Flushed with pride: Once the star of adland, Garry Lace isn't ashamed to sell billboards in toilets

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Garry Lace is one of the most controversial figures in advertising and so it was to be expected that his recent re-emergence at a company specialising in "washroom media" would provoke snide comments that his career had gone down the toilet.

Such bitching is, says Lace, "water off a duck's back". Having attained CEO status at TBWA London by the age of 32 and then gone on to run two more of the capital's top creative agencies – only to leave them both in short order and amid much intrigue – he has experienced enough jealousy and office back-biting to last a working lifetime. His story is one of poisonous emails, betrayal, hard partying and mass sackings. But, in his first interview in five years, he says he has emerged the stronger for all of it. Still only 40, he is relaxed and it's clear his confidence in his own sharply-defined philosophy for running a media business wavers not a jot.

After outlining his new role as managing director of Admedia, a company that sells outdoor advertising space in bars, gyms, shopping centres and motorway service stations across Britain, he borrows a notebook to sketch out a graph with four boxes. He scores members of a company's workforce on "ability" and "attitude", thus determining which employees to keep, and which to let go.

"When you have people with high attitude, who are brilliant at their job, they're the people you throw money at every day of the week," he says pointing at the top corner. "But these people here who have incredibly high ability but their attitude sucks, these people are toxic. Because they are clever but hate the company they are capable of standing around the coffee machine and intelligently articulating why the company is shit."

That's them gone then. "Then, people here are the ones that (business guru) Jack Welch says you've got to get rid of every year, the 10 percenters, low attitude, low ability," Lace continues, before pointing to the low ability/ high attitude corner. "But these people here are really up for it but not as developed, these are the people you have to throw your training budget at."

It was that matrix that informed his decision to make 55 staff redundant at Grey London as he attempted to transform the agency's reputation before his own acrimonious departure in 2004.

"I had inherited what people perceived to be – whether it was or it wasn't – the most boring agency in the world. The old gags about Grey by name were very famous," he says. "I made a conscious decision that I was going to change the perception of the business, but to move the dial even 10 degrees I had to take the dial occasionally to 180 degrees."

That included putting a bar in the reception. "The point is not the bar but what the bar does and what it did in Grey's case was it created a place for people to congregate after work that allowed them to become better friends, that created a better atmosphere in the office.

"And it gave us somewhere to take clients after we'd finished meetings."

He says he had begun turning the agency around, attracting a raft of new business, when he dramatically walked out the door after an anonymous email suggested he was planning to go into business with one of the agency's clients, Drew Thomson, the managing director of AirMiles.

It wasn't so much the claim itself ("Even before the email came out, I had made the decision to leave Grey to pursue something else with Drew", Lace confirms) but the suggestion of something underhand. "It was a horrible attempt to undermine me and I discovered last year who it was, by virtue of the fact that somebody wrote to me with pretty irrefutable evidence. I shall just keep that in my back pocket I think," he says. "Because of the email and the PR it generated, as the CEO and the person at the centre of it I made the decision to leave."

Given that Lace, then 35, had apparently determined to leave adland it seems strange that he promptly took up the top job at another agency, Lowe London. "The truth is I wish I hadn't. I went back because I missed the work, I missed the clients, the people," he says now. Big mistake.

Lace's appointment to the agency which advertising legend Sir Frank Lowe had sold to the global Interpublic Group prompted the resignation of its chairman Paul Weinberger. Soon afterwards the prized Tesco account followed Weinberger out the door to Sir Frank's new start-up agency, Red Brick Road.

Then Lace was suspended amid allegations that he was in secret negotiations with Sir Frank himself. He denies he did anything wrong. "I realised very early on that Frank was still a very important part of [Lowe]. He had a fantastic relationship with Paul Weinberger, he obviously was still hugely respected by our biggest client, Tesco, and was de facto one of our clients, the Royal Opera House, because he's on the board," says Lace.

"For all those reasons I ended up having quite a few conversations with Frank almost from day one because he was both a client and somebody that I felt was an important person to have onside."

He fought to keep Ed Morris, Lowe's creative director, but Lace's position became impossible. "I was an easy punchbag because of what had happened at Grey."

He doesn't miss creative advertising, even the festival at Cannes. "Every June for the last four years I have breathed a huge sigh of relief that I don't have to go down to the south of France. I think it's a spectacular and frightening waste of time and money for most people."

Lace is convinced that his real talent has always been in "running a business" and he is "quite proud of the fact that somebody thinks my skills are so transferable that I can go from running an advertising agency to being a media owner".

Admedia is in a strong position, he believes, to take business from clients who understand the importance of impulse buying at point of purchase. After a dull motorway journey we are open to receiving ad messages and we almost certainly have our phones in our pockets and so can respond immediately. Furthermore, "you couldn't get more gender targeted media than our washrooms".

He has another philosophy, one that he's applying to Admedia, based on the 3 M's (marketing, mood, money) and the 3 P's (people, product, process). The company currently delivers on one M (money) and two P's. Worryingly for staff, 'people' is the missing P.

Lace is someone who divides the human race into enthusiastic "radiators" and energy-leeching "drains", the people in the bottom corner of his ability/attitude matrix ("They've got to go ... they've got to go!")

He says he now has a much better work/life balance than when he was in creative advertising ("I think I had a very unhealthy focus on work, it mattered to me far too much") and he now enjoys spending more time with the family, playing tennis and operating as a qualified cricket coach ("probably the best game in the world ... it absolutely teaches you the right ethos around team"). His son opens the batting for the Middlesex under-10s team, he notes proudly. Is he not wary that he might load the weight of his ambitions onto his lad?

"No, because I am and always was a shit cricketer," he says, erupting into laughter and an unexpected display of modesty. "I never had any ambitions to be a cricketer because I was utterly talentless. He doesn't get his talents from me I don't think, quite the opposite."