David Abbott Talks.

Le Corbusier – Dinosaur!
Coco Channel – Granny!
Paul Rand – Has-been!
Irving Penn – Neanderthal!
Saul Steinberg – Silly Old Fart!

Looks weird doesn’t it?
Because we’re not used to seeing those people disrespected, they’re lauded for their part in elevating their profession.
Especially by those in the same industry, who study 
their every idiosyncrasy to inform their own creative output.
It enables all of us who follow to start further down the page.
It’s why all creative industries strive to improve what they may create in the future by learning from what has been created in the past.
Except in advertising.
In our field, creativity is viewed like toothbrushes, condoms or diapers; useful when new, worthless once used.
We distance ourselves from the past like we’re in one gigantic witness protection programme; ‘Ads?Us? No Guv…er…we’ve only ever dealt in that there new media thing…the thing that came out last week’.
Maybe we feel we are not worthy of being taken as seriously as ‘proper’ creative industries, like fashion, architecture and photography? Because surely advertising is just brash, patronising garbage isn’t it?
Predominantly, yes, but it doesn’t have to be, at its best it can connect with people as much as any form of creativity.
Some of the ads that connect most are those that shine a fresh light on our lives, their observations create empathy for a product.
To be truly effective, the observation needs to be inextricably linked to the product.
Nobody did this better than David Abbott.

Oddly, this kind of creative thinking seems to have gone out of fashion.
A shame, because it’s one of the most effective ways to sell things.

I was reminded of this after a friend, John O’Driscoll, got in touch to tell me about a website he’d just put up about David Abbott.

So John, people who follow this blog will either have heard of David, and therefore visit ‘What David Said’, or they won’t, so will wonder who the hell he is, so for them, who is David Abbott?
David Abbott is considered, by his peers, to be one of the best ever British copywriters.
Since its inception in 1963, nobody has had more work accepted into D&AD; 276!
A figure I am sure that will never be topped.
David was also the a founder of Abbott Mead Vickers, the biggest and probably most successful – ever British advertising agency.
Why should they visit the site?
A bit of history first; DAVID ABBOTT SAID (excuse the caps but that’s branding) was going to be one of many life stories of the great creative forces of British advertising.
The project was to be called THEY SAID.
It was the idea of George Boyter, who in 2013 was a course leader at Bucks College.
As a lecturer, George discovered that when he needed reference of ads of the past, the only source was the D&AD annuals in the uni library of which there were few, as the rest had been stolen.
And in his quest to help those who might want to read the copy in the ads, (they couldn’t because it was too small!), George wondered if a reference website could be created that contained the great of ads of the past.
His idea was to film their creators and along with the transcript and their lifetimes work and put them online as a sort of reference library.
So what happened?
Despite the initial enthusiasm when it came to the matter of financing it there were no takers.
We even tried to get a documentary made from the David Abbott footage, but unless the subject is Martin Sorrell or Charlie Saatchi, no one outside our business is interested in anyone from advertising.
Did you try AMV/BBDO?
We had just got our pitch together to present to possible sponsors when David sadly died.
So our first port of call with THEY SAID was to meet with Omnicom European chairman and AMV co-founder Peter Mead to tell him about the idea.
Peter showed a lot of interest and offered to see if he could get the folks at head office to maybe back us.
But unfortunately a letter eventually came from him that said they were not.
Last year we offered the footage of David to AMV and I have to add here with a price attached: We needed pay the technicians and editors, who helped make the film and the man who built the website, plus a couple of bob for George and me for our trouble. Negotiations started well but seemed to have petered out a few months ago, so we’ve taken it that they don’t want it.
That really surprises me, did you try the History Of Advertising Trust?
We were advised that they were skint. But that was in 2013, assumed it was true, but in retrospect who knows?
It would be ungracious not to mention here, that when David passed away, they posted the short obituary film we put together on their website.
We are very grateful for that.
Our disappointment with them is, that at the time of the request for help with THEY SAID, that the principal that the creative and originality of the men and women who played a very important part in the founding of the association and its continuing success should not be recognized.
Ok, being devils advocate, why should young people visit the site?
A history lesson on how ads were once done!
David Abbott encapsulates what every UK adman aspires to be.
David was not only a great copywriter but a very astute business man and a brilliant creative director.
In every agency he headed or founded, he not only made them profitable but made them fun to work at.
David’s agencies were not places of fear.
And to be honest, we thought if we got David Abbott on board for the project it would be much easier to approach others.
It was.
How did you get David to agree to do it?
He only agreed to do it provided it was to be used for educational purposes.
And it helped that I knew him quite well, because as a creative as I’d worked for him at DDB in the 60s and AMV was my last agency, before I became a film director.
Where was it filmed?
We shot four hours of footage at his immaculate flat in Cadogan Gardens, with George interviewing.
What was the most surprising thing you discovered whilst interviewing him?
He hadn’t changed.
Not a jot.
He was the same urbane gentlemen.
Elegantly suited.
Polished shoes.
And the same hair style he had in the 60s, only white.
How does the site work?
It’s made up of different chapters of David’s life.
Starting from when he was a child to his last day in the office.
There’s even a chapter about what he thought about planners.
Each chapter has a collection of David’s work and the opportunity to watch either him in a video clip or read the transcript.
(A note to possible visitors to the site: The transcript is a direct lift from the interview so has a lot ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’.)
What’s your favourite chapter?
It’s called ‘My favourite ad’.
On the morning the ad appeared in the Sunday Times he noticed his daughter Jenny reading it, her reaction was not what he expected.
Check the site and you’ll see which as he was talking about!

