Old Masters I

by mnkcopyblog

This is about two of my favourite ads and how they work: part one is some thoughts on David Abbott’s great ad for The Economist, part two is on the Milk Tray Man ads. The former is a print ad, the other TV. But there’s a lot in common, too.

Both were the start of long-running, instantly recognisable campaigns. Both understood their target audience and, in essence, play on their vanity.

Buy the Economist and you’ll be smarter, more successful, more like the person you always thought you deserved to be.

Buy Milk Tray and you’ll be the apple of your girlfriend or wife’s eye.


In 1988 David Abbott of Abbott Mead Vickers created what’s become an iconic advert for The Economist magazine. It reads simply; ‘“I never read The Economist.” Management trainee. Aged 42.’

It’s just one of the great pieces of copy that Abbott created. He also wrote campaigns for Sainsbury’s, Volkswagen, the RSPCA, Chivas Regal whisky, and the J.R.Hartley Yellow Pages ad that’s since become part of everyday British culture.

The copy Abbott created set the standard for Economist ads which are still characterised by their wit and intelligence. And the white serif script on a red background, based on the magazine’s own masthead, became synonymous with Economist ads.

The ‘management trainee’ ad that works through implication and subtlety to convey the benefit of the magazine to prospective readers. Who reads the Economist? Well, the clever, the successful, those who are going places in life.

And it hangs a question out there – are you one of us or one of them? Well-informed and worth-knowing, or still stuck in a training scheme and going nowhere in life at 42?

Of course you’re the former. Better buy a copy.

I suppose you could object that the approach is more concerned with congratulating existing readers of the magazine for their sagacity rather than encouraging new readers. And some of the more recent ads do perhaps seem a tad self-satisfied, almost too clever by half.

The image of Brains from Thunderbirds grinning against the famous red background with no words is clever, but I can’t believe it helped to shift many copies.

Then again the Venn Diagram Economist ads added a new level of freshness to the familiar theme. You can have a look at them here on Dave Dye’s site. And here’s a 2012 radio ad that shows off the wit and light-touch of Abbott’s original.

And since David Abbott wrote the copy for that first ad sales of The Economist have gone from 70,000 to beyond 500,000, according to this BBC piece.

It remains one of the best-selling news magazines in the UK.