Close-up: Newsmaker - Baptism of fire awaits Lowe's new chief executive
campaignlive.co.uk, Friday, 10 September 2004 12:00AM
Tony Wright is unperturbed by his lack of management credentials, John Tylee says. Time will be the judge of whether Interpublic's appointment of Tony Wright to lead Lowe out of its slough of despond was inspired or a hasty act it will live to regret.
The chief strategy and planning officer at Ogilvy & Mather in New York has never run an agency, let alone a network. And he's had no experience of tackling the kind of management and business problems that the group has faced.
Even within Lowe itself, the announcement has been greeted with some scepticism. "There's no question that Wright is a bright guy but there has to be a question about whether he's a chief executive," a senior manager says.
At O&M, the reaction is one of equal puzzlement. "I'm surprised he's taken the job because he's never run anything," a top executive comments. "And Wright is entering a snake-pit."
To any onlooker who has watched the political shenanigans at a network devastated by a litany of multimillion-pound account losses, this looks like an understatement. Wright not only has to raise the morale of 8,000 Lowe staff worldwide, but stem the haemorrhage of business and define Lowe's shape and philosophy.
Mike Walsh, O&M's UK group chairman, describes Wright as "one of the brightest and most entertaining strategists I've ever worked with."
"Tony is very outgoing but thoroughly disorganised," Walsh adds. "He's always busy with things and, like a lot of bright people who focus on something, he's lost to everything else."
Aged 43, Wright has a mid-Atlantic accent that belies his London birthplace.
The son of a Fleet Street printer, he read French and German at Reading University. He joined Hedger Mitchell Stark, following it into its merger with Saatchi & Saatchi but stayed only briefly, before an urge to work in the US proved impossible to resist.
His first job was at Chiat Day in Los Angeles, where he wrote the brief that led to the Energizer "bunny" campaign. At 27, he set up briefly with the creative Tom McElligott before moving to New York to join DDB Needham.
With its then president, Andy Berlin, and the planner Ewen Cameron, he launched Berlin Wright Cameron to take on VW's US account. O&M hired him in 1995.
"If anybody can sort out Lowe, Tony can," Berlin says. "He's not only an internationalist but involved in the new waves in advertising. He also thinks about problems in a way that almost nobody else does."
David Bell, IPG's chief executive and president, who appointed Wright, is equally lavish in his praise. He describes his choice as "an exceptional talent" with a proven ability to succeed.
"O&M was a fantastic experience but I'd begun to think there was a limit to the role of planning," Wright explains. "I was getting a bit tired of presenting strategy but not being able to execute it."
He is unperturbed by his lack of agency management experience. "I've run global accounts which are as difficult and complex as they come," he says. "I don't think the operational issues are complex." IPG may meet any operational shortfalls with the intervention of Steve Gatfield, its executive vice-president of global operations.
Although Wright doesn't start officially until November, IPG wants his involvement to begin as quickly as possible. "Lowe is now Tony's company," an IPG source says.
Meanwhile, his predecessor, Jerry Judge, having failed to get any public support from IPG as reports emerged that his job was under threat, looks set to make as dignified an exit as possible. There seems no other explanation for its decision to have him run The Partnership, a grouping of various agency brands, which will be out of existence by the end of the year.
The consensus is that Judge was brought down by a job that overwhelmed him. Some claim he was neither close enough to senior clients nor had enough high-calibre senior managers around him.
What's more, he seems to have made powerful enemies. Sir Frank Lowe, the network's prickly founder, saw Judge as the personification of all that he perceived was wrong with IPG. Nor does there seem to have been much love lost between Judge and Matthew Bull, the South African in charge of the London agency. Bull, said to have Bell's ear, is seen to be playing an increasingly influential role within the network.
So, Wright's task looks formidable. Not least because Lowe can't match the scale of its major global rivals, while the likes of TBWA\Worldwide and BBDO continue to threaten its occupancy of the creative high ground.
There's widespread agreement that Wright's first task must be to seek out and reassure the top people at Lowe's largest multinational clients, notably Unilever and General Motors. Unilever chiefs have never been satisfied that they got the combination of creative potency and high-level client service promised after the 1999 merger of Lowe with Ammirati Puris Lintas and the network's grip on its business has been under threat.
On the home front, rallying the troops will have to be top of his agenda and some believe he'll need to scrutinise the costly salary cheques of some of the network's long-serving senior managers.
Hand-in-hand with resolving Lowe's future place in the global communications world will be a clear definition of the relationship with its below-the-line stablemate, Draft. Despite last year's announcement that the two divisions would align their global operations to provide integrated solutions for clients, insiders claim there has been no concerted effort to bring the businesses together.
"It's never been decided how the Draft business will be run outside the US," one says. "As a result, any attempt at streamlining the network hasn't got off the ground."
Theories abound on what a future Lowe will look like. One scenario being suggested is that Lowe's core operations in London and New York will have to be bolstered, perhaps via mergers with Delaney Lund Knox Warren & Partners and Deutsche respectively, although there's little evidence to support such a move just now. An option on the global scale is that Lowe will transform itself into a creatively led micro-network of maybe no more than 20 agencies, the remaining 60-plus either being sold or taken into the IPG-owned FCB or McCann Erickson networks.
Wright is under no illusions that Lowe will have to undergo a period of fundamental change. He's open-minded about the prospect of moving Lowe's headquarters back to London, although this might entail some personal upheaval. He lives in New York with his long-term partner, Andrew, and their adopted Guatemalan children Brian, 4, and Gabriel, 2.
"It's too early to say what changes will take place," he says. "But I still believe Lowe is an extraordinary brand which produces fantastic creative work along with a real ability to execute it globally."
1999: Lowe & Partners merges with Ammirati Puris Lintas.
March 2002: Lowe's relationship with Vauxhall dealt a blow as the
car-maker looks for a second UK agency to share its £55 million
July 2002: Lowe loses £10 million Burger King account to Delaney
Lund Knox Warren & Partners.
Sept 2002: Lowe resigns £43 million Orange business.
Oct 2002: Lowe makes 23 redundancies in wake of Orange loss.
Feb 2003: IPG merges Bozell with Lowe agency in New York to.
March 2003: Chris Thomas ousted as chief executive in London. Replaced
by Matthew Bull.
June 2003: Paul Hammersley quits as chief executive of Lowe & Partners
Worldwide in New York after power struggle.
Sept 2003: DLKW defeats Lowe for £12 million brief to launch new
Vauxhall Astra. Sir Frank Lowe retires.
Nov 2003: Tim Lindsay quits as Lowe Worldwide president after falling
out with Jerry Judge.
Dec 2003: Unilever moves £8 million pan-European Surf business out
of Lowe to Bartle Bogle Hegarty without a pitch.
Jan 2004: Lowe loses £40 million global Braun account to BBDO in
consolidation by Braun's Gillette parent.
Feb 2004: Tom Bernadin quits as chief executive of Lowe New York to join
Leo Burnett. Agency loses £170 million Verizon Wireless account. A
total of 47 jobs lost in London and New York.
May 2004: Lowe loses HSBC as the bank consolidates £350 million
account within WPP.
July 2004: Lowe loses Unilever's £25 million pan-European Flora
account to BBH.
Sept 2004: Tony Wright named as Judge's successor to run the Lowe
This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk
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