just started an agency – that’s what you dream of hearing.
It was the Commercial Vehicles division, but was still big and still Volkswagen.
Volkswagen; DDB, Bill Bernbach, Helmut Krone, etc.

What an opportunity!
But it’s 2009, the post-bank meltdown is really starting to bite.
We’re officially in a recession and Volkswagen vans are dearer than non-Volkswagen vans.
I need to find a writer who can actually write.

Who can make the case to businessmen as to why should pay more for a van when money’s tight.
Who can talk their language businessman to businessman.
Who can do that?

My mind was blank.
Whilst I was trying to conjure up some names, the National Newspaper Marketing Association got in touch, they wanted me to pick an ad to put in their classics gallery.
I picked this one.

Off-brief in retrospect – it didnt run in a newspaper (it appeared in Campaign, a trade magazine).
Anyway, I loved it, the way it drew you in and unfolded.
sold you the agency.
The human, honest voice, that sold the agency to me so well, that by the end of the ad I wanted to apply for the job myself.
Even though I’m not an account man.
And now, forty-something years later – theyve almost certainly filled that position by now.
That’s the kind of writer we need on Volkswagen; a writer who could talk to businesses in their own language, who could rationalise spending a bit more now for the longer term.
A David Abbott type.

So let’s think; who writes and thinks like David Abbott?
Couldn’t think of anyone, my mind was locked on David Abbott.

I asked around for suggestions.
Then I realised; he isnt type, just like Bowie, Picasso and Tarantino aren’t types.
They one-offs.
Damn! What a shame – hed be perfect.
The only way to move on from that idea was to ask him, get a “No”, then I could think afresh.

‘‘I’m terribly rusty. I haven’t written an ad in years.’’
Me, cheekily; ‘‘It’s only thinking, I’m sure you’ll remember how to do it.’’
He tentatively agreed to meet and discuss the project.

I catch a cab to his lair, just behind Peter Jones in Kings Road.
Moments before stepping into the taxi, I’d been given a hot-off-the-press copy of the new Creative Circle Annual, which I’d designed with my chum Mark Denton.
David had been given the President’s Award, so there was a big, 8-page feature on him inside.
It’s the only copy of the book in existence, but sod it – I’ll give him to him, it’s a nice gesture.
He ushered me into his stylish apartment, come office.
It was a sea of mahogany and faded book spines.
Roasting coffee beans and classical music wafted through the air.

As I handed him the Annual to him it occurred to me that it fit the surroundings.
Exhibit A:creative_circle_annual_carpet
He looked at it quizzically, like he was trying to figure out how it worked.
He goes straight to the index, like any Creative, checking out his pages.
He then starts flicking through the annual to find his bits.
As the pages flicked I had a horrific flashback; Two months before, with the book nearly complete, Mark suggested we put little headers on each page, like in comic books – ‘‘Y’know, like ‘Billy Whizz he’s full of… jizz’little, rhyming bits of nonsense”.

A good idea, but it meant we had to writing sixty of these meaningless, rhyming bits of nonsense in the next couple of days.
We split the task; thirty each.
In my pile was the David Abbott Presidents Award pages.
I didn’t think much of it at the time, it was just another one in an endless pile I had to write.
I wrote six and showed them to Billy Mead, a mate who’s office was opposite mine in Newbugh Street.
I said ‘‘They’re bits of nonsense really, not much logic to them, don’t overthink it, just pick one you like”, he scanned down the list, bursting out laughing halfway down.
‘‘Which one’s that Bill?”
‘‘That one – He’s Abbo, he’s original, but he’s not aboriginal!”.

Really? Ok, in it went.
Cut to three months later.
So, there I am, sitting opposite Abbo, who’s original but not aboriginal, in his apartment waiting for him to read it.
Live, right in front of me.
His eyes will hit that phrase any minute.
Bingo! His eyes scan it.Creative Circle/David Abbott DPS

It’s difficult to describe his expression – a kind of confused wince.
He then closed the book ever so carefully, and slowly placed it on a coffee table.
As if it might contain an undetonated explosive device.
Feeling comfortable the book wouldn’t explode, he moved swiftly on “So, tell me about this project of yours”.

We had a lovely chat and he agreed to give it a go.
Three hours later, a phone call ‘‘Hey Dave, I hadn’t realised you’d designed that book, I’m so pleased now that I wasn’t rude about it”.
I said I was aware it didn’t quite fit in with the other books.

‘‘No…I’m sure I’ll find a place for it.”
We cracked on.

