Everything Lowe Is New Again In London Ad Circles

NEW YORK The more things change, the more they stay the same—at least when it comes to Frank Lowe. While he’s not expected to take run the new startup on a day-to-day basis, his spirit nonetheless is the impetus and celebrity behind it. Lowe and his partners’ seemingly easy grab of the $80 million Tesco account from Lowe London, owned by his former- employer-turned-nemesis, Interpublic Group, has become a rallying cry even among his competitors. Lowe, in the twilight of his career, reaffirms the fading legacy of personal relationships in an industry now defined by faceless, publicly traded behemoths.

“You can think he’s a slightly reprehensible character, but you still have to like the fact he was able to pull off Tesco,” said a top London rival.

As one of advertising’s last remaining personalities, Lowe, both at his namesake and at Collett Dickenson Pearce before then, has always been well-served by his connections.

“What I learned from Frank is to deal from the top down, not the bottom up. Do business with people like Tesco’s chairman, not the people who work for him,” said former Lowe Tucker Metcalf principal David Metcalf, who’s since founded Working Class, New York. “Frank’s idea of a client is Freddie Heineken … If you’re going to do work that the chairman has to approve, sit down with the chairman to find out what he wants. He’s done this not just by hanging out at the right social clubs or being a pal. It’s about his doing a great job and producing results.”

Leveraging those relationships is one of the parallels between Lowe’s new company, the name of which is still undisclosed, and the 1981 start-up of his London flagship, Lowe Howard-Spink, later purchased by IPG. CDP was perceived as the Doyle Dane Bernbach of London in the ’60s and ’70s, and Lowe was its driving force during many of its finest years. He was named its managing director in his early 30s, and was given credit as much for acting as a sounding board as for his ability to sell daring work. It was only after the company’s top executives were prosecuted by Britain’s Inland Revenue for financial irregularities in ’79 that Lowe was forced as part of a settlement with the government to assume less of a day-to-day role, becoming a consultant to CDP.

Within two years, Lowe would start his own shop with CDP clients Fiat, Bird’s Eye (his entree to parent Unilever) and Whitbread brewers, with brands like Heineken and Stella Artois. Other CDP marketers like Olympus cameras and Parker Pens would later follow. According to former insiders, the business Lowe took from CDP accounted for about 25 percent of the agency’s total business.

It was a case of business development déjà vu last week as rumors swirled around Lowe London’s relationship with Stella Artois, one of its largest accounts now that Tesco is leaving. Stella’s parent, InBev, is said to have been unnerved by worldwide chief creative officer Matthew Bull’s decision last month to return to South Africa. In addition to the departure of Bull, who oversaw global creative work on the account, the pending exit of the office’s largest account is said to have caused concern for InBev.

InBev vp of brands Richard Evans raised concerns about the agency’s stability in a London meeting with Lowe worldwide CEO Tony Wright three weeks ago, triggering speculation about Lowe’s status on the account, sources said. “We are having discussions about management issues on the account to which we are responding,” Wright said. “This has been a long and extremely positive relationship. There are always bumps in the road, and we fully intend to work our way through this one.” But on Thursday, a client rep described the relationship as “business as usual.”

CDP never pursued litigation against the seven CDP employees, including Lowe’s new partner Geoff Howard-Spink, and no one recalls major layoffs. But the exit of Lowe and some of CDP’s most high-profile clients nonetheless had an effect.

“People did start to see a little crack in CDP’s work after that,” said John Kelley, a member of one of the two top CDP creative teams that followed Lowe. “These accounts were very strong pieces of business, not just in terms of financial clout, but also professionally as good opportunities went out the door. But it was more of a slow burn than sudden impact. We felt very loyal to the agency, but at the same time we felt Frank was its driving force. We’d rather jump into the unknown with Frank than stay at CDP without him.”

The stigma of the Inland Revenue investigation took its toll, and CDP, then publicly traded, found itself vulnerable to takeover. The agency’s management bought itself back, but Lowe could not get involved because of the settlement with the U.K. tax authority, Kelly says. It’s hard not to see a parallel to Lowe’s current situation: Being denied a piece of that company, he set up his own firm. But observers say it’s wrong to conclude that Lowe creates new companies just to settle scores.

“Frank simply loves the business. Is he motivated by revenge? I think there’s a large amount of satisfaction in taking away the largest account from the company that fired him,” said Metcalf. “But I think it would be sad if that was the only reason.”

A rep for the start-up said Lowe could not be reached for comment, adding that he prefers all questions to be put before his partner Paul Hammersley, the former DDB London CEO who was a protegé at Lowe, London.

While Hammersley, who has emerged in a CEO role at the new agency, emphasized the venture is not about recreating Frank Lowe’s glories, the younger account executive is linked to that era: Hammersley’s father was an executive at Clarks shoes when it was a CDP client during Frank Lowe’s tenure. Fellow startup partner, Lowe chairman Paul Weinberger, who was the top executive on Tesco at Lowe, is the son of a former executive in CDP’s financial department.