Sir Frank Lowe gets into the lift at an agency party. Before the doors close, a young secretary slips through. "So Frank, how about a blow-job?" she asks cheekily. Sir Frank looks her up and down and replies: "what's in it for me?"
A reader swears he told that joke to Lowe himself, standing with the former InterPublic Group CEO Phil Geier. It sums up the dichotomy that is Sir Frank: it can be told both for and against him. Even Geier might have smiled, ruefully.
Everyone in adland will have their views - mostly unprintable - of Sir Frank, who has announced plans for a new UK agency. He polarises opinion like no other, even Sir Martin Sorrell. With Sorrell you can see where he is trying to get to, however ambitious. Even when others - because of his ruthlessness - think Sorrell's being personal, it's just business. Sometimes, to a fault. With Sir Frank - usually - business succeeds because of the acumen and creativity within his "personal". Unlike Sorrell he is unpredictable; brilliant, capricious, strategic, opportunistic and devious. He is capable of being charming and poisonous. I have experienced both Franks. We have had many fall-outs.
However, working for him, or competing against him, are different matters. He inspires fear and admiration. Many top British admen have told me that what they know they learnt from Frank Lowe - even if they hated how he taught it.
His new partner, Paul Weinberger, is the latest in a long list of names who were parted from Sir Frank, only to go back for more. They are there every year at the Stella Artois tennis tournament, of which he is founder and president. An invitation meant you were still in his club, whether or not you actually worked for him.
The same goes for clients. At the then Collett Dickenson Pearce and Lowe, he was associated with more business-transforming advertising campaigns than any British adman. But, in the run-up to his 2003 ousting, there appeared to be a diminishing band of clients that cared for Sir Frank's increasingly isolated and supposedly old-fashioned view of marketing.
Snipers would tell me all Frank did was make a few phone calls to key clients at Weetabix, Whitbread, Vauxhall, Olympus and, yes, Tesco, or in the old days Gallaher, Hovis, Parker Pens or Heineken, and then come in and terrorise his staff. It always surprised me that this was criticism.
Today, there will be bitterness at the old Lowe. Some carping bears the hint of ageism: "He's too old - what can he know about the needs of a huge marketer like Tesco?" Probably as much as this long-term resident of Chelsea and Gstaad did about shopping in the "pile it high, sell it cheap" Tesco. But he still began that retailer's marketing transformation with Dudley Moore's chicken campaign in 1990, and since 1993, "every little helps".
Ask InBev, owner of Stella Artois about how he helped to make a premium-priced Belgian beer the third-largest grocery brand in the country by using elitist French imagery, and dialogue. Ask Freddie Heineken about how Lowe sold his once pissy UK variant by the six-pack load.
There's some irony in the dismissal of an "out-of-touch" Lowe by current agency big cheeses. Not multi-millionaires like him, they "only" earn £500k, and don't live in Chelsea, but merely afford the season tickets and drive the "tractors". Is Tesco's Tim Mason, rightly one of the country's most admired marketers, really going to "risk" the country's most valuable brand on an over-the-hill multi-millionaire?
Sir Frank's "old-fashioned" views no longer appear so in a fragmented media world. He was consistently the fiercest opponent of mass-market advertising bludgeoning consumers through media spend and repetition: the old P & G and Unilever. He is a lifelong exponent of communications through engagement, the buzzword of the late 2000s. He advocated likeable, entertaining and arresting advertising that consumers would choose to engage with repeatedly. Plus, there were early non-traditional media ideas like "the Stella" tournament.
Of course, he will no more be making the ads today than Michael Roth, the new-ish IPG group CEO and ultimate boss of the old Lowe agency. Like him or not, Sir Frank stands for the same things he always has. And, at least he stands for something. No offence to him, but as part of IPG, what can Garry Lace, the Lowe London boss, "stand for" by comparison, whatever his talents? Either a watered down version of Sir Frank, or what?
Roth was interviewed in last week's Campaign magazine. After admitting that IPG has done "a poor job" with its Lowe subsidiary, he said: "I think some clients are pleased to be dealing with somebody who sees things purely from a business perspective. They know I'll not be coming to them with a big marketing idea."
Read that again. Can you imagine Sir Martin saying that, let alone Sir Frank? Think about it. then, think about Sir Frank's start-up hiring some of the very best strategic and creative talent in London, most with long Tesco experience.
It's a betrayal of trust thing, you say? Think about Lace's appointment as Lowe chief exec without the knowledge, let alone approval, of the agency chairman (and long-term Tesco creative director) Paul Weinberger. Then, think about the 600lb gorilla in the room matter of IPG's £3m recent rebate to Tesco. Now, if you were the decidedly professional marketer Tim Mason, what would you think?
Not everyone will agree with this column - especially at "old Lowe". And Sir Frank is capable of being motivated by revenge. But Tesco (like BA) does not move its account to satisfy personal motivation. It is a hassle for the marketer to do so, even if the 20+ team moves, too. Nor do I see the hand of Sir Martin Sorrell behind all this - other than to capitalise on the situation ("buy your media, Sir Frank?").
This is about Tesco's dissatisfaction with IPG's Lowe London and Sir Frank Lowe believing there is room for his philosophy of engaging communications in an industry that is more about satisfying holding company shareholders than producing big marketing ideas for clients. Tesco is putting its trust where that trust has been rewarded handsomely in the past. Tim Mason will be all too aware that Sir Frank can be a pain in the arse, and of whether he's worth it.
Suddenly it does not seem so personal in that naive way younger execs bleat about clients moving accounts because of "personal relationships". Clients trust Maurice Saatchi and his gang, John Hegarty, Robin Wight, Trevor Beattie and Sir Frank because previous partnerships have brought them business and rewards. All aspiring execs try to attain to that level of trust. In the end, it's not about being "friends", it's about business.
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