The best of us: Tony Brignull pays a personal tribute to David Abbott
When Tony Brignull asked for space in The Drum to pay tribute to David Abbott there was one thing we could be sure of – we wouldn’t see his life reduced to a series of soundbites or pithy epitaphs. If anyone could do justice to one of British advertising’s greatest and most intelligent writers it would be one of British advertising’s greatest and most intelligent writers.
The day after David Abbott died last May, a writer of obituaries asked me for anecdotes about him. I refused, perhaps a little too roughly. The man was only doing his job, he pointed out. But I couldn’t reduce David to sound-bites. I didn’t want to hand him over to what Sylvia Plath called ‘the peanut crunching crowd’. So I’m grateful to The Drum for giving me this opportunity to express fully my appreciation of the man I consider, as so many others do, the best of us.
There are people alive today who have better right to call him friend than I do, those who partnered him and worked with him side by side: Eve, his wife of 50 years, Peter Mead and Adrian Vickers. These people loved him, but it so happens that I knew him longer than almost everyone else.
We first met in 1964 at Mather and Crowther, his first agency and my second (I’d been a trainee at JWT). What a creative department that was: as well as David, there was Leonard Weinreich, Paul Arden, John Webster, Bob Marchant, Tim Smail, Chris McCartney-Filgate. While Fay Weldon, who had yet to write a novel, floated effortlessly above the storms like a clipper embarking on a longer journey, tossing off great lines like bunting.
Even then, David was seen to be cleverer and wittier than the rest of us. I assumed – wrongly – he’d already spent time in America because his writing seemed a generation ahead of ours. At a time when British advertising was fumbling around with jingles and slogans, David had already found a new voice for his clients, clear, conversational, friendly.
The creative revolution, still seminal in us, was in flower in him. His commercials for the Triumph Herald were simple, single-minded and charming: one demonstrated the car’s independent suspension by showing a driver following a girl down the steps outside the Albert Hall. ‘It lets you follow your inclinations,’ he wrote. In press ads he had the Herald turning inside a tennis court, and another out-turning (in-turning?) a London taxi.
Never laddish, never truly a lad at all, he enjoyed privacy and quietness. A part of him would have liked to have been one of the boys, I think. He valued friendship highly and needed it badly, but found it difficult to be pubby and matey. In the later years of his life he organised long lunches for his dearest group of friends at the Hellenic in Thayer Street, which he always paid for in a paterfamilias way, saying he had a fund for this as part of his going away package. I don’t know whether this was true or a fabricated excuse to be generous without being patronising.
He loved banter and witty word play. Frank Muir and John Cleese accepted him as an equal. One dinner party game involved using adverbs in a new but surprisingly inventive way. The winner, his I assumed, was ‘I love camping, he said intently’ though I never learned the question.
He was always lithe, helped by being tall, but I don’t think he ever went to a gym or did sports. He once turned out as a goalkeeper for the DDB soccer team but frankly he didn’t look the part, and was injured in the warm-up so didn’t play. It was the kit, I think. David never looked quite right in anything not hand-made, suit, shoes, sports jacket. In everything he did or wore he was elegant. It had to be the very best or he wouldn’t buy it. He had natural good taste, though where this originated I can’t guess because like me he came from a working class London family a million miles from Savile Row.
There were some things you simply couldn’t imagine David doing. Popping into M&S, grabbing something off the rail and saying ‘this’ll do’, buying a paper-back if a hardback version were available, turning right when he boarded an aircraft, checking into a two star hotel, renting a Mondeo, to name just five things I’ve done this year.
I never saw him drunk or silly or be anything less than dignified. To take drugs would have been unthinkable – and unnecessary. He was always alert and bright. He moved into a natural high by putting himself under pressure. When the agency was pitching for a new account he purposely refrained from starting his creative work until just a few days before the presentation. The deadline forced him into overdrive and he never failed to come up with something original and apt.
I observed him working in a similar fashion on the first BT (Bob Hoskins) scripts. He went at it day and night entirely focussed, each morning coming in with a new bundle.
He was particularly sensitive to human vulnerability – the little ways we express our insecurities, half showing, half hiding our love for one another.
His genius was to find incidents which introduced the product into our emotional lives originally and plausibly. The several ways a son expresses his thanks to his dad when giving him Chivas Regal, for example. The mum who goes on holiday ‘just for a couple of days’, for Yellow Pages. The man who always hands a phone call from a son straight onto the mum.
(Mums and dads feature frequently in David’s work. In a book of my poems I sent him the one he chose as his favourite was where Polonius, the interfering father in Hamlet, kisses his son goodbye, knowing he may not see him again.)
The empathy he shows in his advertising would have made him a fine novelist I believe. His first and, sadly, only book, The Upright Piano Player, tells how a retired businessman finds familiar territory suddenly hostile, a theme worthy of Saul Bellow. I’m sure his subsequent novels would have revealed similar insights into the fragility of life in new and profound ways. But they remain unwritten and we must accept that his great contribution to our culture was the application of his creative mind to advertising.
This was not for David a lesser achievement. ‘There is nothing immoral in selling beans,’ he once said. He was very proud of his work and kept several of his favourite ads framed in his office which was always, like his clothes, immaculate.
It’s generally held that he and I were better at print than TV. I think this is true. But he was so accomplished a copywriter, so supreme, that he mastered the medium at an early age and dominated it throughout his career. When in the 60s he worked at DDB New York for a year with such greats as Bob Levenson and Helmut Krone, it was not so much an education as a confirmation class.
