David Abbott, who died on 17 May 2014, was the co-founder and creative genius at the helm of Britain’s largest and possibly best ad agency, Abbott Mead Vickers.
He did not achieve the name recognition of the Saatchi brothers, Sir Martin Sorrell, Sir John Hegarty or that of the other David (who he was famously trained by before leaving to work with Bill Bernbach), but he was widely regarded as the greatest copywriter of his generation, a man of high principle, and one of Britain’s cultural forces in the past 40 years.
He created some of the most memorable campaigns of his era for clients including Volvo, The Economist, Sainsbury’s, Chivas Regal and the Yellow Pages which came trademarked with his masterful combination of wit, intelligence and humanity.
He attributed his agency’s prosperity to the creative side of the business and believed that running a successful agency was not difficult. “You basically stuff the place full of talent and allow that talent to bloom,” he advised. “So you have to have something that makes the great people want to come and work for you. And it’s never money. You can always earn more money at a bad agency because they need you more.”
There is no better way for a copywriter to be remembered than through his own words. So the following paraphrased advice he penned in 1995 for The Copy Book (one of the two most closely guarded books on my office shelf) is the best explanation for his legacy:
“I write with an Artline 200 Fine 0.4 Pentel — blue ink, never black. I generally work on A3 layout pads but will sometimes switch to an A4. Definitely low tech stuff. I write with my office door open. I keep my jacket on. My feet are usually on the table.
“Whatever the size of the pad, I write copy in column widths. (It’s) easier to get the word count right. Alongside, I jot down thoughts or phrases. I also write all the clichés and purple bits that clutter my head. I find that only by writing them down do I exorcise them.
“I rarely plan the shape of copy. By the time I come to write, the structure of the argument is in my brain. I spend time fact-finding and don’t start until I have too much to say. You (can’t) write fluent copy if you have to interrupt yourself with research. Dig first, then write.
“I’m a fast writer and in a sense I am not interested in words. I don’t own a Thesaurus. Words, for me, are the servants of the argument. I like them plain, simple and familiar.
“A change in procedure is often a good idea when you’re not getting one. I’ve been writing copy since 1960. I don’t panic and I know the best thing for me to do when tired or thwarted is to walk away. I might rework a headline 50 or 60 times to get the thought and balance exactly right.
“Agency life rarely allows for this level of concentration so I also write at home, late, or I’ll book a hotel room and work from there. This piece, for example, is being written at the kitchen table. Great copy has been written in cafés, on trains, on beaches, on planes, in cars — even occasionally at a desk. How you do it is less important than what you do.
“I’ve never been much of a theoriser about copywriting, but here are five things that I think are more or less true:
“1. Put yourself into your work. Use your life to animate your copy. If something moves you, chances are, it will touch someone else, too.
“2. Think visually. Ask someone to describe a spiral staircase and they’ll use their hands as well as words. Sometimes the best copy is no copy.
“3. If you believe that facts persuade (as I do), you’d better learn how to write a list so that it doesn’t read like a list.
“4. Confession is good for the soul and for copy, too. Bill Bernbach used to say “a small admission gains a large acceptance”. I still think he was right.
“5. Don’t be boring.”