David Abbott memo warns of future adland mediocrity

“A giant ad factory where quantity is more important than quality”: sound familiar? In an internal agency memo from 1994, the late, great David Abbott warns of the dangers of practices that have now become all too common in the ad industry…


“A giant ad factory where quantity is more important than quality”: sound familiar? In an internal agency memo from 1994, the late, great David Abbott warns of the dangers of practices that have now become all too common in the ad industry…

When Abbott died earlier this year, there were many tributes to his skills as an excellent copywriter and agency leader. Yet, this memo – intended only for internal staff – shows that in 1994, he was deeply aware of the significant changes that were sweeping across the ad industry, and would change the way that creative departments were run. The memo shows how Abbott’s creative principles were inherent to AMV, and also proves sentient to the changes about to come.

The memo was given to us by Paul Cohen, now a creative director at Adam&EveDDB, but previously an art director at AMV BBDO in the mid-2000s. He was given the memo in hard copy form by Rob Oliver, a senior art director, who had kept it since 1994. “He was originally there in ’94 when it was given out,” says Cohen, “and I’m not sure but I get the impression that memos were often printed up and left on people’s desks.

“On a nerdy design level, I just really like this piece of paper which was a memo that most people would just throw away, and is considered ephemeral,” he continues. “It’s lasted 20 years, and there is a reason for that, which is that Rob cared about it, and I cared about it, and the content is what you care about. I put it in a box and after David Abbott died, my memory was jogged.”

In the 20 years since Abbott’s memo was written, much has changed in the ad industry, with many of the portents that he warns of becoming regular practice. “We’re so far past it now, there is no going back,” says Cohen, “and the saddest bit is the prevailing methods and processes in place now are the antithesis of what Abbott’s talking about here…. What he’s saying is so obvious and timeless to anyone who is engaged in a commercial creative process, and yet it’s sort of been lost.”

Here’s the Abbott memo in full:

  • Beautifully written and so true as a common pitfall of many an ad agency!

  • tofurky

    Truth well told.

  • Dan Mason

    Wow. A beautifully written and erudite internal memo. I have never seen one of those.

  • Amazing. Love it. There is so much truth in this memo, it’s great. I wrote a thing last year about ad factories, and it turns out that Mr Abbott had foreseen this problem years ago:


  • Yll


  • I worked for the London Press Exchange in 1970 and subsequently for Leo Burnett LPE Ltd in the years following the merger. I met my life-long friend Joanna there and it was her great fortune to become one the best copywriters ever under David Abbott’s superior tuition and mentoring. My father Andre Newton-Carter was vice-chairman of LPE, also a great writer and speaker.and campaigns such as “All because the lady loves Milk Tray”, “Getaway people get Super National” and “Fry’s Turkish Delight, full of Eastern promise” are attributed to him. Ads weren’t just good back then, they were great, in the real sense of that overused word. I remember the London screenings of the Cannes Advertising Film Festivals; 2 hours of inspiring creativity that left you fresher walking out than you were going in. I remember the creative teams working round the clock, how ever long it took to finally reach that “Eureka” moment. One team, one goal, one line that says it all. It was a different world altogether then, and it died long before David Abbott!

  • Chief Innovation Officer

    But what about Big Data?

  • Brilliant piece of content, and still so relevant ! The ownership of the idea – until it is launched is so true.
    He Mentions “creative strategy” which is probably the area where we all need to work harder as it seems to be the one lost in the limbs of agency processes too often.

  • Unfortunately it seems that David’s eloquent warning has gone unheeded. Only when the larger agencies are once again run by passionate advertising gurus instead of holding company bean counters, will they regain the kind of creative integrity the business really needs….don’t hold your breath.

  • Luke K

    I feel like taking these words into a solid format, then throwing them in the face of all of those that don’t understand the undeniable success of quality creative. Then shout at them “be educated you fools”.

    If i wanted a tattoo, this memo would be inked into my back, so i could turn it to those that need to read it.

  • Bob would love 48hrs

    “We shouldn’t be giving creative teams only 48 hours to do great work. It takes longer”

    oh man … This, this and thrice this!

    I don’t currently work for an ad agency work, but an in-house team and cannot remember the last time 48 hours was a realistic timescale for any project. So much has changed in the last 20 years, and not all of it for the better!

  • Where are the great advertising writers now?

  • Ollie West

    Undeniably well-written, and inspiring. No-one can deny good work takes time, and clients tend to get the work they deserve. No-one has commented on why things are different these days though. Has a whole industry slept-walked into collective bad behaviour, or has the world of communications fundamentally changed?

  • Bob would love 48hrs

    @Ollie West “No-one has commented on why things are different these days though”

    Yeah, erm, probably because not many people want to get shot down for sounding like an old fart who remembers when it was all wax boards round here…

    In my personal experience two things have – if not been responsible for the change at least contributed to it:
    1: The improved production technology
    2: The World Wide Web.

    Since the mid 90s improved technology has meant production timescale (at least for designers) of finished artwork has dramatically shortened. This has lead to an un-stated expectation, often though not always exclusively, by the client that the ‘ideas’ should come as quickly.

    In other words the time the final product can be made in (Print campaign/TV Ad etc) than it was 20 years ago, because software is faster/more reliable and we all upload final artwork over the internet. However, thinking time hasn’t got any quicker because, well, it can’t. In order to placate the cheaper/faster exception you have to settle for ‘the first idea is the best idea’. So if you want to hedge your bets you need more than one person’s first idea. What the memo refers to as the ‘gang-bang’ approach, that leads to increased competition to stand out. Which leads to more rather than better ideas etc, etc.

    Maybe as an industry we have been sleep walking to disaster, but there are more creative graduates coming along each year and everyone wants to work and get payed. So this means that someone will give the client the cheaper/faster service they expect what ever the risk to the industry as a whole. Then – to use the cliche of the moment – it’s simply a race to the bottom. Should we have tried to stop it? Maybe. But who wants to be the first to say enough is enough?

    There I’ve said it. Let the bestowing of ‘old fart’ status begin.

  • Nig

    A couple of years back, we won a pitch for a major T.V.C.
    Not only did we have to beat the other agencies
    but a grand total of 9 teams in the agency. 2 teams the agency
    management bought in unknown to us and installed on another
    floor to beat us as we were winning the process.

    Still a proud moment for us but more for sticking the fingers up to
    management than for the creative to be honest.

  • Claudia Daventry

    If I’d ever received a memo like that when I was still a copywriter, and knew my colleagues had too, I’d’ve stayed in the industry.

  • A brilliant piece from a truly great copywriter. And sad, looking at the state of the industry now.


    David Abbott – what a hero!

    I can only hope for their sake, here won’t be too many of today’s frustrated and unhappy
    advertising creatives reading his wise words.