What’s your favourite print ad of his?
I have two.
Both topical.
One for the ASTMS, the other for Volkswagen.
Ads like these were unique the time, and no one else was doing them.
First the for ASTMS (Association of Scientific, Technical and Managerial Staff): I was a past-up artist in the studio at DDB when the ad for was being put together by the studio manager.
ASTMS was a start-up white-collar union.
The ad had no photo.
No tricky art direction.
Just great writing that made people read it.
It garnered thousands of replies and created an organization that for the first time allowed men in white coats and suits to sit around their bosses’ table and discuss their pay and conditions.
The other ad was for VW.
It featured Marty Feldman, a famous actor, comedian and writer.
Marty had what you might call a characterful face, with one eye pointing in one direction the other looking somewhere else.
In the UK, despite the best endeavours of David and the creative department, they never really produced a VW ad that matched the magic of the American ads until this one.
It was different and it was local.

What about TV?
Though thought to be better at print, David did great TV.
He was the first to do recipe ads on the telly. (See the Sainsbury’s chapter.)
He’s also known for memorable commercials for Yellow Pages, but the stand out ad for me is his commercial for the Economist, which went hand in glove with the brilliant poster campaign he created for the weekly.
It features Henry Kissinger, who, for those who have never heard of him, was one of most important political movers and shakers of the 20th century.
The commercial features him sitting down in First Class on a plane next to what looks like a typical businessman, with the voice over pondering what the man is going to talk about with Henry during the flight.

