Alfredo Marcantonio remembers David Abbott, one of the greatest ad men of the 20th century and "arguably one of the best copywriters ever to grace the English language"
David Abbott, who died on Cup Final day, was in many ways “the acceptable face of capitalism”. Like the Arsenal manager he was a slim, quietly spoken man. It was an appearance that, like Arsene Wenger’s, belied the fact that he was a revolutionary. Both men also transformed their trade by introducing a more enlightened way of doing things, from a foreign field.
For David that foreign field was Madison Avenue. By the time he arrived there in July 1966, the sixties were in full swing. As a young British copywriter at Mather and Crowther, he had already come under the influence of one of the legends of the advertising business, David Ogilvy.
In the New York of the Mad Men era, he would embrace the philosophy and principles of another, Bill Bernbach.
Bernbach’s agency DDB had fired the opening salvos of the ‘Creative Revolution’ that had just overrun American advertising. The company’s campaigns for Avis, Ohbach’s fashion store and most famously Volkswagen treated the consumer as intelligent.
Bill treated his employees the same way. At a time when female staff were more likely to get their bottoms pinched than their brain’s picked, he appointed a woman, Phyllis Robinson, as copy chief. He also refused to advertise tobacco products, no matter how much money they threw at him.
David fell under his spell. “He had the authority of a college professor and the showreel of a genius. I sat mesmerised – how could any client resist him? Most of them didn’t.”
When he returned to London to become creative director of DDB’s Baker Street office, he carried all Bill’s principles with him. And when he left to start his own agencies, French Gold Abbott and later Abbott Mead Vickers, he installed them in the company credo and instilled them in his staff.
Boy, did that graft take.
Under David’s influence, AMV grew to become Britain’s largest and most admired agency. Proof that good guys don’t always come last.
Of course, David’s own talent must take much of the credit. Arguably the greatest copywriter ever to grace the English language, his roll call takes some unrolling.
An early white-collar union ad confided: “The board and I don’t like the colour of your eyes”.
An ad for the bug-like Beetle featured a portrait of the bug-eyed comic genius Marty Feldman and suggested: “If he can make it so can Volkswagen”.
He showed Sainsbury’s fresh mince with the assurance: “If we don’t sell it in a day, we don’t sell it.”
The Economist’s renowned red and white poster campaign was totally his idea and he authored many of its most acclaimed executions including “I never read the Economist”, a line subtly attributed to a “Management Trainee aged 42”.
And for the RSPCA, against a horrifying pile of dead canines, he simply presented a horrid fact: “When the Government killed the dog licence they left us to kill the dogs.”
He had a gentler touch on television, as his enduring JR Hartley film for Yellow Pages bears tribute. Indeed, it was so popular the fiction became fact, and a Hartley guide to fly-fishing was actually published.
His BT collaboration with Bob Hoskins also addressed our hearts just as much as our heads. In one commercial, Bob touchingly visits a grandma whose doormat is “a bit light on birthday cards” and in another, the actor’s 30 seconds of silence at the start delivers the ‘good to talk’ message more powerfully than any words could. Even David’s words.
His beautifully shot celebrity recipe ads for Sainsbury’s changed the way that programme makers themselves shot food sequences. The ingredients would not only sell out in Sainsbury’s but in Tesco and Waitrose as well. On any given day of the week it was estimated that more than a million home cooks would be at the stove conjuring one of the dishes.
Though he is gone his example need not be forgotten. The virtuous path he forged might not be much travelled but it is easier than ever to follow.
The world-wide-web is the world-word-web. His school of fine persuasive writing is as convincing on a tablet as it was in the tabloids. The world of e-commerce allows people of principle to launch a product or service on a heartstring, never mind a shoestring, as the success of brands like Mumsnet testifies.
And, in his own backyard, advertising can still follow his lead. Just look at the phenomenal success of the John Lewis campaign. It speaks with David’s voice.