Sir Christopher Wren's oft-quoted epitaph that is inscribed on a plaque in St Paul's Cathedral - "Lector, si monumentum requiris, circumspice" ("Reader, if you seek his monument, look around you") - seems a fitting tribute to the life of David Abbott, who died at the weekend.
While social media enabled those who knew him (and those who didn’t) to pay their own tributes to a man who was almost as well-known for his kindness and humanity as he was for his copywriting genius, deeper reflection of his life and work reveals the extent of his contribution to the industry.
His most visible material advertising legacy remains the agency that bears his name, with its continuing success no doubt helped by one of Abbott Mead Vickers’ founding principles that it should be a distinctive shop with a harmonious, secure and creative environment. Another comes from his peerless and rightly celebrated body of work.
But his influence spreads far wider. His ability to inspire and encourage people he met was famous (we have been overwhelmed with messages from those who encountered him, even very briefly, and wanted to put on record their own appreciation), and the positive impact he had on client businesses – the most well-known being Volvo, Sainsbury’s, BT and The Economist – is equally enduring.
By chance, his name came up over lunch just last week with a top executive creative director with whom Abbott had recently collaborated on a new book celebrating Volkswagen’s oeuvre – another account that he had been key to, this time when at DDB. As a contribution to advertising, it will be (an admittedly small but nonetheless equally poignant) one of many that Abbott left over his 40-year career.
Dave Trott observed that the loss of Abbott, who had trained under both David Ogilvy and Bill Bernbach, felt like the end of an era. That may be so and his departure also robs the industry of a giant figure – but, through AMV, it is hoped his life’s work continues.
In later life, Abbott confessed that he found leaving AMV quite difficult. Anyone who has read his astonishingly touching and beautiful leaving speech that he gave from The Landmark hotel in October 1998 will have been moved by Abbott’s parting words. While paying tribute to those with whom he had worked – including remembering to name some graduate trainees who had started that very week – Abbott didn’t offer advice, as he was sure that those who remained knew what to do to continue the agency’s pre-eminence. They cared about quality, he said, but they also cared about each other. And because of this, he added, everything else would take care of itself.