Frank Lowe: The King of Chutzpah

David Kiley

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?

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