Lowe Lures Outsider To Move From Merger Past

In reaching outside Lowe Worldwide to replace CEO Jerry Judge with Ogilvy & Mather’s Tony Wright, Interpublic Group is tightening its grip on the $5 billion agency as it seeks to loosen the agency’s ties to its factionalized, multiple-merger past. This week, IPG will reinforce that notion with the installation of a Lowe worldwide operations chief, sources said.

The COO is expected to come from another IPG agency and will become an integral part of Lowe’s new management team, said sources. IPG, which declined to comment, could name the new executive in a few days.

Wright was lured last week by the chance to run an agency, albeit one with problems ranging from lackluster growth to an identity crisis stemming from three significant mergers in the past ten years. At Ogilvy, where he was worldwide chief strategy officer and had worked since 1995, Wright had hit a ceiling of sorts. “You get to the point as a strategist where you do face a fork in the road,” said Wright, 43, who starts Nov. 1 and also received the title of president.

IPG CEO David Bell wrote in an e-mail explaining the move to Lowe staffers that IPG decided to “accelerate the management transition” after zeroing in on Wright. Although Bell led the search, recruitment consultant Brian Brooks and new IPG chairman Michael Roth also played roles, said sources. “This is an important period for Lowe,” Bell wrote. “New energy and a new point of view can transform the company and help it return to its rightful place at the first rank of global creative agencies.”

Judge, who declined comment, is expected to stay on in his role as president and CEO of IPG’s The Partnership division—which encompasses joint activities between entities like Lowe and Draft Worldwide—until the end of the year, when the unit is expected to be dissolved, said sources. After that, he’ll slide into a consulting role that will expire in mid-2005.

After years of trying to build Lowe into a global network player via mergers, IPG now favors a plan, known internally as “L15,” that would jettison unprofitable and nonessential offices in favor of a leaner, more creatively focused agency, said sources. Although still in development, the plan would leave Lowe with anywhere from 15 (as in “L15”) to 25 offices in the markets where clients need them, down from the current 80-plus, sources said.

Wright, a planner by training, is described by those who have worked with him as ambitious and smart but is also known as a decisive manager who can be impatient.

“One of the issues at Lowe is that there are too many individual agendas. There clearly needs to be a common agenda,” said Wright, a Brit who also has been a senior executive at the former Chiat/Day in Los Angeles and the former Berlin Cameron Wright in New York. “Lowe has been a collection of terrific agencies and terrific people that just hasn’t jelled as a team.”

While not entirely surprising, given Lowe’s lack of global wins during Judge’s three-year tenure (the largest was the $75 million Electrolux account last year), the swift handoff to Wright struck some colleagues as harsh. Despite his failings, the 54-year-old Irishman is still a likable character. “I think Jerry is a genuinely good person,” said one. “I hate to see him treated like that.”

In an e-mail to the New York staff, U.S. chairman and chief creative officer Gary Goldsmith thanked Judge for “all the hard and important work he’s done for Lowe Worldwide over the years,” adding, “Jerry’s unwavering support for all of us in New York, his infectious enthusiasm for the business, and good-natured wit will be missed.” In the same e-mail, Goldsmith also welcomed Wright, noting his “excellent credentials.”