Is David Abbott relevant to the young creatives of today?
Well, that point is up for debate.
Correct me if I am wrong but present day creatives seem to be neither art director or copywriter, as either skill is not deemed necessary since their daily task is together to create work that is only shown either in social media sites or other digital outlets.
I was informed recently by a very well-respected creative director of a successful agency that press was hardly recommended to their clients.
I found this curious as a quick Google shows that 56 million newspapers are printed every day and read by 38% of the population.
Even though there has been a decline in readership over the years, surely there must be some advertisers who might want to get the attention of those thirty-eight percent?
The next question is can today’s creatives actually create print?
Do they ever hanker to do a ‘good ad’ or poster?
If the answer is a “Yes” to both questions then checking out David Abbott’s work might be helpful and at the same time inspiring.
Why should anyone care about advertising’s history?
In any creative profession, work of the past is used as an example of how to do it in the future.
Architecture, art, literature, film making, all have past references to work to.
For some reason, in recent times, the whole of idea finding out how they made ads in the past seems to be anathema. Now here’s an interesting thing.
One of our first requests for funding was with D&AD because of their charitable status and its educational charter, so we contacted their CEO Tim Lindsay.
Tim’s first reaction, like all the others, was very enthusiastic.
Sadly he couldn’t offer any finance for the idea but was happy to offer the Association’s imprimatur if we ever got it off the ground.
A year later after meeting him again he said that there might be a bit of cash to get us going but after a discussion with his colleagues it was deemed not to be a good idea after all, as it was felt that D&AD should be investing in the future and not the past.
I found that a bit shocking if I am honest.
So does that mean that the book is not an annual but a catalogue of the winners?
I suppose if you took the idea of ‘not looking back’ to its ultimate conclusion, we should take our old annuals off the shelf and burn them as they are of no relevance to the business of advertising. (That’s me going off on one, sorry Tim.)
Still, the site turned out well?
It’s look and ease of use we are delighted with as George and I wanted to avoid the look of most current website design.

They all look the same and consider the work that goes into them, they are almost impenetrable.
One short coming is the quality of the film clips.
They are still at low res and have not been through the tele-cine process.
Sadly we used our one favour up with the good people at Unit who graded David’s obituary.
Maybe there is a post-house who might step forward to make Mr Abbott look his best.
Why put this site together…for free?
Both George and I were not going to see all the work and effort we put into the THEY SAID project since 2013 go to waste.
So since we owned the website address davidabbottsaid.com and the site was ready to go online, we pressed the ‘go’ button.
Are you doing any more?
Again, as far as we are concerned we got the jewel in crown by getting to interview David Abbott.
With a few exceptions, he was the most successful British ad man in every sense: good at ads, good at business and he did it all here in the U.K.
David was a true advertising legend, if there is such a thing.
Thanks John, good job.
(Here’s the link: http: //www.davidabbottsaid.com/) 

10 responses to David Abbott Talks.

  1. When freelancing at Ogilvy, New York, in the nineties, a young creative team asked my opinion of something they were working on. It reminds me of something Mary Wells did back in her DDB days, I replied. “Mary who?” They answered.

  2. dave dye says:

    Shame, she did some great stuff George.
    Her version of ‘My Guy’ is still the definitive version.

  3. Graham Aveling says:

    What an inspiration David Abbott was, and, with his story and legacy of great ads, can still be. I had the privilege of meeting him many years ago when he ran an introductory workshop to copy writing in Bournemouth – as part of a CAM Foundation course, I think. A great adman and a gentle soul. Thank you for sharing. Well done to all concerned.

  4. Nick George says:

    Tim Delaney is still only in business because David Abbott saved his ass. I could go on, but both Tim and I have known Elizabeth, who has been an actress of some interest, so will shut up. Great blog thought Dave, my students at USW ( then first years, now graduated, some hired in in Cardiff and Bristol), really got thinking when I walked them through your John Knight entry. As John had mentored me in my first job, it was very real passing on what he had taught me, and John had taught a lot of others too, like Kiki Kendrick (I was at primary school with her btw, and she was known as Lynne).
    John asked me, very early on, did I know the Guinness toucan poster.
    I said of course, it’s in the culture.
    And John said that’s what I want to do, that’s why I do this job, I want to create an ad image that becomes part of British culture.
    I think he very nearly did with the stamp franked with a Volkswagen logo.
    My students really sharpened up when we looked at that.
    I wish them all well. And if you meet them, treat them better than we were treated.
    They are 21st century Brits, and quite different.

  5. Aaron says:

    Great post Dave! Do you by any chance know where to find the polaroid ad he mentions in chapter 20? Would love to see it.

  6. Peter Souter says:

    This is extremely embarrassing but somehow I’ve never seen the ‘phone your parents film’. It made me miss my Mum and Dad, now it’s too late to call them. And miss David, now it’s too late to call him.

