Q&A: Lowe’s Michael Wall

Lowe’s new worldwide CEO, Michael Wall, welcomes the challenge of attracting more global clients, but acknowledges that the Interpublic Group agency is a work in progress. In a conversation with senior reporter Andrew McMains, Wall reflected on his nine years at Fallon in London (where he rose to president, international), what he learned from former Simons Palmer boss Carl Johnson and what it was like to work at Lowe Howard-Spink in the early 1990s. The 41-year-old Briton, who most recently was CEO of BBDO Portugal, starts his new role in September.

Adweek: What are the biggest challenges going in to Lowe?

Wall: Every agency is a work in progress, isn’t it? It’s the nature of this industry in terms of people that work in agencies, how things work, what their relationships with clients are like, what the work is like and what that delivers to the clients’ business. Everything is in a constant state of flux. Many people have said, “You’re only as good as your last campaign.” And I think that still holds true.  

What attracted you to this job?

Lowe, as a brand and as a business, has a very clear role in the holding company portfolio. It’s our job to really accelerate that. Our role is to be a network that is absolutely about the creative product. . . . At a brand level, and a business level, in terms of Lowe, the guys have done a very good job over the last few years of making [the agency] fit for purpose. It is a fully fledged network. It offers its clients reach without any compromise. But also it’s a network that offers a great creative product. I can’t think of many other networks that are in that position.

How do you define your role?

Our job is to continue to develop and enhance Lowe both as a reputation and a product across lots of different disciplines and geography. Make sure we go out and not just do brilliant stuff for existing clients but also grow our business. . . . The final bit is, like any good business and any good agency in particular, making sure that our leadership team is really competitive and really supportive of our network. Personally, one of the things I was really pleased about in joining it and partnering with it with people like Tony, is just the caliber of people like Tony Wright, Matthew Bull. And without sounding egotistical, I think I’m all right as well. That has the makings of being a really good leadership team for a network.

Lowe has increased its share of Unilever but also has become more dependent on that one client. So, the agency’s strength can also been seen as its weakness.

I certainly agree. . . . In a way, that’s part of the appeal. This is still not the finished article. And anyone who pretends or says it is, is bullshitting. It has come a long, long way, but it has a long, long way to go. That’s the exciting bit. It just depends on who you are and what perspective you come from. Some people look at that as a problem and some people look at that as an opportunity. For me I’m much more interested in doing something that has that level of challenge rather doing something that’s more about maintenance and the status quo. That would bore the shit out of me. 

What kind of a grade would you give Lowe’s reel?

I think it’s B, B minus. But at Fallon, we were our harshest critics.

Who are the A’s?

I’m not sure there is one. That’s a reflection of what’s going on economically as anything else. . . . Look at Cannes. There aren’t any great, great pieces of work. There are some very good pieces of work, some very clever almost events. I’m thinking about that Queensland Tourism thing. It tells you that there is a void out there at the moment. 

Were you privy to Lowe reappointing Bull as global chief creative officer and Bert Moore as chief strategy officer before you signed on?

Until you actually join [a company], you’re an outsider. It would be wrong for anyone to suggest that it’s a candidate’s role to determine or question business decisions that are being made in real time, particularly in this business. Having said all that, of course as part of it being an open conversation and grown-up conversation, I was made aware of what was going on and a few other things as well. I’ve got no issue with the caliber of the people that have been put into those roles. 

You did your homework and talked to a lot of people in the network and IPG. Why was that important to you?

It’s just good housekeeping, isn’t it? This is a big job and a serious job. And whether you look at it from a candidate’s perspective, in my case, or from the company’s perspective, in their case, the interviewing process only gets you so far, partly because we’re all on best behavior.

What will be the biggest adjustment in taking on a CEO role?

The scale thing is a big adjustment. We’re talking about 7,000 people across 80 countries. That makes a big difference already. . . . Working with a new team will be different because it’s a different group of people. But I’m a firm believer in the power of a team of individuals. It very much suits my nature and style.

Are you OK with being a joint leader with Tony and both of you reporting to IPG CEO Michael Roth?

