Last week, the boss of Pfizer was asked if his company was buying Astra Zenica with the purpose of splitting it up and selling it (i.e. asset stripping). They have a history of doing it with two previous acquisitions.
His reply says a lot about businesses today. He responded:
“We will conserve that optionality.”

I’m not sure what he thinks people interpret this as. But for most normal people this just screams, “You’re trying to hide something.”
It was like Bill Clinton replying “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.”
If you use language that normal people don’t use you sound like you have something to hide. Always.

Normal people don’t talk that like. And they don’t talk like that for a reason.
It makes you sound odd. Unusual. Distant. Untrustworthy.
And it’s the same when a company uses jargon and buzzwords – people don’t trust you.
Always tell your customers the truth, and treat them like sentient beings.

Which brings me back to companies lying to their customers. Why bother?
They’ll eventually know the truth. And they won’t believe anything you say ever again. It doesn’t even have to be a lie – just being economical with the truth will annoy them and test their patience.
Consumers aren’t stupid.

Lie to your customers and they'll notice

Lie to your customers and they’ll notice

And any company who thinks they are is heading for trouble.
Twitter. Facebook. Social media. There are any number of ways you can publicise that a company has lied to you.
So why would the company take the risk?

My answer is that it’s these companies who are stupid.
To take consumers for granted is asking for trouble.

Would you trust anyone who says: “We will conserve that optionality” to look after your kids?
Thought not.

Sadly David Abbott died on Saturday 17th May. He was a supremely talented copywriter and businessman. I never met him, but feel that he’s guided my career from afar with his astonishing insight into the human mind and second-to-none approach to the task of writing.
I’ve been learning my trade as a copywriter for 20 years, and I’ve learned from some truly talented people. But I still go back to The Copy Book: How some of the best advertising writers in the world write their advertising every now and then to remind myself of how the greatest write their copy.
It was originally a book of how 32 of the world’s best advertising writers write their advertising. It was published in 1995 and quickly became legendary and sold out. The original now changes hands for around £250/£300. It was published by D&AD, and they decided to reprint it and add a few more writers to the book. You can pick up the re-issue for around £40.
David Abbott is the first writer shown in the D&AD book, by quirk of having his surname start with the letter ‘A’. I like to think that, even though there are 32 supremely talented writers in the (original) book, they’d have placed David’s work first regardless of how they decided things.
The scale of his work is impressive. And the tone he manages to capture and project through his writing is amazing. You’ll never read anything boring by him. You’ll always want to read all the copy on the page.
He wrote the Economist campaign, gave Sainsbury’s a real tone of voice that made them stand out and far more profitable, he wrote beautiful long copy ads for Chivas Regal, he wrote some astonishing ads for Volvo, and he wrote ads that made people want to work for his agency.
He wrote my favourite ever Volkswagen ad (which, given the number of genius, award-winning ads that have been written for VW, is quite some achievement). He wrote the famous JR Hartley advert for Yellow Pages (in the days before everything was the click of a button away).
He also started the agency Abbott Mead Vickers (AMV BBDO) 35 years ago. And it’s still one of the world’s best agencies. No mean feat to be one of the world’s best copywriters and run a hugely successful agency.

I’ve shown a number of his ads below. If you click on them they’ll open much bigger, so you can read all the copy.
And, below those, I’ve reproduced in full the copy that David wrote to explain how he wrote such beautiful, insightful and moving copy.
Take a minute to enjoy them and remember a man of true genius.

Volkswagen, DDB London, 1969

Volkswagen, DDB London, 1969

Volvo, AMV, 1983

Volvo, AMV, 1983

The Economist, AMV, 1989

The Economist, AMV, 1989

Sainsbury's, AMV, 1990

Sainsbury’s, AMV, 1990

Sainsbury's, AMV BBDO, 1992

Sainsbury’s, AMV BBDO, 1992

Sainsbury's, AMV, 1990

Sainsbury’s, AMV, 1990

Chivas Regal, AMV, 1980

Chivas Regal, AMV, 1980

Chivas Regal, AMV, 1979

Chivas Regal, AMV, 1979

DDB, DDB, 1967

DDB, DDB, 1967

RSPCA, AMV, 1989

RSPCA, AMV, 1989

RSPCA, AMV, 1989 Copy detail from ad shown above.

RSPCA, AMV, 1989
Copy detail from ad shown above.


The famous J R Hartley ad for Yellow Pages. Genius.

Here’s how David did what he did, in his own words (as no one could do it better).
David Abbott, writing in The Copy Book: How some of the best advertising writers in the world write their advertising

I write with an Artline 200 Fine 0.4 Pentel – blue ink, never black. I generally work on A3 layout pads but will sometimes switch to an A4. Definitely low tech stuff.

I write with my office door open – more often than not I keep my jacket on and in defiance of my mother’s instructions, my feet are usually on the table.

Whatever size of layout pad, I write body copy in column widths. This habit goes back to my days on the VW account in the Sixties. I knew how many words to the line were needed and how many lines to the ad. Writing in columns made it easier to get the word count right.

Alongside the column I jot down thoughts or phrases that come to mind before I need them. They stay there in the sidings until there’s a place for them. I also write down in the margins all the clichés and purple bits that clutter my head. I find that only by writing them down do I exorcise them. If I simply try to forget them they keep coming back like spots on a teenage chin.

I rarely plan the shape of a piece of copy. By the time I come to write, the structure of the argument is somehow in my brain. I spend a lot of time fact-finding and I don’t start writing until I have too much to say. I don’t believe you can write fluent copy if you have to interrupt yourself with research. Dig first, them write.