    Thanks you Dave. And thank you JOHN. You are both heroes and historians. Px

    • dave dye says:

      Hey Peter, sorry for any distress caused.
      It’s interesting that the BT ad isn’t better known, probably because, pre John Lewis, creatives and awards juries used to be very anti using sentimentality in ads.

  7. alexpearl says:

    I have only recently got round to reading ‘The Upright Piano Player’, which is a remarkable novel by any standards. I was compelled to write the following:

    David Abbott is regarded as one of the finest advertising copywriters of his generation. As a young graduate back in the 80s, I remember the thrill of being offered a student placement at his agency Abbott Mead Vickers, along with my then creative partner. We were in our final year at art school and had set our sights on a career as a creative team in one of London’s creative advertising agencies. Luckily for us, one of AMV’s senior art directors had graduated from our college (Maidstone College of Art), so it only took a letter from one of our tutors to this former student to secure our two-week placement.

    On arriving at the allotted hour, we were ushered up to the creative floor of a recently refurbished building that had that distinctive new building smell. Everything was grey and black, which was the height of chic back in the late 80s. In fairness, it would still look sophisticated today. We had our own sizeable office for two weeks. But the greatest disappointment to befall us was that the great man himself was on holiday and would not return until we had departed. So there would be no chance to contrive an impromptu meeting with him in the company lift of a morning.

    Abbott had cemented his reputation for writing memorable press ads for the likes of Volvo, Sainsbury’s, The Economist and Chivas Regal, to name but a few. But he was equally at home writing TV commercials, and his famous ‘J R Hartley’ TV commercial has gone down in advertising folklore as one of the UK’s best loved commercials.

    This said, he will always be remembered for witty headlines; and cogent, eloquent and perfectly structured copy. I remember one of his very long headlines for Chivas Regal that fuelled a lively argument at college. Some of us felt it was truly heartfelt while others found it overly sentimental and cloying. The press ad ran on Father’s Day and read as follows:

    Because I’ve known you all my life.
    Because a red Rudge bicycle once made me the happiest boy on the street.
    Because you let me play cricket on the lawn.
    Because you used to dance around the kitchen with a tea-towel round your waist.
    Because your cheque book was always busy on my behalf.
    Because our house was always full of books and laughter.
    Because of countless Saturday mornings you gave up to watch a small boy play rugby.
    Because you never expected too much of me or let me get away with too little.
    Because of all the nights you sat working at your desk while I lay sleeping in my bed.
    Because you never embarrassed me by talking about the birds and the bees.
    Because I know there’s a faded newspaper clipping in your wallet about my scholarship.
    Because you always made me polish the heels of my shoes as brightly as the toes.
    Because you’ve remembered my birthday 38 times out of 38.
    Because you still hug me when we meet.
    Because you still buy my mother flowers.
    Because you’ve more than your fair share of grey hairs and I know who helped put them there.
    Because you’re a marvellous grandfather.
    Because you made my wife feel one of the family.
    Because you wanted to go to McDonalds the last time I bought you lunch.
    Because you’ve always been there when I’ve needed you.
    Because you let me make my own mistakes and never once said. “I told you so.”
    Because you still pretend you only need glasses for reading.
    Because I don’t say thank you as often as I should.
    Because it’s Father’s Day.
    Because if you don’t deserve Chivas Regal, who does?

    Abbott later admitted that the ad was, in fact, a love letter to his own father. Whether you like it or not (I happen to like it), it’s a lovely example of Abbott’s perceptiveness and his ability to tap into the way we humans think and feel. And it’s this emotive and powerful line of reasoning that imbues all his copy, whether he’s writing about crumple zones on Scandinavian cars or the health benefits of a Liga baby rusk.

    When in 1998, he announced his retirement from the agency he founded in order to take up a new career as an author, none of us gasped in surprise. Here was a man who was already writing the most exquisite prose, albeit in a truncated form. And plenty of other copywriters had taken the plunge before him. Copywriters who certainly hadn’t received the kind of recognition Abbott had. There had been Fay Wheldon ( ‘Go to work on an egg’). There had been Peter Mayle (‘Nice one Cyril’ for Wonderloaf bread). And there had been Salman Rushdie (who readily admits to penning ‘naughty but nice’ for fresh cream cakes).

