Hill Takes On Challenge Of Turning Around Lowe

When Nancy Hill arrives next month as North American CEO of Lowe, she’ll face the difficult task of generating growth at an agency that has been defined largely in recent years by client losses and management turnover. And the former BBDO New York managing partner will have to do this while Lowe attempts to redefine itself as a smaller, less ad-centric creative resource with global reach.

“Lowe is not for the faint of heart,” was how worldwide CEO Stephen Gatfield put it in his first meeting, a breakfast at The Peninsula hotel in New York. Hill’s new partner, chairman and CCO Mark Wnek, was more blunt last week: “This is a job for tough people. This is a town for tough people.” Wnek believes that Hill is “really tough” and characterized their introduction two months ago as a “goose-pimple moment, reminiscent [of] when I met Brett [Gosper],” his ex-ad partner of 11 years.

Hill, a veteran account leader who worked on AOL, Visa and Motorola at BBDO, acknowledged the challenges after accepting the post last week. She said the chance to run an agency with the potential for a huge upswing was too appealing to pass up. “It’s very challenging, no question. But it’s also the reason I’m even remotely interested in the job,” said Hill, who majored in psychology and sociology in college. “They’ve got a lot of really talented people. But they’ve got this lack-of-confidence syndrome.”

Hill, 48, attributed this shortfall to losing clients, not winning pitches and the reverberation of that in the press. After making some “quick assessments,” she said she hopes to “help people rediscover the confidence they have in themselves,” though she frankly admitted, “I have no idea what it’s going to take.”

At Lowe’s New York office, which has $1.4 billion in billings, Hill succeeds New York CEO Susan Cantor and joins a management team that includes Wnek, president Sal Taibi and director of account management Thomas Guerin. The office, Lowe’s largest by revenue and staff, is home to global clients such as General Motors (GMC, Saab), Johnson & Johnson, Unilever and Nokia, as well as Milk PEP/Milk DMI and EarthLink.

Hill’s arrival will enable Wnek to focus on leading creative efforts, though he retains his chairman’s title. Hill will tackle client management and new-business development, with Wnek continuing to play a leading role in both areas. Initially, Gatfield also expects Hill to “join at the hip with Mark on a common vision.” Both report to Gatfield.

Former colleagues describe Hill as tenacious, unflappable and passionate about the industry. “It’s real hard to piss her off. And if you do, you’re not really sure you did. She’s just very pleasant,” said Brian O’Neill, her creative partner at GMO/Hill Holliday in San Francisco (where she was president from 2000 to 2002). Hill also is seen as a suit who connects with creatives, which should mesh well with Lowe’s creative-centric culture. “She got creative, and she was just a delight to work with,” said Jimmy Siegel, a former senior executive creative director at BBDO, who also described her as smart and dedicated.

Hill, who met just Wnek, Gatfield and IPG CEO Michael Roth during her recruitment, was impressed by Gatfield’s intelligence and the forthrightness of Roth and Wnek, whom she described as a combination of O’Neill and Simon Cowell. “He gives you an honest opinion, whether people are going to like it or not,” she said.