Yes. I believe in partnership. I think it’s a much more successful way to go about doing business. And in this particular case, that’s even more [true] for two reasons. One is it would be hugely presumptuous to walk in and say, “It’s all about me,” when there’s a team of people there that have been led by Tony and Steve [Gatfield, his predecessor] who have gone through a hell of a lot of mileage in terms of turning Lowe around. That would be almost rude and kind of dumb on my part. The other thing is this is a bloody big business. Gone are the days where it’s all about the autocrat and an individual. And as I’ve touched upon already, philosophically it’s just not where I’m at. Partnerships are much, much more competitive. They’re much stronger.
 
What did you learn from Fallon that will help you in this job?

The power of team. The Fallon guys — you might say that we’re all good practitioners: a good account guy, a good planner, a good creative. But together we were much more potent. Also, just dealing with big clients but never losing focus on delivering great work and great results. Sony, Cadbury and some of the more local case studies like Skoda cars — they’re very much part of the stuff I like doing, the stuff I think I’m good at. And they’re important [skills] not just for the agency but important for the client as well. So, a track record on both the creative product and managing those relationships. Also, a little bit of international [experience].

What’s your management style?

It’s interesting this business because it is full of very clever people and very talented people, as you well know. But there’s one other characteristic that often seems to disappear. It’s somewhere between aggression and lack of fear, or fearlessness. . . . What I mean by that is when things get difficult or tough — which they do from time to time — it’s quite interesting to see who’s up for it and faces it and who runs from it. And I definitely put myself in the former, not the latter. I don’t scare easily. I guess that’s part of it as well.

Who has had the most influence on your career?

There are three key moments. . . . One is working at Lowe Howard-Spink in the early ’90s. I was there for just over three years. I worked on Tesco, funnily enough. I was kind of in the middle [ranks]. I worked specifically on the launch campaign of “Every Little Helps,” which is still the thing that runs today. It was formative because at that moment in time the talent that was in Lowe Howard-Spink led by Sir Frank [Lowe] doing the kind of work they did on clients like Tesco was just a brilliant experience. It was somewhere between being in the military — because it was incredibly buttoned-down and organized — and just delivering amazing product. Carl [Johnson, his former boss at Simons Palmer] as an individual had a huge effect on me because he’s such a good manager of people in a way that brings out the best entrepreneurial spirit in them. In a way, it was kind of his fault that I wanted to leave to do Fallon [laughs]. He kind of groomed that in me. Then of course, I’d have to say Fallon. But on two levels really. One is . . . as a person, Pat, has such relevant values and strong values that they’re incredibly inspiring. Putting that together with a group of people and doing it our way but in a way that was completely complementary to his values was hugely informative as an experience, as a journey. It was a big part of my life. I left [after] just under a decade. As far as my career goes, that’s kind of half of it.

What are those values?

A straightforwardness, an integrity, an honesty, a conviction, a belief, a hint of aggression at the right moment. It’s some of those elements put together.

What keeps you awake at night?

Not a lot, really. I’m a very good sleeper (laughs).

What’s on your nightstand?

A few drawings by my girls [who are] 11 and 9. And then at the moment there are three unread books: Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, Bringing Yoga to Life by Donna Farhi and Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss. There’s also, weirdly, a picture of me with two of my oldest mates in the north of France taken probably circa 1990 when I had a full head of hair.

What brought you to Portugal?

My wife is Portuguese and we talked about coming to live here just over a decade ago. She was very keen to come back here as a relatively young Portuguese lady and I was very keen to try it. Whilst the U.K. is a very nice place, Portugal is a very nice place as well. On a more serious note, I always knew that the Fallon gig would be a significant period of time, that it would be a lot of hard work, physically demanding as much as anything else and that if we got it right and just did it well, we would be in a privileged position to be able to take a bit of a time-out.

Did you think you’d be back in London this quickly?

I didn’t have any particular plan. To put it in context, I’m 41. So, to some degree, there’s still a fair amount ahead of me. I defy anyone to honestly say they can sit on a beach or hang out at a tennis club for the rest of their adult life. It just doesn’t work like that. So, I always knew I wanted to get back at it and get back at something different in a way and challenging in some similar ways and different ways. Your brain needs it, as much as anything else, and I’m a firm believer in trying different stuff, trying new things and learning. It was never far from my mind. It was more a question of right moment, right thing, felt right. It was more of an intuitive thing.