    Admittedly, it took some while to complete his first work of fiction, but in 2010 Abbott’s debut novel ‘The Upright Piano Player’ finally hit the shelves. And quite some novel it is. It was clearly a labour of love as every line has been so well-considered and beautifully honed. Lines like this: Designer gowns from a former era, lovingly preserved in polythene, hang uneasily on bodies that have had no such luck. The book is peppered with such lines, yet the narrative is brisk and not the least bit laboured. And, of course, there’s that sharp perceptiveness about human nature and the little observations that lift the writing to another level. We also get a real feeling for the characters themselves through Abbott’s sharp ear for dialogue.

    The story itself is an incredibly sad one and is structured like a Kurt Vonnegut novel starting at the end. But in all other respects, it is as far apart from a Vonnegut novel as you could possibly get. Many reviewers have compared the writing to Ian McEwan, and it’s a fair comparison. What is abundantly clear is that ‘The Upright Piano Player’ is an accomplished novel that is as deserving of shelf space as any novel I’ve read in the English language. As a debut novel, it’s remarkable.

    The story’s protagonist, one Henry Cage is a perfectly affable character on the surface. He has enjoyed a successful career as the founder of his own management consultancy business. But on retirement, it becomes clear that Cage’s personal life is anything but perfect. As the novel progresses, Abbott allows us to peek into Cage’s family dynamics and the fracturing of relationships, which could so easily have been averted. Added into the mix is a string of random incidents that have truly devastating consequences and are well beyond Cage’s control. Together the sequence of events makes for a tragedy of epic proportions and demonstrates the fragility of life. But don’t be put off. The narrative is utterly compelling, and you really do want to spend time in Henry Cage’s company. He is sharp, witty and likeable, if a bit obstinate and set in his ways. The closing line to the novel is utterly heartbreaking, as we know from the very first page how this story ends. And that’s another aspect that I think works so well with this novel. The way it has been structured is really clever. We know from page one how it ends but we don’t quite know how it gets there. But when we do finally get there and everything has been unravelled, the emotional punch of the very last page is enormous and gut-wrenching because we know that the last page isn’t actually the last page.

    Having retired from advertising myself and written a couple of self-published novels, I have only just got round to reading ‘The Upright Piano Player’. But I am baffled by the fact that this fine book has received so few reviews on Amazon – no more than a paltry 38 ratings in ten years. My own self-published scribblings have notched up twice as many ratings in ten months. But I’d be the first to admit that my writing pales in comparison. So why on earth isn’t anyone reading this fine book that has been published, I might add, by a mainstream publisher (Quercus)? Am I and those 38 other reviewers on Amazon the only people to rate ‘The Upright Piano Player’ as a terrific read? Surely not.

    I speak up for David Abbott’s novel not simply because I believe it to be an extraordinarily beautiful book, but because David Abbott cannot speak up for himself. He very sadly passed away rather suddenly and unexpectedly in 2014. He was one of the very few advertising men whose obituary made it into the national newspapers as well as the BBC news. This said, his debut novel only appeared as a foot-note among the reams of newsprint devoted to his contribution to British creative advertising. And yet this novel is undoubtedly his crowning achievement. The Guardian rightly described it as ‘a beautifully constructed debut.’ The saddest thing about ‘The Upright Piano Player’ is that it’s Abbott’s first and last foray into the world of literary fiction. We shan’t see any other novels from this hugely gifted and overlooked author.

    Alex Pearl is author of ‘Sleeping with the Blackbirds’ and ‘The Chair Man’

    • dave dye says:

      Hey Alex, what a great comment.
      I have that book but haven’t got around to reading it yet, looks very serious, you may have just tipped me into venturing beyond the gloomy looking brown cover.
      Thanks again.

  8. alexpearl says:

    Thanks Dave. Certainly worth reading. May not be everyone’s cup of tea as it is incredibly sad. But i was blown away by it. Great website by the way.
    Kind regards,

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