SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
George Orwell once referred to advertising as the rattling of a stick inside a swill bucket. There was some swill for which David Abbott, the British adman, would not rattle a stick. Mr. Abbott died at the age of 75. He was one of the founders of Abbott Mead Vickers in London and he was considered a singularly good copywriter. He created the first ad for The Economist in 1984, in what became its signature style - white letters on a red background that said, I never read The Economist - management trainee, age 42. He wrote another single memorable line for a Volvo ad that showed a car brimming with children. It went, always keep your valuables in a safe place.
David Abbott was one of the first admen to refuse to do business with tobacco companies. He'd had to leave Oxford to take over his family's small shops when his father died of cancer at the age of 52. David Abbott later wrote that he remembered his father sitting on the edge of the bed, coughing for ten minutes at the start of every morning so there was no way that I was going to advertise cigarettes. He decided to try to get into the ad game after he bought a book about Madison Avenue in a book stall, read it and thought, well that sounds alright. He wound up in the London office of a U.S. firm and worked in New York for a while where Bill Bernbach, the legendary adman, recognized his talent. Bill Bernbach believed that good taste, good art and good writing can be good selling. David Abbott came to share that ideal. His company also declined to make ads for toys. All the partners in his firm had small children and decided they didn't want to create commercials that would be used by children to badger their parents. We were not trying to become the most priggish, prim agency in the world, he said. We owned our company and we thought, what's the point of owning a company if you can't do what you want? So, when a recession hit, he did not reduce staff.
David Abbott was a writer, above all, a skeptical of brainstorming, focus groups and other corporate exercises. Advertising is everywhere these days - on-screen, on buses, online. David Abbott wanted his ads to sell, of course, but he also wanted them to elevate our surroundings. Most ad-talk is about branding, buzz and metrics, but it's good to remember an adman who talked about words, wit and taste. His agency became Britain's biggest. David Abbott did well, but he also did some good.