Abbott to agencies: Focus on creative rep, not ‘easy money’

Acclaimed U.K. copywriter David Abbott, who in 1978 launched the agency Abbott Mead Vickers (now AMV BBDO), doesn't care to talk much about the future of the ad biz. He'd rather talk about creative, and believes he is being honoured with the Clio Lifetime Achievement Award in Miami later this month because of the solid work his agency produced for clients like Volvo and The Economist. 'I never worried about the future of advertising,' he says. 'I worried about the future of my people and my clients.'

Acclaimed U.K. copywriter David Abbott, who in 1978 launched the agency Abbott Mead Vickers (now AMV BBDO), doesn’t care to talk much about the future of the ad biz. He’d rather talk about creative, and believes he is being honoured with the Clio Lifetime Achievement Award in Miami later this month because of the solid work his agency produced for clients like Volvo and The Economist. ‘I never worried about the future of advertising,’ he says. ‘I worried about the future of my people and my clients.’

Andrew Jaffe, executive director of the Clio advertising awards says Abbott’s greatest contribution to the industry was indeed his ads, as well as recruiting and leading successive teams.

‘Anyone who has worked at Abbott Mead Vickers in the last 40 years has been inspired by his example and sometimes by his praise or wickedly brief but insightful criticism,’ he says. ‘You didn’t get an ad passed by David Abbott unless it harbored a wonderful idea powerfully expressed.’

One of Jaffe’s favourite ads from Abbott was for Volvo. The idea was to suspend the car over a baby and, of course, the client nixed it. But the client had no problem with putting Abbott at risk, so he put himself under the car. The headline read, ‘If the welding isn’t strong enough, the car will fall on the writer.’

For his part, Abbott suggests his agency’s success was shaped in part by the fact that he never stopped writing himself. ‘That keeps you real,’ he says. ‘You know what the problems are and you know how tenacious you have to be to have a good idea.’

In an interview with Strategy, Abbott shares his strategy for building an agency where ‘Good work isn’t good work unless it does work.’

What are the major challenges facing the ad industry these days?

I’ve been out of it for four years in October, but I’m still involved on the fringes. Advertising agencies will probably go on as they have for the last 20 years. I personally don’t see the radical changes that everyone has talked about, for instance, that Hollywood agents will be doing ads.

I suspect there will always be a market for paid announcements of some kind, where you want to own not only the selling message, but the selling environment. Arranging it yourself is going to be the surest way of getting exactly what the brand needs. Obviously funds will be diverted into a wider choice of communications. Judging the pace of that, and which [media] are going to catch on, is trickier.

What are your thoughts on brands owning a TV series and pushing their message that way?

They can only do that when they have a brand property already, and that’s probably been created through advertising. Usually the brands that sponsor programs in the U.K. are established. Occasionally, there’s a new brand trying to become famous through an association with a sport, and that can work, but it’s usually in conjunction with other brand activity.

I think [branded content] is useful, but just another weapon the marketer has. It’s usually not a replacement, but an addition. It might eat up some of the funds subscribed to traditional media, but it helps narrow-cast an audience because you buy into a particular program. I could see the sense in that, if you’re a niche brand.

What’s the future of the 30-second ad?

It’s harder for the 30-second TV spot to gain national notoriety. Marketing’s much more complex these days. You used to be able to produce a good commercial and run it, and the results were immediate and universal. It’s become more complicated now, and you kind of reach your market, not in one fell swoop, but in little steps.

I think in the foreseeable future, there will [remain] a big place for network shows and 30-second commercials. People have been heralding the death of the traditional format for a long time, and I don’t think it’s going to happen that quickly, if at all.

The market is diversifying and fragmented, because of the increase in the number of places where people can get messages that have sound, moving pictures and music. I don’t think it’s that revolutionary. It’s just an acceleration of a process that’s been going on. What people do with the format of traditional advertisinghas always been subject to change in fashion and there are advertisers who use it in an effective, contemporary way, and there are others who use it in a boring, stale way. But that’s about the content not the format.

How can an ad agency produce a TV commercial that has impact in today’s ‘fragmented’ marketplace?

It’s become more important to do famous work. Agencies have to invest more in talent and need systems that encourage creative people, planners and strategists to try and produce work that stands out.

