Claire Beale On Advertising: The creative talents of a genius emerge again
London advertising has few gods. David Abbott is one of them – a genius, a legend, a gentleman. A creative icon and a man whose legacy still infuses and enthuses adland, Abbott is quite possibly the best copywriter that we have ever had.
If I tell you he is the man who wrote this ad, you'll understand why. "I never read The Economist – management trainee, aged 42."
His is a name that will not be familiar to anyone who has never been near an advertising agency. Yet his brand appears above the door of the biggest agency in London, Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, and his spirit still hangs around its corridors more than 10 years after the man himself retired.
But it is true that Abbott was not one of the brasher sort of his generation, preferring to let his work speak for itself. So you may not have been waiting in excited expectation for the publication of his first novel The Upright Piano Player.
In conversation with adman-turned-publicist Lord Bell before an audience at the London College of Fashion last week, Abbott proclaimed: "People don't like ads that are boring, tasteless and offensive and we should stop doing them." So you would be right in thinking that, true to Abbott's own philosophy of communication, The Upright Piano Player is elegant, rich and gratifying and, being almost a decade in the crafting, polished in the extreme.
Abbott, though, is only the latest adman to prove his creative worth beyond the confines of the commercial brief. Advertising has always been a harbourer and nurturer of outstanding creative talent. Go right back, of course, and you'll remember that Fay Weldon, Salman Rushdie, Len Deighton, James Herbert, Peter Mayle were all writers who started out in advertising.
These days it is more likely to be novelists like Adele Parks or Meg Rosoff or scriptwriters like Peter Souter (a David Abbott protégé whose Married Single Other has just ended its first series run on ITV) or Jonathan Thake (whose rather less successful adland sitcom The Persuasionists has just limped off BBC2) that have got frustrated agency creatives thinking "If they can do it..."
The smartest ad agencies, though, are finding ways to exercise this frustrated creative talent within the bounds of the ad business rather than see some of their best ideas people driven to seek more liberated creative outlets. So, at ad agency Mother, creatives are encouraged to try their hand at film-making, longer-form script-writing, writing graphic novels or wherever their particular creative passions take them. Sometimes, these new creative iterations end up involving a brand partner (like the Somers Town film Mother created for Eurostar) but that's far from being a prerequisite.
Over at Beattie McGuinness Bungay, they are very proud to have nurtured one of this year's Bafta winners. Duncan Jones, formerly at the ad agency BMB, won a Bafta for most outstanding new director for Moon and he wrote the movie's screenplay from a desk on the second floor of BMB's offices.
And it is not just the traditional creative agencies that are trying their hand at other forms of content. When the international MIPTV programme fair opens in Cannes later this month, the media agency Mindshare will be there punting a number of programming ideas that have been generated by its in-house content team and for which Mindshare owns the intellectual property rights.
There are more and more examples of agencies stepping outside of the advertising box to acknowledge that brilliant, creative minds can be applied to all sorts of creative projects that have nothing to do with selling washing powder or toilet roll.
Crucially, these new creative initiatives are opening up new revenue streams for cash-strapped agencies and building a stock of intellectual property that complements precarious client fees. They are also a way of holding on to restless creative talent at a time when talent can be a little thin on the ground.
Best in Show: Magner's cider (The Red Brick Road)
*Thanks to Alistair Darling's 10 per cent tax increase on cider in the Budget, the Red Brick Road's first advertising campaign for Magners has high stakes. Fortunately for agency and client, the two new TV ads are a delight. They are a gentle celebration of life in Clonmel, County Tipperary, where the cider is made. The living is bucolic with a twist, thanks to the locals' extraordinary dedication to making the freshest cider from the ripest apples. The end line – "there's method in the Magners" – is glib and predictable, but the ads themselves leave you with a nice warm glow...a bit like Magners.