The advertising genius of David Abbott, and his short rules on writing brilliant copy.

Written by Cole Schafer


David Abbott bit the dust six years ago. But, I’m not sure his ghost would be overly fond of me writing this piece.

While we didn’t know each other, I’ve read as much of his advertising as I have Charles Bukowski’s poetry and Ernest Hemingway’s prose.

And, during this reading and studying and salivating, I noticed on an occasion or two where he made mention of not being a “theorizer of copywriting”, which is a damn shame considering that save for maybe David Ogilvy, David Abbott is the greatest British advertising man to ever do it.

A bold claim until you consider…

He once put his life in jeopardy, lying under a suspended Volvo to prove the superbness of the vehicle’s spot welds.

He was the mastermind behind The Economist’s iconic street ads, writing shoe-stopping headlines like…

“It’s lonely at the top, but at least there’s something to read.”

And, we can’t forget about the tear-jerking work he did for Chivas Regal where he got thousands of men to buy their fathers scotch for Father’s Day.

The list goes on, forever.

Despite David Abbott’s “allergies” to theorizing copywriting, there were a few methods to his creative madness that he shared.

Abbott would begin with research. And, he wouldn’t start writing until he had too much to say.

When he finally did pick up the pen, he’d reach for the Artline 200 Fine 0.4 Pentel. Blue ink. Never black. He didn’t say why.

And, while writing his copy, Abbott would jot down in a sort of “trash bin” all of the cliches that inevitably sprouted like weeds.

This apparently kept him from actually using them in the copy.

He would read his copy out loud to check for rhythm and flow. And, unlike the writers of poetry and prose, Abbott wasn’t one for flowery language. He wrote with words that were simple and widely understood (a conviction that David Ogilvy shared).

In addition to this brief overview, he also once put together a list on what makes for good copywriting…

Don’t be boring.

*David Abbott is typing now*

  1. Put yourself into your work. Use your life to animate the 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 (as I do), you’d better learn how to write a list so that 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.
  6. (You’d be surprised how many folks in advertising struggle terribly with this last bit.)

* Cole Schafer just stole Abbott’s pen *

If Abbott would have consulted me before completing the above list, I would have suggested he add a number six…

*6. When in doubt, put your life at risk.

But, I digress.

By Cole Schafer.