Creative brain behind The Abbey Habit

Many of Ian McInnes's snappy slogans became household phrases. The adman-turned-poet tells Steven Russell about his career, his first book of poems . .

Steven Russell

Many of Ian McInnes's snappy slogans became household phrases. The adman-turned-poet tells Steven Russell about his career, his first book of poems . . . and coaching Jamie Oliver at football

AH, The Abbey Habit . . . who can forget the catchy TV jingle from the 1970s? I could sing it now - but won't, since we don't want the neighbourhood felines caterwauling. Ian McInnes, in contrast, has a fine voice - and knows the words, too. Hardly surprising, since he's the father of this memorable advertising campaign. Unexpectedly but enjoyably, he gives an impromptu rendition in his living room:

Got it all a-going,


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Got my savings growing,

Got the Abbey habit,

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With Abbey National.

Those were the days: when building societies abounded and tried to get us to save cash. More recently, since virtually every building society became a bank with indecent haste, the emphasis has been on lending consumers money they can't really afford to borrow.

Poor Ian. He'd so much prefer to be having just a quick chat about his new poetry collection, his first, instead of being obliged to rake over past glories from My Days in the Advertising Industry.

Trouble is, it's not everyday one meets a copywriter whose work has embedded itself in the national consciousness. The Abbey Habit was a phrase that would pop up in the playground, workplace, within TV sketch shows and even in the political arena.

“Sir Keith Joseph, I think it was, offended the miners - or was it the dockers?” remembers Ian. The Thatcherite politician was Secretary of State for Industry from 1979 and paved the way for privatisation. “He had that slightly aesthetic look and was nicknamed The Mad Monk. When they marched through London, they had placards saying 'Get The Abbey Habit - stuff the mad monk.' I bought one of those off them!”

The Condor Moment was another of Ian's successes to lodge itself in public parlance.

It must seem amazing to today's young folk that in the 1970s you could advertise pipe tobacco on television. Ian was a group head at the Ted Bates ad agency when he came up with That Condor Moment - which, he says with delicious understatement, “was quite a famous campaign at that time”.

The tobacco needed some creative oomph behind it, since it took longer to get used to than great rival St Bruno.

“I don't know what the word is . . . I don't want to insult it . . . 'rebarbative', perhaps. It was difficult to get into, and wasn't immediately pleasing, but then you got used to it and it was rather good. In other words, the message was 'Don't give up on your first packet - keep going and you'll get this moment of Nirvana.'”

The TV ads typically showed a pipesmoker becoming oblivious to the world around him as that moment of 'Ahh!' dawned.

(By this point I think we've worn Ian down. We'll return later to the poetry - promise - but we've now come so far that he might as well tell us the story from the beginning. The grandfather-of-three obliges, but warns: “I'm not one of the all-time greats, you know. I do have to make that clear!” Understood.)

Ian was born in Edinburgh and brought up in Lancaster. He took an English degree and hoped to become a writer or lecturer. But what he saw of lecturing didn't excite. Advertising folk had more appeal.

So, off to London in the 1960s to start his career with the agency McCann Erickson. Ian's loathe to blow his own trumpet, but he obviously had a knack for identifying what was different about a product, and what the audience wanted, and bringing the two together so everyone was happy.

He moved around agencies, with a spell at Lonsdale, then Ted Bates, which is where he had his Condor Moment triumph, and others.

Ian won “a couple of awards for various things”, including a British Television Award for an Ever Ready ad.

This featured a man displaying the torches he was giving as Christmas presents - including a big, heavy model for his mother-in-law that he bangs down. You couldn't use that joke now, in these PC days, could you? “I suspect not! The point was about demonstrating they were unbreakable . . .”

There were also ads for Peter Stuyvesant cigarettes.

“You see, at that time people only thought of smoking as a habit that might give you a little cough. The full cancer scare hadn't happened. Once that emerged, I stopped working on tobacco. You've got to have some sort of moral attitude.”

Shock! Horror! An adman with scruples!

“Well, it's easy to strike a moral attitude as a teacher, say, but, at the sharp end, to make moral decisions is quite important. I wouldn't work on Greek tourism, because the colonels were in charge in Greece; never worked on South African accounts. All these I turned down.”

By that time Ian was going it alone, “having taken six months off to write The Great Scottish Novel - still in the drawer over there!” - found himself running out of money, and offered his creative talents on a freelance basis. “I could pick and choose, but you do turn down money. But you have to have some principles.”

Then Lonsdale asked him to help with the Abbey National account. Ian came up with Get the Abbey Habit. “That saved the account and made me very popular at Lonsdale's!”

He's still got copies of early print ads, which focused on people's “Interesting Habits” - such as wearing sunglasses pushed up on the head - in a gently amusing way before making the point that saving also had its points of interest.

Financial institutions were a bit dull and faceless, so he tried to humanise them. Later, the slogan became a jingle made famous by those TV ads, with musician Jeff Wayne (of The War of the Worlds fame) lending his magic.

Ian worked on Abbey campaigns for 12 years or so, for about two or three days a week. It was a big account; the building society was spending about �20million a year - a lot for the time.

