Lowe comes back on a high

When Lowe Group’s board ousted Sir Frank two years ago, they must have thought they’d seen the last of him, but just a month after his contractual constraints ended, the man dubbed a legend in adland is back – with Lowe’s flagship &£45m Tesco business in his pocket. David Benady reports

Sir Frank Lowe’s return to the world of advertising two years after announcing his retirement has inspired much conjecture about his motivations. Some suggest his new agency will provide the cash he needs to fuel his luxury lifestyle and pay for four ex-wives. There are those who also think his love of the glamour, power and excitement of the advertising world mean he could never stay away.

Yet others attribute his surprise homecoming to revenge. After all, there must be some satisfaction in knowing the ad shop he launched last week is poised to rip the heart out of the agency that fired and humiliated him.

Sir Frank is setting up the agency, as yet unnamed, two years after a management coup ousted him from Lowe Group, the worldwide network he founded and built over two decades. He is understood to still harbour animosities over his departure and those who engineered it.

But Lord Bell, chairman of Chime Communications and formerly Lowe’s business partner, is “nonsense”. He adds/ “He has got advertising in his blood, he can’t consider retirement. He will be doing it because he thinks he’s got the skills to produce advertising that makes a difference.”

Lowe resistance

Sir Frank’s start-up could shatter Lowe London as a result of poaching the agency’s largest piece of business – the &£45m Tesco account – as a founding client, though it is yet unclear how the new agency will service such a large account. Lowe London has been trying to restore its fortunes under former Grey London boss Garry Lace, who joined in January.

But Sir Frank appears to have swatted Lace’s efforts with one blow. He is luring away creative chief and chairman Paul Weinberger, who has a key grip on the Tesco business through his close relationship with marketing director Tim Mason. Two senior Tesco creatives, Sam Cartmell and Jason Lawes, are to join Weinberger, with another creative pairing rumoured to be making the switch.

Given the Tesco account is shifting, it would be no surprise if many of the 30-strong team on the account – worth an estimated &£5m a year in income – join Sir Frank’s new agency. It is understood that Lowe London waived a non-compete agreement in Weinberger’s contract following pressure from the retailer – otherwise he would not have been free to work on the business.

It is unclear whether the new agency has any other clients, a chief executive, or even a photocopier. Sir Frank is remaining silent. But there is speculation that Paul Hammersley, chief executive of DDB London, and a former Lowe executive in New York, may join as chief executive. He has been described as a good counterweight to Sir Frank – one of the few people in the industry who will stand up to him. Mark Cadman, who became managing director at JWT after holding the same role at Lowe, is also understood to be in discussions about switching.

Stella Artois, Lowe London’s other key account, says it is keeping a close eye on the situation, but has not announced a review – yet. UK & Ireland marketing director Phil Rumbol told Marketing Week that he would “review the situation” depending on changes at Lowe London – of which there have now been many. The agency’s chief creative officer Matthew Bull is also quitting to return to his native South Africa, but is said to be retaining a Lowe Worldwide role, which may include working on the beer account.

Stella is closely associated with Sir Frank, even more so than Tesco. He developed its “Reassuringly expensive” tagline 20 years ago, and it has become one of the longest-running campaigns in the UK. He also hammered out its high-profile sponsorship of the Queen’s Club Tennis Tournament, which has been running for nearly 30 years and is to continue until at least 2009.

Sir Frank is also understood to have designs on the Heineken account, currently dormant. (He has good relationships with former chief Freddie Heineken, and his daughter Charlene, who inherited a controlling stake in the company.)

Sir Frank, 65, retired from Lowe Group in 2003, a year after standing down as a board member of Interpublic Group, which bought the agency he founded. He never seemed to fit in with the corporate world of IPG. There was talk of mutual antipathy between Sir Frank and IPG chief executive John Dooner, who is thought to have engineered Sir Frank’s departure. It was said Sir Frank looked down on Dooner’s approach to advertising (Dooner’s background was as head of McCann Erickson) and was bitter about losing out to people he considered lacked an elevated understanding of creative work.

Man at work

Of Sir Frank’s return, one source says: “He lives and breathes this game, so [his return] is not surprising. But it is impossible to overstate the degree to which he hates IPG. It is 100 per cent revenge.”

In truth, Sir Frank would never be comfortable being away from the ad industry for too long. “You can’t get a cigarette paper between the man and his work,” says a source.

The fact that Sir Frank has prised Tesco away from his old agency is a testament to his revered status among many senior clients. Tim Mason is understood to rate Sir Frank as a guru when it comes to making big decisions on communications. If he says it is time to switch campaigns, Tesco will follow his advice.

This is indicative of what has differentiated Sir Frank from many contemporaries. He has built relationships at the top, bypassing more junior staff and cementing bonds at senior level. When Lowe won the Tesco account in 1989, it was through Sir Frank’s close relationship with then chief executive Iain MacLaurin. Sir Frank’s opinions are respected by the people that matter.

He is considered one of the great UK ad men, encouraging talented creatives and directors, and supporting their best work. He has been associated with more famous ad campaigns than almost anyone else, from Heineken’s “Refreshes the parts” to the Fiat Strada “Robots” campaign, Benson & Hedges’ “Iguana” work, and campaigns for Weetabix and Smirnoff.

Some even rate him more highly than the US advertising gurus Bill Bernbach and Jay Chiat. His work and reputation is said by one observer to outstrip that of Maurice Saatchi.

Sir Frank worked his way up from post-boy at J Walter Thompson, which he joined in 1961. In the 1970s, he managed Collett Dickenson Pearce, at the time considered the world’s greatest agency. He also helped nurture a generation of film directors such as Alan Parker, Ridley Scott and Lord Puttnam, before launching Lowe Howard-Spink in 1981, which lured key clients from CDP.

Creative and courageous

His great skill has lain in identifying strong creative work and persuading senior clients to use it. He has a reputation within agencies as a fearsome manager, though he is understood to have mellowed in recent years.

Lord Bell dismisses suggestions that Sir Frank, given his luxury lifestyle, is somehow out of touch with ordinary people who shop at Tesco. “Frank was born in a pub in Manchester and he has never forgotten his roots,” says Bell. He adds that Lowe is charismatic and a “classy operator”, though it pays to get on the right side of him.

Sir Frank’s inspirational qualities are luring some of his old advertising associates, whose talent will be vital for the success of the agency. His reputation precedes him and he still has strong contacts at the top of business. He will need all he can get as he re-enters London’s already overcrowded advertising scene.

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