But I think that’s always been the secret behind successful, great agencies. They always have that hunger to do something different in each category they enter, to change the rules. I don’t think that need has really changed. You might say that it’s heightened and intensified because of the fragmentation of media.

How, as an agency, can you create an environment that encourages creativity?

Good work has to be the reason for the agency to open its doors every morning. And that sometimes means you make investments and you don’t take short-term profits or easy money for work that isn’t good. It starts with the people who sign the cheques and make the decisions about whether they make x-profit or y-profit each year. You have to make long-term decisions, instead of short-term decisions and often the finances may have to take a hit if you’re building an agency that’s going to be great.

Other than that, you try to pack the place with as much talent as you can get, and once you get them in there, you do everything to keep them. You encourage them, and fight for their work because the agency’s life depends on it.

Various CDs and management have different ideas of how to do that – some create a kind of fearful environment where people are frightened to be less than brilliant, which is what I tried to do. [I] created a glow of approval where people thought it was better to try and fail, than come up with something that’s boring and stale. It has to do with your pay structure, and creating a climate of possibility.

How do you convince clients to push boundaries?

It’s not necessarily a quick process. You have to earn their trust … and you have to believe in the client, and the client has to believe in you. It’s very hard. Sometimes clients lose their nerve, and sometimes agencies do. I don’t think there’s any research technique that tells you whether you’ve got a winner, but research can be reassuring. And you listen to the consumer, not for whether [the ad] is going to be fantastic, but whether it’s saying what you want it to say, and checks back against the insights you found in the market through planning.

You [should] run your agency so that the preparation of the campaign is a collaborative venture. So by the time the client gets to see this absolutely shattering idea, he’s not shattered. He’s been in agreement with the pregnancy so when the birth comes, he’s more likely to accept the child. That makes it sound easy, but you do have to charm and cajole.

Sometimes you lose things. You have to pick yourself up and go back. Even great agencies do less than great work, and even great agencies lose great campaigns sometimes. If you’re getting seven out of 10, it’s worth carrying on.

How do you go about gaining the client’s trust?

In the same way that client’s choose agencies, I think agencies should choose clients. There were some clients who shouldn’t have worked with us, and generally speaking, we would say ‘We’re not the agency for you.’

The first stage is deciding whether you like each other, and part of deciding that is you talk to them about what they believe. Of course, sometimes they believe they want breakthrough advertising, but when they see it, they don’t. You can usually tell from a client’s previous advertising, and the chemistry.

One of the good signs of agency growth is when it comes from existing clients, because that means you have people who realize what you do works.

Who do you think is producing effective work right now?

I like the Volkswagen work from BMP DDB in the U.K. The ads have a very nice, contemporary tone with that kind of confidence that the best VW advertising accomplishes. They’re humorous and very simple.

For example, there’s one spot where you see a man walking his dog back to his car, but they’ve been in the woods and it’s muddy. He puts the dog in the taxi, and the taxi drives away. There’s no commentary. It’s not an ad that’s full of action, devices or computer graphics. These commercials stand out because they are beautifully shot and written and they make one point about the car and the brand. They’re just very elegant and powerful.

Is simple more effective?

It’s a choice. I’ve always liked it as a writer myself. In particular, if you’re dealing in 30 seconds, it’s better to make one point that people can hold onto than three points that they drop. I think too much clutter can stop communication. You should put something in a commercial that gets attention, but it better be relevant to what you’re trying to sell, as well as to your market. And try to put it across with some sort of charm, wit or drama, so there’s a reward in watching it.

Over and above the selling message, [consumers] also take in the tone and generosity of the advertiser. In the same way that we like certain people because they have a light touch, I think you like certain advertisers because they have a voice or attitude. I think giving a client a voice is one of the most important things an agency does.

How do you think smaller markets, like Canada, can build an international reputation for its advertising?

Great work is the best calling card. If you look at what has happened in South America and some European companies like Spain, which has become a creative hotbed, it’s always the work that counts. If it’s great work, it gets around to your peers in the industry and internationally.

That isn’t to say there isn’t great work coming out of Canada. If it truly is great, it will solve the problem. Mostly the impetus for creative revolutions come from the independent small startups, which then sometimes grow and get absorbed into big organizations.

It starts with the rebels who start [their own] agencies because they are dissatisfied with the way things are being done where they’re currently working. They think they can do it better. And I think that’s the grit that produces.