Close-up: Newsmaker - Lowe puts its faith in Morris to bring real creative leadership

A firm hand is required to steer the agency to calmer waters. John Tylee reports.

"Challenging" barely begins to describe Ed Morris' task as he takes the creative helm at Lowe in London.

Swept close to the rocks by a series of huge account losses, forced to trim its crew and sailing under the command of a demanding captain, the Lowe ship needs calm waters and a creative wind in its sails.

Is Morris the man to help provide the necessary momentum? And, just as important, will Matthew Bull, Lowe's forthright and firmly opinionated chief executive, be able to curb his hands-on style sufficiently to allow Morris his head?

Bull has already made it clear that he expects his new executive creative director to take Lowe's creative product up through the gears. Moreover, he is said to have told Morris that he expects progress to manifest itself with a good early strike rate at Cannes and D&AD.

"I don't want there to be any such thing as a 'typical' Lowe ad," Bull insists. "I want people to see our work, think it brilliant and then wonder who did it."

For Morris, 36, an already daunting task is made even harder by the absence of much promising raw material on which to work. Lowe's creative culture, seriously diluted as a result of the 1999 merger with the solid-but-dull Ammirati Puris Lintas, still hasn't recovered.

Moreover, of Lowe's major accounts, only Stella Artois provides any real opportunity to impress awards juries. Vauxhall, Tesco and what remains of Unilever have much more prosaic demands. And this week it was announced that the agency is parting company with Diet Coke.

"If Morris is really going to make a difference, he's got to prove he can do it on the ugly stuff," a former Lowe senior manager says.

In Morris' favour is the fact that he takes over the job with a strong creative pedigree, which, according to Bull, will command the respect of his department.

An 11-year association with his copywriting partner, James Sinclair, spanned spells at some of the UK's most creative agencies, including GGT, Bartle Bogle Hegarty and TBWA\London, and resulted in a series of award-winning campaigns. Sony PlayStation's "double life" commercial, the "lost dog" work for Volkswagen and the Johnnie Walker "keep on walking" ads bear testament to the duo's talent.

What's more, Morris maintains an unquenchable passion for perfection.

Dave Trott, a founding partner of Bainsfair Sharkey Trott, remembers how a young Morris would work late into the evening to get something right.

"It made no difference that I, as the creative director, was happy with it," Trott says. "Ed set himself standards that were even higher than mine and that has to be a good thing."

Jeremy Bowles, the former Lowe managing director, now a partner at WCRS, is similarly impressed. "Ed is a great editor of ideas," he declares. "I think he'll be a big success."

Some, though, question whether Morris' love of his own work will impede his rite of passage to creative chief. Indeed, Morris fuels the debate.

"If David Abbott could continue producing ads and be a creative director, I don't see why I can't," he argues.

But a one-time associate says: "You have to get all the award-winning ads out of your system before you become the creative director of a large agency and I'm not sure Morris has.

"A creative department needs a strong leader who will encourage his staff to do their best work. If you're in a position to have the pick of the briefs, you're in danger of being in competition with your own people."

Curiously, those who have worked with Morris down the years never marked him out as a creative director-in-waiting.

Bruce Crouch, the former Bartle Bogle Hegarty creative boss, recalls the natural leadership qualities of Nik Studzinski, now in creative command at Publicis, but remembers Morris as the quiet and thoughtful antithesis of the flamboyant Sinclair.

Former colleagues suggest that his split with Sinclair, when the latter departed in June last year to be a creative partner on Ogilvy & Mather's Ford account, was a defining moment. "He was very down when Sinclair left," one says. "He felt he really needed to prove himself as a solo creative."

Others claim that beneath a studious exterior lurks a big ego and an astute political operator. Morris reinforces this perception when he declares: "I didn't get where I am today without knowing the difference between good work and bad."

A former Lowe executive says of Morris: "He's not arrogant but he has a steely, quiet determination. He knows how to handle Bull."

Whether or not that means bowing to his boss' will remains to be seen.

"Ed will have plenty of rope," Bull maintains. "He's well aware of the standards I expect and I have immense faith in him."

But for Bull, mooted as Lowe's future worldwide creative director, resisting the temptation to meddle may prove hard. Not least because top-level involvement in the creative product is ingrained in the Lowe culture.

"If Bull feels the job is being done properly, he'll let Morris get on with it," an ex-Lowe chief says. "But he'll always have a view about the work because it's part of a tradition that Sir Frank Lowe established. It's not in the agency's culture for the chief executive to focus exclusively on client relationships and ignore the ads."

Morris insists the captain and the helmsman will not be fighting for control of the wheel. "We engage with each other and he respects my decision-making," he asserts.

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