It was money and time well spent, however, with Abbey National becoming the second-largest building society behind the Halifax, which historically had more branches.

“It's not just a mnemonic,” Ian says of the slogan. “At that time, people only went to building societies when they needed a mortgage - and a month or two beforehand, they'd start putting money in to prove they were savers. The idea with Get the Abbey Habit was 'No, you come in all the time and save for the things you want.' Does anyone do that now? They seem to promote credit!”

There were changes on the McInnes home front during his career. After a long spell in the capital, the family moved to Clavering, near Saffron Walden. It's best known as the childhood home of Jamie Oliver - “and I actually coached a junior football team that he was in . . . None of them were likely to make it to the professional grade, but we had a bit of fun for a few seasons”.

The McInneses spent 20 years there - Ian and Sheila's two daughters and a son growing up in Essex. Dad commuted to London from Bishop's Stortford.

After his sterling efforts for Abbey National (the campaigns netted five awards) he was subsequently poached by . . . rival Halifax - “a bit like going from Tottenham to Arsenal,” he quips - and did some work on the building society's “X” campaigns.

There was creative consultancy with Greys in Switzerland. Ian was going to Geneva for about one week a month; with a growing family, that was disruptive. Happily, in the late 1980s, he was approached by someone who wanted to set up an agency serving the City. Ian became creative director of McInnes Schoolar, whose clients would include Citibank and Lloyds Bank.

“It sort of took off but never flew, really,” he reflects with a wry grin. “The error I made there, really, was that I could make ads for merchant banks and investment banks that were different. It took me a little while to realise that was the last thing they wanted! They all wanted to look the same - to be part of 'The Club'. If they looked as if they weren't in the club, their big clients didn't trust them.”

As the 1990s dawned, agencies were merged and Ian became part-time creative director of Kilmartin Baker. “I may be unique in having what was the first ad - and possibly the last one! - that showed a male person urinating,” he says, twinkle in eye.

“The ad said 'Always tired? Always thirsty? Always going to the loo?' and we showed a cherub urinating, floating gently in the sky and urinating over the text - a bit like the Manneken Pis in Brussels.

“The point was to alert people to the symptoms of diabetes.”

In about 2000 his wife became seriously ill and he gave up advertising work to be with her. Sheila died in 2003, and a couple of years later Ian moved to Woodbridge - a town they'd often visited.

One of his two daughters works locally while also trying to establish herself on the stand-up comedy scene. The other is a civil servant in the capital. Their brother is a lawyer.

Nowadays, Ian keeps his hand in with some work for Canon broadcast lenses, but says he's not really in touch with the wider industry. “Last time I was in an agency, I think everybody was more than half my age!”

With regard to contemporary advertising, he says it's much more visual than 30 or 40 years ago - not necessarily a good thing.

“Thanks to the enormous leap in screen technology, people can do things that were impossible in my time. But you would sometimes think people had stopped using words - that they largely communicated visually. Yet texting, twittering, emails and so on are now the chief methods of communication - and they're all verbal. Maybe ads should reflect that more.

“The imagery's become too dominant. The word's diminished. In fact, most copywriters are recruited from art colleges. Now there's much less depth of words, so it's all much more superficial, perhaps.”

He pauses and then chuckles. “But then I would say that, wouldn't I?”

I WRITE like an ad man, says Ian McInnes. “I am not a professional poet. They write poetry every day, go to poetry festivals and readings; work in a rather ethereal, private world. But over the years, as a professional writer, sometimes something has caught my eye, or caught my mind, that I felt was important, universal or interesting, and I've written a poem about it.

“These poems gradually accumulate on one's computer, and you think 'Well, what am I going to do?' You either just let them lie there or you get the babies out into the world, with some semi-self-published effort - to pass them round and get them read, and hope people get something from them.”

Some of the poems in his first collection are more than 10 years old, others quite recent. If there's a theme, it's perhaps that the verses look at life from a masculine take.

“I think feminine thought and feeling is very well covered in much modern poetry, but men's emotions, thoughts and fears rather less so.

“My poems are more about life from a male point of view - particularly the section Tribe of Men, which reflects a little on the changes in man's experiences; which are, I believe, unsettling for many men now.”

The only poem with a firm local link is The River - fitting, bearing in mind his admiration for his adopted home by the Deben.

“I had friends to help me from the beginning. It's the friendliest place I've stayed. Not everyone knows how special Woodbridge is - sometimes I'm selfishly rather glad!”

Incident in Pisa: poems by Ian McInnes is available from www.troubador.co.uk/shop at �6.99. ISBN 978 184 876 1971

HERE'S a taste of Ian McInnes's poetry:

Spring song of the executive

I am warm, and winning well:

There's a song in my pocket

And money in my head.

I am winning well, and warm.

I am winning well, and warm:

I've thirty women in my filofax,

My haircut still makes me as young.

I am warm and winning well.

I am warm, and winning well:

My car's parked smooth as a bullet

Outside restaurants with dark windows.

I am winning well, and warm.

I am winning, well and warm:

Only sometimes when I sleep I see

A clock with my face, ticking, ticking;

But I take an Alka Seltzer in the morning.

I am winning well. And warm.

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