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Frank Lowe: The King of Chutzpah

Posted by: David Kiley on January 18, 2006


Sir Frank Lowe. I wondered what he would do. I couldn’t imagine him in his mid 60s doing crosswords and counting his money in his retirement. Though, I did think he would still be exhausted after engineering the implosion of the ad agency that still bears his name before he retired and left the Interpublic Group board.

For the sake of fair disclosure, I technically used to work for Frank Lowe. For about three years in the mid 1990s I worked at Lowe & Partners/SMS, N.Y., and for a brief time even represented The Lowe Group in North America.

I don’t have an axe to grind. I’m much happier back in journalism. But what I do have is the experience of seeing a “creative genius” up close and in person. Frank Lowe built up a solid creative agency in London—Lowe Howard-Spink. And then he set out to take his personal brand global. So, he went out on a dizzying acquisition binge after selling his agency to Interpublic. In the U.S. there was Marshalk, then Scali, McCabe, Sloves and Goldsmith Jeffrey, all rolled up into Lowe North America, plus a direct marketing agency and pharma agency. And he agreed to, because of all the money he was making off of IPG, to let the holding company merge Ammirati Puris Lintas and then Bozell into his agency. It wasn’t so much an ad firm as it was a grocery store shelf of agency names collected like so many cans of mushy peas. Creating a creative culture of any kind out of this mess was impossible. But Frank Lowe only saw the dollar signs, despite his insistence through the years on maintaining high creative standards. He traded his creative standards for the riches that came from rolling up agencies around the world under the protective financial tent of a holding company that let him do it.

Then he took Lowe and IPG down the garden path with former IPG CEO Phil Geier buying up agencies around the world to brand as “Lowe,” and a sports marketing agency on top of that. The redundancies with other IPG businesses were staggering. Then there was his ridiculous attempt, a shocking indulgence, to buy his favorite soccer team, Manchester United. When that didn’t go through, he spent shareholder money on a ridiculous set of car racing tracks and contracts in the U.K. that lost hundreds of millions for IPG.

The Lowe Group is still a mess. And despite what Frank Lowe contends these days, it was his design and his fault. He allowed it to happen. Now, he is starting a new agency in London, plucking executives from his original agency and looking to start it up with Tesco, a Lowe London client that he started out with so many years ago. IPG is, of course, suing Frank Lowe. And Frank Lowe is counter-suing, alleging all sorts of nonsense about apologizing to him and dropping the claims that he is poaching a client and agency talent. It seems to be just what he is doing.

Frank Lowe does have a discerning eye for advertising creative. He knows what good stuff is, and how to assemble people to produce it. But he’s no businessman in terms of managing other people’s money. He, of course, has done pretty well at managing his own. I still remember the astonishingly expensive (again, shareholder money) furnishings he bought for Lowe’s New York office—five-figure, as in more than $10,000, doors to the rest rooms; well into the six figures for a wooden internal staircase; floor tiles imported from Isreal, China and Italy; a million dollar, and wildly unsuccessful, pitch for Burger King for which he hired one of Paul McCartney’s producers. There were the video monitors in the floor that played the agency’s ads, but which had to be ripped out time and again because they weren’t properly vented beneath the floor.(One learns a lot when one has the office next to the CFO’s.) On and on. All the furnishings were custom-made, mostly in Europe, and shipped at extraordinary expense to the company. And the agency only occupied those offices for about five years. The waste.

Yes, Frank Lowe is back in the ad game. But can the people he works with, or his clients, afford him? And in a world where advertisers are looking for proof of return-on-investment for every ad dollar they spend…well, is that a world Frank Lowe can live in?

Reader Comments

Mick Greer

February 13, 2006 1:26 AM

As an ex employee of LHS I was greatful for the nice surroundings, it made coming to work more enjoyable.

If the furniture was bought on price alone I'm sure I would have been out of there at 5 on the dot each day. Maybe Frank was being smart and making the place as comfortable as possible so folk would work longer.

Your petty whinging seems to suggest you have some axe to grind with Sir Frank. Do you? Was he a bit mean spirted to one day, did he not like one of your suggestions? come on tell all.

David Kiley

February 17, 2006 6:48 PM

No axe to grind. When I left Lowe, I was showed the door by the chairman of the New York office with whom I had drifted apart. Actually, I had been hired by his predecessor, and I'm surprised I lasted two years with him after my guy was fired.

My comments are the truth, and can be verified by any number of people. Frank Lowe was fiscally out of his mind when it came to spending shareholder money. That's just my opinion. Not only did he spend extravagantly, but he spent stupidly.

Case in point: When we pitched Burger King, I know we spent about one million dollars and went to absurd lengths to impress the client (i.e. hiring Paul McCartney's stage manager to produce the pitch and spending tens of thousands of dollars on union labor to install bathrooms in raw temporary space we were using for a presentation hall...only to rip them out after the show was over. And did I mention the mime? The winning agency presented across the street from us in a simple rented space in The New York Public Library.

Frank, as I said, is a champion of great creative. But his methods for achieving it, and his general treatment of people (I saw him send a young account exec out of a room in tears after scolding her for bringing a plate of fruit into a client meeting instead of a "proper plate of cheese and biscuits."

It may sound a bit like carping, but it's really just based on three years of up-close observation. And it can be backed up by other who were there.

Trevor Palin

January 22, 2007 11:34 AM

Having worked personally for Sir Frank for over eight years and got to see the side of him that many exec's, who were hanging onto the bonus schemes etc, could never of imagined. Yes he could be aggressive and shout but that was because his standards were and still are exeptionally high.
He has built an amazing empire that employs thousands the world over.
He could be charming and kind and as you know the rewards for hard work and due dilligence were extreemly high.
His appreciation of fine living and his passion for photography is second to none.
For a guy that started walking Sir Frank Lowe's dogs up a hill in Switzerland, photographed the shots for a fizzy drinks pitch in NY( You should remember that circa mid-90's), arranged a yearly exhibition in London etc I got to see a man who's commitment and dedication to his company were unbelievable.
I faced every possible emotion that could be put forward and
was proud to have been just a small part of his personal team.

Many thanks

Trevor Palin

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News, opinions, inflammatory meanderings and occasional ravings about the world of advertising, marketing and media. By marketing editor Burt Helm, Innovation Editor Helen Walters, and senior correspondent Michael Arndt.

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