CLOSE-UP: Newsmaker - Lowe chief uses honesty and openness to inspire

Matthew Bull is determined to restore a sense of worth to all at Lowe.

A wind of change has blown into London from South Africa. Not the one famously identified by Harold Macmillan in his Cape Town speech more than 40 years ago, although you suspect Supermac would have approved of Matthew Bull.

The newly installed Lowe chief executive is a modern manifestation of the rising national consciousness that the then British prime minister saw emerging out of Africa in 1960. Self-confident and forthright, fiercely patriotic about his homeland and with a relentless energy born of living in a society determined to make up for lost time after decades of political and geographic isolation.

What's more, the mementos lining the walls of his third-floor Knightsbridge office overlooking the trees that fringe Hyde Park reinforce the image.

A photograph of himself shaking hands with his all-time hero Nelson Mandela; another of him encircled by his award-winning creative team from Lowe Bull Calvert Pace at last year's prestigious Leorie awards in South Africa.

A drawing of himself surrounded by some of the Asian women he used to work with. Making people feel valued whatever their background is important to him and he makes no secret of his contempt for the discrimination he sees perpetuated in the lingering British class system.

A cartoon of him taming a bucking bull - a parting gift from a journo friend back home - and the South African flag draped below a mini picture gallery of family and friends from school days. All "have helped me keep my feet on the ground and haven't been afraid to call me a wanker if they think I deserve it".

Meeting the shaven-headed six-footer who sports a gold earring, you wonder who would be either brave or foolish enough to make such an allegation.

Bull isn't a man to stand any bullshit and is in a hurry to get things done at Lowe. He's not only just scrapped the agency's unwieldy board and installed a new chairman and planning director, but underscored his new policy of openness by ordering all the doors on the offices of senior managers to be removed.

Doors make people nervous and perpetuate the feelings of secrets being withheld, he explains. And how has Lowe's hierarchy reacted to such a chiselling away of their status? Most are relaxed and one or two have asked for their doors to be put back. Bull won't override the dissenters but is adamant that his door will remain separated from its hinges.

The themes of openness and honesty flow freely through Bull's conversation.

They should define the relationships between clients and agencies, he says. Particularly as Lowe attempts to regain the favour of Vauxhall and replace Delaney Lund Knox Warren & Partners in the carmaker's affections.

Last week, Vauxhall denied a dream start to Bull's new management team by choosing DLKW ahead of Lowe to handle the £12 million launch of its new Astra. Three of DLKW's ideas are going into research, none from Lowe.

Initially crushed by the decision, he now sees the pitch as a necessary catharsis. "We prepared as best we could and thought we had a good idea of what Vauxhall wanted," he says. "But in the end we got beaten by better work."

For Bull, the failure to convert the Astra business symbolises the length of Lowe's return journey. "We've a lot more to learn about Vauxhall's business and get into the client's headspace," he confesses.

"The bad news is that we've had a three-nil thrashing. The good news is that it's only half-time and I get very nervous when my team scores in the first minute. But the experience will make us stronger and we'll learn from it."

What's already clear is that Bull's influence on the agency will be profound and summed up by the four watchwords on the Post-It note on his wall: "brave", "provocative", "dynamic", "inventive".

He can hardly wait to lead Lowe's move out of its present glass and stainless steel home by the summer of 2005. It will certainly do much to improve morale among many staffers condemned to work in cramped, noisy, dingy and sometimes sweltering conditions at Bowater House.

Meanwhile, Bull will bend to the task of making Lowe a leaner and fitter place. That means eliminating bureaucracy and cumbersome processes, enabling key decision makers on the client and agency sides to work more closely together to get things done, he says.

But how did an agency that for so long reflected the entrepreneurial culture of its founder, Sir Frank Lowe, who retires at the end of this year, become tied down by so much red tape?

Bull believes it happened as a direct result of Sir Frank's scaling down of his involvement in the London agency. "As the entrepreneurial spirit withdrew, people tried to replicate it with more processes," he says. "When you do that, you end up copying your big clients. You forget that advertising is an art. It's not process-driven."

Whether or not this is a criticism of Sir Frank, he doesn't say and probably doesn't care. He seems not to live in fear of the blistering phone call from on high as many other senior managers have done. Perhaps because he's never been a Lowe underling. Perhaps because of the carte blanche he's been given to lick the London agency back into shape after a series of devastating account losses and a persistent failure to make pitchlists.

"I've never worked for Frank but I work to his values," he says. "He's much cleverer and wiser than me but he respects me and lets me do things my way and doesn't interfere too much."

Some believe that in Bull Sir Frank sees his younger self. But Bull scoffs at the notion. "We're very different," he claims. "Frank is quite shy. Nobody could ever accuse me of being that." No indeed.

Nevertheless, his position begs the question of whether sharing his mentor's values will extend to muscling in on every area of agency activity, including the creative output. Bull is clear about where the demarcation line will be drawn between himself and Damon Collins, the executive creative director.

"I'll have a say in the creative product because I always have," he declares.

"But my creative directors have the final say on the work and I've never undermined their authority."

Creativity is Bull's passion and he fulminates against what he sees as the relentless throttling of it by research - "a huge corporate tool to avoid accountability". It's already out of control in the UK and even getting an unhealthy grip on emerging markets such as South Africa. Hardly surprising that creative standard bearers such as Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO and BMP DDB have gone off the boil.

Worse, agencies have only themselves to blame. "We're the ones who introduced research because we lost confidence in ourselves and tried to justify our existence to clients. We got ourselves into this mess and we have to get ourselves out of it." How? "By being honest with clients and getting them to trust us with our best work."

The quid pro quo has to be fair remuneration and Bull is scathing about networks doing cut-price deals to win business. "They're happening all the time and they're disgusting.

They undermine what we bring to the party. Why should we be embarrassed about making money if we do a good job? We should be looking at margins of between 15 and 20 per cent - and we should be upfront about it."

Has he found any evidence of Lowe having offered bargain rates? "Thanks to Frank this is a very well-run business," he says. "There are some accounts where I'd like to see some improvement in profitability. But I don't think we've done the work to justify it. Not yet."

QUESTIONNAIRE

Age: 39

Lives: Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire

Family: Wife Sue, son Thomas, 4, daughter Sarah, 8

Favourite ad: Apple's "think different"

Describe yourself in three words: Passionate, loyal, unreasonable

Greatest extravagance: Clothes shopping

Most treasured possession: My family

Most admired agency: Bartle Bogle Hegarty "for its consistent

brilliance"

Living person you most admire: Nelson Mandela

One to watch: South Africa

Motto: Nothing is too difficult for the brave. "It's the motto of Jeppe

High School for Boys in Johannesburg where I was a pupil."

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