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Frank Lowe's Return Stings Former Shop

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new york In September 2003, Frank Lowe was unceremoniously dumped from the agency he founded in 1981. It was a public humiliation for a proud adman with an outsized ego, and many sources say he has planned almost since that day to stage a comeback from the ignominious exile he's endured following a 40-plus-year career.

Lowe's name has surfaced from time to time, often attached to speculation about a possible buy-back of the Interpublic Group agency that bears his name. But last Thursday morning, in a two-sentence press release, the 64-year-old former Lowe chairman instead revealed that he is starting a new London agency with a "number of other partners." The news comes just two months after the noncompete clause in his contract with IPG expired.

Some say Lowe is simply keen to get back in the game. Others think there is more to it. "This is, largely speaking, an emotional revenge thing," said one executive. "Frank's got plenty of money. He's not doing it to make money." Said another: "This is about vanity and spite."

Lowe's return is already exacting casualties at his former agency. He is expected to open shop with Lowe London's largest account, Tesco, worth $80 million, and already three executives there have resigned to join him. They are chairman Paul Weinberger, 53, whose relationship with Frank Lowe traces back to 1970s hot shop Collett Dickenson Pearce, and the senior creative team of copywriter Sam Cartmell, 37, and art director Jason Lawes, 35. Each is closely associated with Tesco.

And other agencies could suffer personnel defections as well. There are said to be seven partners in Lowe's new shop. Talk on Friday focused on DDB London CEO Paul Hammersley, a Lowe alum, and his partner, DDB planning chief David Hackworthy, who, sources said, are likely to join. Hammersley did not return calls; a DDB rep said Friday, "I have no knowledge that Mr. Hammersley is leaving." Another partner could be JWT managing director Mark Cadman, who left Lowe in February, sources said. A rep for Lowe's new shop, returning a message for Lowe himself, offered no comment.

By press time on Friday, Tesco had no comment beyond a brief statement Thursday, which read, "We are in discussion with Lowe about the reported changes." Lowe London CEO Garry Lace met with top client execs on Friday, and although the outcome of the meeting could not be determined, Lowe execs were already writing off the account. Revenue on Tesco is estimated at $8 million.

Sources point to Heineken, a former Lowe client, as another potential source of business for Frank Lowe, who has a long history with the Dutch brewer. He also is said to have consulted with the company within the past year, a suggestion his rep denied. The company did not return calls.

Lowe consciously built his first agency in opposition to institutional machines like McCann Erickson. When he moved into New York in the late '80s, he intended to establish the kind of groundbreaking creative force where company founders become advertising icons. He was already a folk hero in London, selling clients the kind of inspired work that made CDP a revolutionary player in the '70s before opening his own award-winning shop, Lowe Howard-Spink, in 1981.

IPG took a majority stake in Lowe in 1990, and the shop continued to be seen as a creative leader, especially in London. Lowe himself remained an iconoclast, at times bad-mouthing sister agencies such as McCann and even IPG.

Toward the end of his tenure, he was seen by IPG management as an impediment to broader holding company initiatives, particularly after McCann CEO John Dooner succeeded Phil Geier as CEO of IPG. He remains polarizing, seen by some as advertising royalty and by others as a trouble-making eccentric and even a "villain," a word used by more than a few execs last week.

Last week's bombshell, which surprised practically all observers, further complicates IPG's already challenging task of turning around Lowe. IPG's focus recently has been on the shop's largest office, New York, where Mark Wnek in April was named to replace Gary Goldsmith as chairman and chief creative officer. But the anticipated Tesco loss and impending exit of Unilever's Skip from Lowe Paris illustrate vulnerability outside the U.S., particularly in London, which has been trying to rebound from a rocky 2004.

"The issue is more morale and reputation," said one executive, pointing out that London had several wins this year (Associated British Foods' Twinings Tea, Ovaltine and Options; Innocent fruit smoothies; EasyJet; and the British Heart Foundation) after a year of significant losses (HSBC, Diet Coke, Unilever's Surf, Gillette's Braun). "The agency had a great energy about it. ... For this to happen, it's very difficult for the people involved."

This latest distraction comes as IPG continues to try to reposition Lowe as a smaller, creatively driven shop with global reach along the lines of Bartle Bogle Hegarty and Wieden + Kennedy. On Thursday, IPG CEO Michael Roth said in a statement, "Interpublic remains committed to Lowe and the path it is taking to continue developing its capabilities as one of the world's leading creative agencies."

That path, however, is predicated on Lowe retaining existing clients and growing organically. In the U.S. alone this year, Lowe has lost Century 21 ($20 million), Carfax ($10 million) and A&P ($10 million) and seen its lead-agency status on Macy's (once as big as $60 million) shrink to project work. It is currently pitching Lee Jeans ($30 million) and contributing to a global pitch for Adecco, a Swiss job employment recruiter with a budget of about $30 million.