The Godfather

David Abbott’s retirement as chairman of Abbott Mead Vickers.BBDO will leave a large hole at the heart of the agency and indeed in the UK advertising business as a whole. One colleague, who describes him as “the soul” of AMV, is pessimistic.”The real challenge is how does the agency keep the cultural values alive when he has gone?”

Another adds: “He’s totally irreplaceable. I think the cultural guts of the agency will be ripped out when he and the other founders leave.”

Abbott, the high priest of British advertising, is bowing out after 40 years as a copywriter and more than 20 years leading what is now the biggest agency in the UK. He will stop coming in to work after October 11, his 60th birthday, although he will continue in a consultancy role.

Abbott declined to be interviewed. “Sorry, but I don’t want to be profiled. Even I’m bored with me. Thanks for asking,” read his fax.

Self-deprecating, yes, but also typical of Abbott’s careful manipulation of his own image. It is interesting to speculate how far Abbott has quietly colluded in the creation of this saintly persona, with his nickname “God” and his status as an industry untouchable. He is described as a private person, who rarely talks about his home life. A practising Roman Catholic who is said to be very close to his wife, he enjoys the opera, reading, and weekends at his country home in Norfolk.

Universally described as a “gentleman”, Abbott is certainly a man of culture and intelligence: yet his urbane demeanour raises the question of why he chose such a rough trade as advertising in the first place. He has turned indisputable talents for crafting language not towards the art of novel writing or lofty academic study but towards avowedly commercial ends. And while it is said that money does not drive him, he easily earns 500,000 a year.

Michael Baulk, chief executive at AMV for the past 12 years, says: “David lives well. It’s just he’s not aggressively materialistic. He doesn’t surround himself with the status symbols of success.” He insists that Abbott never wanted to be put on a pedestal. “Is there any sense of a talent wasted? Absolutely not. David believes in advertising. He loves connecting ideas with people. He is the best thinker, the best planner, the best writer. Added to this he has a natural understanding of brands and an incredible ability to solve problems.”

Unlike many creatives, treated like helpless, spoilt children by the rest of the industry, it was quickly recognised that Abbott could combine a managerial role with creative leadership.

Max Burt, head of planning at DMB&B and former board account planner at AMV, says: “He is very unflappable. Considering he was running a department and an agency he was able to be completely focused on the project in hand.”

Lorna Tilbian, media analyst at Panmure Gordon, adds: “When AMV floated [in 1985], there wasn’t any fear of a creative heading the company.”

But as AMV has grown and evolved into a quoted company and part of an international network, Abbott has shrewdly keep his distance from the rougher, nastier internal machinations that are part and parcel of the advertising business. In more recent years he has drawn back, partly to hand over power to his successors but also to avoid the unsavoury side of big business – a charge which Baulk vehemently denies.

One insider says: “David won’t really work with people he doesn’t like… He leaves the hard decisions to other people. He doesn’t like confrontation, and feels very uncomfortable. He does have a huge ego and he loves to be loved. There’s no doubt about that. That drives him.”

Abbott’s legacy is a portfolio which is widely recognised as some of the best advertising produced in this country, if not the world, notably on accounts such as BT, Volvo, Yellow Pages, The Economist and Sainsbury’s.

Critics say he cannot do TV ads, and bemoan his cosy, middle-class style. But let’s not forget this is the man who created the “It’s good to talk” TV campaign for BT, starring East End lad-made- good Bob Hoskins. It is also said that his ads lack raw emotional power. But that criticism surely does not apply to the harrowing poster he wrote for the RSPCA featuring a mound of dead dogs.

John Webster, former creative director of BMP DDB, says: “He is like a prosecuting counsel, arguing his case. You believe he’s sold on it, the copy is informed, intelligent and witty. It’s very English, he’s the nearest thing to David Ogilvy.”

One former colleague, pointing to examples such as the JR Hartley campaign for Yellow Pages, says: “He can identify an emotion and bring it to life brilliantly. He knows how to pull heartstrings. He knows how to manipulate people.”

At AMV, Abbott and his partners Adrian Vickers and Peter Mead created an environment founded on the simple principle that if you have nice people coming into work in a nice office with nice clients, you will get great advertising. “You could be a genius, but if you weren’t nice you could sod off,” says Nigel Marsh, DMB&B marketing director and an AMV employee for nine years.

This was the benevolent management that refused to make anyone redundant during the last recession, when overall the industry contracted by a quarter. It is this warmth that some fear is disappearing at AMV, to be replaced by a more hard-headed business ethic.

Baulk says: “David is irreplaceable. But what you try to do is ensure than his influences and philosophy remain at the heart of the company… if the past 20 years have proved anything, it is surely that great work and good business are happy bedfellows.”

Abbott has carefully planned his retirement. Three years ago he stepped down as chairman of the plc board, and last September he relinquished control of the creative department in favour of his chosen successor, Peter Souter.

It is the end of a career that began 40 years ago, virtually by chance. Abbott had gone to Oxford University to read history, but was forced to leave because of his father’s terminal illness. Rather than take on the job of running the family clothes store in West London, and having always wanted to write, he took a job in Kodak’s advertising department before joining the agency Ogilvy Benson & Mather.

In 1971 he left to start French Gold Abbott, where he stayed until 1977 when he joined Mead and Vickers (whom he met at Oxford) to create Abbott Mead Vickers. Eight years later the agency was floated, and six years after that it sold a minority stake to Omnicom network BBDO.

Abbott will be on hand to help and advise AMV if it hits a rocky patch with certain key clients, and maybe he will even write the occasional ad. Some believe that he would like to feel indispensable. It speaks volumes that there is no obvious successor to his role within the industry.

He says of his retirement: “I’m nervous again, but I think that’s quite good for your creative juices. I think it’s quite good to scare yourself.”

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