British Ad Legend David Abbott Passes Away

Industry Mourns Loss of AMV BBDO Co-founder

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David Abbott
David Abbott Credit: Julian Hanford

Advertising has lost one of its heroes. David Abbott, lifelong copywriter and former chairman and creative director of celebrated London agency Abbott Mead Vickers, passed away on Saturday at the age of 75. Mr. Abbott co-founded Abbott Mead Vickers, which later became AMV BBDO, in 1977. He was one of the most celebrated figures in the London advertising scene and created iconic campaigns for The Economist, Sainsbury's, Volvo, Yellow Pages, RSPCA and more.

Born in 1938, Mr. Abbott trained as a copywriter and began his career at London's Mather & Crowther. He then went on to join DDB and worked in both its London and New York offices. He teamed with Peter Mead and Adrian Vickers in 1977 to launch Abbott Mead Vickers, which eventually went public and became part of the BBDO network in 1991.

Always gentlemanly and soft-spoken, Mr. Abbott retired as chairman in 1998 after almost 40 years in Advertising. He was inducted into the One Club's Hall of Fame in 2001, and into the American Advertising Federation's Advertising Hall of Fame in 2011, becoming the first inductee from Britain since Dvaid Ogilvy in 1965. He published his first novel, The Upright Piano Player, in 2010.

David Abbott Economist Ad
David Abbott Economist Ad

Mr. Abbott's most memorable work was arguably that he created for The Economist. With just a few words of copy, one of his most famous ads succinctly illustrated the impact the magazine had on those who read it -- or rather, those who didn't.

Before celebrity chefs were a "thing," in the early 1990s, Mr. Abbott also thought up an iconic campaign for U.K. grocer Sainsbury's that helped elevate the store from cheap chain to destination for the middle classes. In his ads, well-known Brits from former Labour chancellor Denis Healey to British actresses Zoe Wanamaker and Felicity Kendal created their favorite dishes from ingredients purchased at the store.

In his tribute to Mr. Abbott for the One Club Hall of Fame, Leagas Delaney Chairman Tim Delaney called the campaign "a significant piece of U.K. advertising history" that "very quickly became a lesson to everyone in advertising wherever they lived. Know your product, respect your audience, trust your intuition. Watch how people buy things, even listen if you can. By all means think about their deep-seated motivations but don't get entwined in them. Treat your audience as you would like to be treated."

David Abbot Volvo Ad
David Abbot Volvo Ad Credit: Write No More

Mr. Abbott's memorable work for Volvo may have provided some inspiration for the great work the marketer continues to do today. (Ad featured on writenomore.com).

Although the agency eventually became the biggest in the U.K., size never diminished its creative output, and over the years AMV BBDO has continued to produce high-impact work for clients such as Guinness, Pepsi, Snickers, Heinz and more.

Since his passing, a number of leading industry figures have paid tribute to Mr. Abbott.

Peter Mead, AMV BBDO co-founder

He meant more to me than I can possibly express in words. He transformed my life from the moment I met him some 45 years ago. When he joined Adrian Vickers and me in our little agency, it was like Lionel Messi joining Millwall. His talent catapulted AMV into the advertising stratosphere. I never saw him write a bad line of copy, could count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I saw him lose his temper and remember countless times when the three of us were helpless with laughter.

Andrew Robertson, president & CEO, BBDO Worldwide

David was a gentleman . Polite and principled, generous and witty. Just being around him made you better. But what really sets him apart is his work.

Personally I don't believe there has ever been a copywriter whose work has had more impact. The work he did on Sainsburys, Volvo, BT, The Economist, and so many others, had a profound effect on those businesses, and continues to inspire anyone who loves advertising.

A couple of years ago he was in New York to receive a lifetime achievement award and we had lunch together. He told me that he had realized something important : you don't just have to know who your target audience is, you have to really like them.

I have been looking back at some of his work over the last twenty four hours. The genuine fondness and care he had for his audience is in every word of every ad, and every internal memo, he ever wrote.

Droga5 Sydney also riffed on Mr. Abbott's Economist work to celebrate the late leader.

Adam Tucker, president, Ogilvy & Mather New York

Having spent 7 years at AMV BBDO, I was deeply saddened to learn of David's passing. David taught us hiring 'nice' people who single-mindedly focus on the pursuit of creative excellence, is an extraordinarily effective agency business model. Even today, AMV BBDO thrives because the agency lives and breathes the founding values David, Peter, and Adrian espoused.

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