Like many copywriters, I read my copy out loud as I write. It helps me check the rhythm of the line and ultimately the flow of the whole piece. I often adopt the appropriate accent or tome, though my general “reading-copy” voice is laughably mid-Atlantic (I read silently if there are other people in the room).

I am a fast writer and in a sense I am not interested in words. I don’t own a Thesaurus, I don’t do crosswords and my dictionary has pictures in it. Words, for me, are the servants of the argument and on the whole I like them to be plain, simple and familiar. I believe that I’m paid to be an advocate and though I get pleasure from the bon mot, the bon motivater thrills me more. Word-play is fine if it helps the cause but I use it sparingly, or not at all. This wasn’t always the case; I used to pun for England.

When I’m working on concepts, I draw the shape of the ad space and write the headline (or scribble the picture) within its borders. It’s odd but I can’t judge an Economist headline until I’ve drawn a line around it. When I was younger I used big Pentels and large pads and swashbuckled my way to fertility. An ad a page. Now my would-be ads are much smaller and I might cover a page with six or seven thoughts – though sometimes when I’m stuck I go back to the big pad and the big pen. A change in procedure is often a good idea when you’re not getting one. I’ve been writing copy since 1960 and by now I’m comfortable with the job. I don’t panic and I know that the best thing for me to do when tired or thwarted is to walk away from the ad and do something else. The job still surprises me and for every easy problem, there’s a stubborn sister. I might rework a headline 50 or 60 times to get the thought and balance exactly right. If I think there’s an ad in there somewhere, I nag at it until it comes out. I’m often surprised how quickly time passes when I’m doing this. I look up and discover that I’ve been fiddling with the words for three hours.

Agency life rarely allows for this level of concentration so I also write copy at home, late at night, or I’ll book a hotel room and work from there. (This piece, for example, is being written at the kitchen table.) I couldn’t work in an open-plan creative department, but I’m sure there are brilliant copywriters who do. Great copy has been written in cafés, on trains, on beaches, on planes, in cars – even occasionally at a desk. How you do it is less important that what you do.

I’ve never been much of theoriser about copywriting, but here are five things that I think are more or less true:

1. Put yourself into your work. Use your life to animate your copy. If something moves you, chances are, it will touch someone else, too.

2. Think visually. Ask someone to describe a spiral staircase and they’ll use their hands as well as words. Sometimes the best copy is no copy.

3. If you believe that facts persuade (I do), you’d better learn how to write a list so it doesn’t read like a list.

4. Confession is good for the soul and for copy, too. Bill Bernbach used to say “a small admission gains a large acceptance”. I still think he was right.

5. Don’t be boring.

Wise words.

David Abbott’s ‘Management trainee’ poster for The Economist has been recreated in honour of his impact on the advertising industry by David Nobay, the creative chairman of Droga5 Sydney. It is shown below. I think it’s a simple, fitting tribute to a man who was so talented he made a lasting impression on people he’d never even met.

Written by David Nobay, Creative Chairman, Droga5, Sydney.

Written by David Nobay, Creative Chairman, Droga5, Sydney.

Alfredo Marcantonio, another astonishingly talented copywriter (who features in the D&AD great copywriters book) wrote a lovely obituary here.

I noticed that advertising agency Grey and Rymans (the stationery people) have teamed up to launch an eco typeface. Which is nice. (Probably best to not mention that a Dutch company, Spranq, has been doing this since 2008. Their solution is to, basically, put holes in the font to reduce the amount of ink used.)

The Ryman version

The Ryman version

The Spranq version

The Spranq version

It’s a lovely idea – to reduce waste by being as efficient as possible.
Sadly, it’s likely to have as much impact as asking designers to only use 150gsm card for business cards, or only print on newsprint for mailings. (i.e. not much.)
It also doesn’t really have any impact unless you’re printing larger sizes. At the usual 12-point size it fills in and doesn’t really save you any ink.

How dull a world where we only use one typeface? It’s akin to saying that art is a waste of money. Who wants to live in a world with no imagination and inspiration?

It’s a nice piece of publicity, and I’m sure the theory behind it is sound.
But the only way to properly engage with your audience and not be responsible for waste is to never write more than you need to.
Be brief and your audience will love you.
Your effectiveness will improve.
And so the circle carries on.
“Simplify, simplify, simplify.” as Henry David Thoreau put it.
Or, as I prefer it:
“Simplify.”

This time it’s for an ITV company. I sometimes despair at how bad they are at almost everything. If you’re watching a live stream on their ITV Player and it drops out they make you watch four adverts (that you’ve already watched) before they put your programme back on. And that’s just greedy (I assume they’ll count you as having watched the ads twice, as opposed to having tolerated them once and been annoyed by them once).
Their latest error is beyond stupid. It involves an online shop (owned by ITV) called ‘The Store’. It’s another desperate attempt by ITV to sell things.
Frame 1 shows a pair of fairly unattractive cross trainers. With 50% off as the flash tells us.

Stupid discount 2

Frame 2 shows us that, after this 50% discount a pair of £39.99 shoes cost £125.

Stupid discount 1

At the risk of repeating myself, how many people looked at this before it went live? ‘Quite a few’ is the answer.
There’s the person who wrote the brief. The person who wrote the ad. The person who programmed it. The client who signed it off.
That’s at least four people who didn’t spot a mistake I’d expect a child to spot.
Read what you’ve written.
Read it out loud. Always.
If you’ve made a mistake, reading it out loud will almost always let you spot it.
In this instance, they should just employ a six-year-old proofreader.
Companies who make mistakes as obvious and stupid as this don’t deserve our custom.
Perhaps our pity, but not a lot else.