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Five things we can learn from David Abbott

Hamish Pringle is strategic advisor at 23red, former IPA director general, and has had five successful business books published. With an agency career spanning 26 years, he’s worked on more than 50 brands.

1. A “no” is far more distinctive than a “yes”

When the start-up Abbott Mead Vickers declared that it would never work on a cigarette account, many other agencies were making a great deal of money from the tobacco business. It also said it wouldn’t work on toys. It really was a manifestation of Bill Bernbach’s “A principle isn’t a principle unless it costs you money”.

The agency's refusal to work on cigarettes was rewarded in the early 1980s when it won the anti-smoking business from the Health Education Authority and held it for a decade or more. However the far greater reward was in terms of AMV’s positioning. Most agencies succumb to the temptation to be all things to all men, and say “yes” to any kind of business. And with an average employee churn of about 20 per cent there’s an inevitable tendency towards homogeneity in agency cultures. So having a deeply-held “no” provides the point of view and cultural distinctiveness that makes for a great agency. Bartle Bogle Hegarty achieved a similar thing with its “no full creative pitches” as did Boase Massimi Pollitt with “no ads on-air without qualitative pre-testing”. How many of the more recent start-ups have this clarity of vision?2. Snooker can create social glueIt’s in the nature of the creative agency business that account management, planners, traffic and production people are often bearers of bad news as far as copywriters and art directors are concerned – bad news in terms of lack of time, too little money, or an adverse verdict from a client or research. Bearing this bad news is so much easier if there’s an established rapport. Fortunately Peter Mead and David were keen on snooker and at Aybrook Street there was a full-sized table in the basement. But more importantly there was a quarter-sized one in the middle of the creative floor and you would often see the two of them playing during the lunch break. This gave permission for other people to do likewise and playing snooker developed into a ‘currency’, the small change of inter-personal relationships which is often lacking in an agency. It provided the social glue between the creative talent and the rest. Pool and table tennis are even better because the games are quicker and more people can play. 3. Content and channel should combineThe close working relationship between David and Ken New, AMV's media director, resulted in several examples of how the synergy between content and channel can add enormous value. The story of how they developed the famous 'red out of white' poster campaign for the Economist is well known. But what has been less discussed are the reasons why this was such a successful and long-lasting campaign. Posters are a ‘broadcast’ medium building massive coverage and frequency quickly, so ostensibly very wasteful for a small circulation magazine. But because of the Economist's elitist positioning, these poster ads would create what Jeremy Bullmore has referred to as the ‘brand club effect’: membership of a club has little value unless those who don’t, and can’t, belong are aware of it and what it stands for. One of Bullmore’s examples in a key speech to the IPA in November 1994 was BMW.This is a car brand whose target market is numerically so small that each person can be written to individually, but this private communication would prevent the build-up of the perceived status that BMW owners crave. So the Economist running a big white out of red headline on a road-side 48 sheet saying “If you’re already a reader, ask your chauffeur to hoot as you pass this poster” is the clever kind of creative content and media placement which built the brand’s club, and its circulation.4. Emotional is more powerful than rational in communicationsWhen Abbott's 'Father's Day' ad for Chivas Regal was published, it was reviled in many quarters for being overly sentimental. Similarly when the Yellow Pages campaign launched with his 'J.R. Hartley' TV commercial, it too was mocked for its appeal to the emotions. We now have proof from many analyses, amongst them the seminal publications for the IPA by authors Les Binet and Peter Field, that David was right and his critics wrong. He knew instinctively that you're more likely to engage people by emotional means. Ten years later when J.R. Hartley was still on-air and Yellow Pages was a thriving pre-digital business, the way had been paved for other brands such as John Lewis to use an unashamedly emotional appeal where before the rational had ruled. Abbott was unafraid to get a brand to wear its heart on its sleeve, whether it be Volvo, the RSPCA or indeed Sainsbury’s. For example, nearly all the supermarket’s press advertisements had the word “Sainsbury’s” in the headline, so that each one was a promise from the retailer to its customers. This seminal campaign showed that there should be two forms of retail advertising – the usual price-focused one which retails products, and the innovative newer one which ‘retails the retailer’ and establishes its attitude and philosophy, which has a far greater emotional engagement than discounts. 5. New business credentials should be tailored‘Powerful listening’ was one of his many strengths and David once described a new business credentials presentation which exemplified this valuable trait. The presentation had been given by another agency to the marketing director of K Shoes, later an AMV client, who recounted the tale to David. In this presentation the meeting began with nothing on the table except tea cups, pads, and pencils. And the session began, not with a pre-prepared presentation, but a gentle series of questions asked of the client concerning his business issues and needs. After about 10 minutes the agency man got up, went to a cupboard, and opened the doors to reveal a series of narrow drawers as in a plans chest. Opening one of them, he shuffled through the laminated advertisements, selected one, closed the drawer, and returned to place it on the table asking the prospect, “Is that the sort of thing you meant?”, to which the answer was, “Yes, just what I had in mind”. This process continued for an hour with more laminates produced from the drawers and videos taken down from the shelves and played to illustrate the points raised during the conversation. It ended with the table covered in examples of the agency’s work which exemplified the remedies for the client’s concerns – a credentials presentation which had been tailor-made in the moment for that prospect, and so much more compelling as a result.David Abbott has been acclaimed, rightly, as a Renaissance Man of advertising, and his great work will be long-remembered. His legacy, Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, has been the UK’s biggest creative agency in the UK for many years and, despite its scale, continues to produce flashes of brilliance. And it still won’t do cigarette or toy advertising, so his ethical stance lives on too. David Abbott1938 – 2014

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