Initially, he was quite tentative, offering to write the copy for a couple of headlines I’d written.
What could I do? He said he liked them, but made me feel a bit uncomfortable.
Mind you, not as uncomfortable as when he’d read out his copy.
I’d go over to his office, sit on the sofa next to him and he’d read his copy, in a mid Atlantic drawl. My face only two feet from his.
He’d shoot me a look every so often, checking for a reaction.
What’s an appropriate reaction?
Or expression?
Too happy and you look like some giddy, sycophant with no critical facility.
Too thoughtful and you look like you’re weighing up his words, judging his copy like you know better.
I tried not to fall in either side of the line, so ended up with a slightly, gormless stare with a hint of appreciation.
The tentative phase didn’t last long, David was soon back in the groove, running the show.
He’d email updates and improvements throughout the day.
Often completely reversing a previous request ‘ignore that last email, I’ve changed my mind’.
Just like a normal person.

He was on top of every detail, forever polishing.
It was surprising how much he cared, he could’ve just dipped in and out.

This was my favourite of the ads he wrote.
It was kind of off-brief, it came to him a few days before we presented.
He changed the words about ten times, small, one word changes, at one point he wanted a subhead under the picture saying ‘Photo donated by the Volkswagen Owner’s Club.
Then wanted it removed.
He also did what he had done many times before, what very writers do; break the fourth wall.
This time referring to himself as the cheap, freelance writer.

Whilst we were working with David, I told everyone at DHM to keep it quiet, If it got out it may look like we’d used him as some kind of pitch stunt.
We were working with him for what he could do, not who he was.

We pitched.
I read the first bit of copy out loud. “That’s well written” the senior client said.
I smiled, how weird is that, no one ever says that, if only they knew.

I read the next one.

“That’s well written too.”
OMG! Who says that? In a pitch too?
I shot my partners a knowing look – as if to say this is nuts?
I read the final piece of copy.

“Very well written, who wrote them?”
Who wrote them? Who gives a shit? What kind of question is that?

‘‘Kevin the copywriter, upstairs.’’
‘‘Someone in the building you don’t know.”

‘‘What difference does it make?’’
Those are just some of the things I didn’t say.
Instead, I smiled awkwardly, thinking – I can’t even answer that?
The client mistook my smile as a sign of modesty – “Did you write them?”
I looked at my partners awkwardly, one said ‘‘Tell him!”.

“It was…er… a chap called David Abbott” I said.
Younger client; “David Abbott in the Parts?”
I kid you not, they had a bloke back at Volkswagen who ran their Spare Parts Department called David Abbott.

Senior Client; “THE David Abbott?”
The intermediary was looking at me incredulously, thinking “why’s he making this up this shit?”
I told them yes, that David Abbott.

He then asked ‘‘Well, will he work on the business if you win it?”.
‘‘Yes of course”.
I lied.

What could I say?
We finished the pitch, they LOVED the work, said it was the best advertising they’d seen, the only work that really captured the Volkswagen tone of voice.

Great! In. The. Bag.
I call David, I tell him it went well and slowly go through the unbelievable reaction to his copy, including ‘‘David Abbott in Parts?”
He laughs.
Then I have to admit I lied.
‘‘Oh don’t worry, what else could you say? Besides, of course I’ll work on it if we win it.”
Two weeks later they gave the business to Iris ‘‘They do everything under one roof, not just advertising.

Here’s some of the other work we presented.
(Some written by David, some by Sean Doyle.)

11 responses to VOLKSWAGEN: ‘Abbo’.

  1. Ben says:

    On the ‘The Future Will Happen’ ad, shouldn’t the second paragraph begin with ‘They’ll be right’, rather than ‘They’re right’?

    My pedantry knows no bounds.


    I’ve also been in David’s lovely office. We had an authors chat. I gave him a copy of my giant insect thriller. He didn’t do that look, but then he was already fully aware I’d written it. We pen-palled a little bit. I felt like the nob out of Razorlight trading messages with David Bowie.

    This blog is becoming really fantastic, by the way. The day you don’t write a post I shall be enormously disappointed.

    • stukendall says:

      Thank you, Dave. A story to remind us of our original goals, our ultimate ambitions and to restore our faith in our industry.

  2. davedye1 says:

    Thanks Ben.

    On the grammar question, I’ll forward your issue to David and see what he thinks.



  3. Mark Denton says:

    …..we gave the award to the wrong David that year. Dave Trott told me that he would have loved a Beano portrait of himself.

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  5. TimR says:

    Just read this for about the eighth time. Those ads are so good

  6. White Van Man says:

    8 years late to this blog, and 7 years late to David Abbott’s amazing words – call it a late career change – but thankfully the anecdotes in this blog, and in the ads themselves are timeless. As a former trade business owner, I was looking for a new van in 2008 and very strongly considered a VW Transporter before choosing a Mercedes Vito. It was pretty close between the two. I reckon if these ads had got through I might have made a different decision.

    • dave dye says:

      Damn! Where were you in 2008? I could’ve used you and your words Ben. Dx

  7. David Bradbury says:

    Came here via Tim Riley’s recent post on David Abbot. The above made me laugh out loud, several times, and I’m on my own. Sadly the loudest involuntary snort laugh was the one at the end when the business went to Iris. Hhmmm.

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