I was once asked if I had anything David lacked. All I could answer was, “Yes, Neil Godfrey.” My partner Neil was the outstanding art director of his generation but David found in Ron Brown someone in the same league, and together they produced work so telling, so finely crafted it will never be surpassed.
He was easy in the medium, fluent, at home as a fish in water. He pushed press advertising into new areas, bursting out of the accepted boundaries. His campaign for Sainsbury’s is the perfect example. 12 double page spreads a year, each one demonstrating a Sainsbury’s speciality. The client invited David to go into the store and choose the products he wanted to write about. Think of that. The trust, the freedom, the responsibility.
But look at the result. 40 or more great ads over four or five years. Note the style, the cohesion; how each one has ‘Sainsbury’s’ in the headline, how each new ad is a continuation of the last so that the campaign gained an onward transitive momentum. These ads became part of the magazines, part of our lives. It raised the freshness of the brand to a level equal to and possibly beyond Waitrose. I recall seeing the ad he wrote for their hot cross buns with some five hundred words of copy and marvelled at its bravura.
Were the TV commercials which accompanied the print campaign as good? Not quite. They were original in their own way. Dishes using Sainsbury’s ingredients were cooked in delicious close-up. They were intelligent, useful to customers and enhanced the brand. But were they in a sense moving press ads? Perhaps they were, but where’s the harm in that?
For David the product had to be central. He was always uncomfortable when a commercial flew off into film land. I remember in the early days at DDB we won the Lyons individual fruit pies account. Now these pies, though popular with the public, were not the peak of culinary excellence. The pastry left a clinging suety film in the mouth while the fruit filling was more like sugary jam.
David Brown, one of the very few copywriters to be equally good at press and TV, wrote a script with young American GI’s at training camp singing ‘Ma I miss your apple pie’ but David Abbott turned it down. I took it back into him and said, David I think you’re making a mistake, this can be great.’
He replied, ‘I may be wrong but I have to back my judgement. If I’m right seven times out of ten that’s a good average.’ He then wrote a commercial which anticipated his Sainsbury’s films: it showed the pastry being rolled, apples peeled, filling being spooned in, pastry pricked and sugar sprinkled. Whether it was better than the homesick American soldiers we’ll never know, it doesn’t matter. What it shows is how close David always wanted to keep the product central to the action.
Later in his career he also learnt to find that moment when the product intersects with the customer’s emotional life. His J. R. Hartley film is justly famous for its humanity. I also think his Bob Hoskins films for BT celebrate not only the telephone but communication as an essential part of being human.
A critic once called David’s advertising middle-class. No dropped ‘aitches, no missing ‘t’s’, no ladettes on hen parties, no lads in bars. Personally, I think David was right to avoid these cheap insinuations into contemporary life. We British have always been aspirational, and for many the middle-class is where we aspire to be, whether we admit it or not. But let’s not allow this debate to hijack my tribute. The point is, he never patronised the consumer, never used a cliché, never wrote a dull line.
He couldn’t bear vulgarity. He hated the word ‘gobsmacked’ and the brand name FCUK. He spoke publicly against the latter earning himself some brickbats. This incident possibly inspired the hero of his novel, Henry Cage, who as I’ve said, suddenly finds his world become unfamiliar and menacing.
His genius could be infuriating. Once, going on holiday, he asked me to look after The Economist. I got each creative team writing more of those wonderful posters. By the time David returned I had a bundle of 45, but none of them were up to scratch. Within a few days David came up with two new brilliant ones. Had he done them before he went on holiday, during or after? I’ll never know.
He couldn’t resist working privately on the briefs he gave others. Martyn Walsh and I were trying to do a concept where one man gives a bottle of Chivas to his friend and gets an ordinary bottle of scotch in return. For weeks we tried dozens of layouts but each one fell short. Then David came in and said. ‘Hey, how about this?’ He held an ad with a bottle of Chivas in gift paper with the headline, ‘Funny how people forget to remove the price tag’. At such times all you can do is applaud, then go into darkened room and bang your head quietly on your desk.
Nothing I can write here can capture the achievement of his career or the brilliance of his copywriting. You will have to flick through the D&AD annuals to see the evidence. Goodness knows there’s enough there to fill a book. It will remain forever a testimony to his unique talent. My aim in writing this is to give you a flavour of the man.
He was good and kind and generous and courteous and very funny. His principles were not something he kept for a rainy day but tools which informed his behaviour every day. You’ll have heard how during the financial crisis he refused to make a single person redundant, how he declined to advertise cigarettes.
At its worst our business can be gimcrack. David proved it can be decent, have integrity, be of real help to commerce. He showed that a state of friendliness is best between seller and buyer, and that with infinite care it can grow into a state of mutual affection. He always told the truth but made it interesting and vibrant and witty.
When a friend of mine died his widow wanted to buy a car. ‘Get a Volkswagen,’ I said, ‘I’ve seen them made.’ Instead she bought a Volvo (then at AMV) because she said, ‘I’ve read the advertisements.’
At the 50th anniversary of D&AD I was given a white pencil for being the most awarded copywriter and David said some very kind words about me, even though we both knew the voting system did not truly reflect our relative abilities. I wrote to David saying that he was one of three men who stood above everyone else (the other two being John Salmon and John Webster) and that I was happy simply to have my name mentioned in the same breath.
I also wrote some years ago that there are a number of us who consider ourselves the sons of Bill Bernbach, the founder of DDB and leading light in the creative revolution, but that in my opinion only David would pass a paternity test.
In losing David Abbott we’ve lost our standard bearer. He made us feel proud to work in the business, and me proud to know him.
Tony Brignull is a former CDP and DDB creative director and D&AD’s most awarded copywriter of all time.