Close-Up: Live issue - Can Walsh restore Lowe to its former standing?

The new management team may have enthusiasm and talent but Lowe's problems run deep. Noel Bussey investigates.

After months of rumour and speculation, Lowe has finally announced the appointment of Amanda Walsh as the chief executive of Lowe London.

However, the fact Steve Gatfield, Lowe's worldwide chief responsible for the hiring, contacted Walsh on the very day she left United in May shows that the network had a fairly good idea of the shape the management structure of the London agency should take.

But this also proves that Walsh was in no hurry to accept. This isn't surprising when you take into account that just a few months ago, there were whispers of the network either being closed down or merged with Draft by its struggling parent company - the Interpublic Group.

There's no doubt Walsh was coy about accepting the role and rumour has it her contract will see her well paid even if, indeed, the rug comes out from under the agency.

In the absence of a chief exe- cutive (Garry Lace left in May following an internal investigation), the agency has been run by Ed Morris, the executive creative director and Chris Hunton, the managing director.

Walsh, who was most recently the European chief executive of the United network, is acutely aware that the lack of a chief executive has a destabilising effect - not just on agency staff but also on the wider perception of the brand. She sees the re-stabilisation of the agency as her first task.

She says: "The agency needs a morale boost and some leadership. Ed also needs someone to take the strain of the agency off him. He asked for someone to make his life easier. When a chief executive leaves, the figure of highest rank tends to become the figurehead."

The lack of stability may be the initial concern but, as has been widely documented, there are other, more deep-seated, problems at this once-great agency.

With the departure during the past few years of major accounts such as General Motors, Braun, HSBC and Tesco, the agency is a shadow of its former self.

After discounting the loss of the £45 million Tesco account, Lowe has moved perilously close to dropping out of the top 20 agencies by billings, an astounding notion when you recall that the agency was the second biggest in the UK after it merged with Lintas in the late 90s.

Tim Lindsay, the chairman of Publicis and a chief executive of Lowe during its glory days, says: "An agency picking itself up needs ruthless determination. It takes ages to shake the 'troubled' epithet. They need to win a lot of business and do some really good ads. No-one is going to cut them any slack."

The Lowe Worldwide board is aware of this and has spent a lot of time, and money in Morris' case, on putting together a brand new senior management triumvirate. Along with Walsh and Morris, Lowe also recently appointed Rebecca Morgan as its chief strategy officer.

Morgan, who moved to the agency from BT, where she was the head of marketing communications, has both agency and client-side experience and is widely regarded as a strong planning talent.

Russ Lidstone, the strategy director at Euro RSCG and a former Lowe planning director, says she has some huge shoes to fill. "People talk about the creative heritage of the agency, but they forget that some of the industry's best planners started at Lowe: Laurence Green, John Lowery and Chris Chalk, to name a few."

Nevertheless, it was Lowe's creative heritage that made it famous, so when Lace secured Morris in a three-year, £1 million-plus deal, he knew what he was doing.

Morris' sway - and pay - at the agency and within the network could be tricky for the incoming chief executive. Who is the more senior, the CEO or the creative chief? What will happen when they disagree on strategy?

Also, Walsh freely admits that she "doesn't take orders well" and a number of industry commentators point to the fact that she has had problems with creative directors in the past. However, she is quick to refute this claim.

"There's no such thing as a difficult creative director. They're emotional people, but not problematic to manage. I managed Robin Wight (while the managing director of WCRS) when people said that was impossible."

However, under closer inspection, there already seem to be some differences of opinion on what is important when moving the agency forward. Walsh, for example, repeatedly talks about how Lowe needs to re-establish itself in the global market by doing great work on global brands, whereas Morris seems convinced that the London agency needs the work and that is where the focus should be placed.

However, Mark Cadman, the chief executive of Euro RSCG, who worked with Morris at Lowe, says personal conflicts will not materialise. "Ed values a strong partnership; he had that with me and Russ and will be looking for it again with Amanda. He's definitely a team player."

Morris adds: "The thing I've missed is having people who have the confidence to tell me that not everything is great. Amanda also has a creative sensibility. There's nothing scarier than being surrounded by people nodding, grinning and saying 'yes'."

The job will definitely be a challenging one for the team, but Walsh is extremely confident about the task in hand. She says: "I don't mean to sound complacent, but I don't see it as that tough a job. Everything is in place and the agency is moving forward well."

Such confidence has its roots in the agency's John Lewis win in July. Winning this account in the face of intense competition from other shops was an impressive feat for an agency shy of a chief executive and having just lost its biggest client. A lot of hopes are being pinned on this account; in the course of this interview, it was mentioned roughly once every 53 seconds by one of the senior management team.

Indeed, it is new business that will get Lowe out of its rut. Morris and Morgan appear to have winning pitch manners, something Walsh will need to harness and build up. Her own ability with senior clients might need polishing, as her less-than-shiny legacies at United and Walsh Trott Chick Smith indicate.

Still, given the problems that have long been dogging Lowe London, the agency has signed itself some strong talent. Morris, Morgan and Walsh are energised and ready for the task in hand, and, with time and backing, have the ability to keep the agency moving forward.

Unfortunately, however, because of the much larger-scale problems that IPG is facing, time and backing may be two things that are not available to them.

THE REMAINING CLIENTS
Coca-Cola (Sprite, Malvern)
GE Capital Bank
InBev (Stella Artois)
Innocent
Johnson & Johnson (baby, Piz Buin, skincare)
Nokia
Reebok
Royal Opera House (Royal Ballet)
Twinings
Rugby Football Union
Saab
Unilever (Hellmann's, Peperami, Cif, Domestos, Sure)
Vauxhall (various marques)

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