CLOSE-UP: NEWSMAKER - MATTHEW BULL. Why Lowe's new chief will be a shock to its system

Matthew Bull's style is the antithesis of predecessor Thomas, John Tylee writes.

The respective sartorial styles of Chris Thomas, the ousted Lowe chief executive, and his chosen successor, Matthew Bull, may provide the best clue to the extent of the regime change the agency is about to undergo.

Thomas was never seen on duty without a suit. Bull, synonymous with jeans and T-shirts, wouldn't be seen dead in one.

Moreover, while Thomas is circumspect and quiet, Bull is forthright and uncompromising. "I speak the truth too often for my own good," he admits. "People find that refreshing but scary."

And while Thomas may have lacked physical presence, nobody could say the same about the six-foot two-inch, shaven-headed Bull.

Certainly, Bull's casual dress code isn't to be mistaken for a laid-back attitude. This is what he says about the role of agencies: "They can have the best financial systems in the world but without a great product they're nothing."

And this is his recipe for keeping creative standards consistently high: "If I look at a piece of work I feel I've seen before, it doesn't matter if it's spot-on. It can never be more than just good."

Small wonder that Mark Wnek, the chairman of Euro RSCG Wnek Gosper, who shared a Cannes jury room with Bull, calls him "a classic, uncompromising in-your-face creative".

Lowe's management, it seems, would have it no other way. As one senior executive puts it: "His appointment not only signals our intention to focus on the creative work but recognises that, as an agency, we'd slightly lost the plot."

After last year's traumas, that's putting it mildly. It's clearly why some interpret the hiring as an attempt to return to the old actor/manager style personified by its eponymous founder, Sir Frank Lowe, which brought the agency its greatest glories.

Like Lowe, Bull, 39, is a creative turned account man. The pair have known each other since the mid-90s and are said to be united in mutual respect. There are even suggestions Lowe's protege could end up running the network one day. "Matthew is Frank without the ruthlessness," a Lowe source says.

Bull knows the London job is his big opportunity. The ad scene in his native South Africa is high quality but confined by its isolation, he says. London is his chance to paint on a larger canvass. Whether Lowe will prove a robust enough easel for Bull's style of abstract expressionism remains to be seen.

The consensus is that he will either triumph spectacularly or fail miserably.

"It will be a shock for him and for the agency," a former Lowe senior manager predicts. "But the place needs a shock."

Some believe Lowe lost its way as a consequence of having its culture badly diluted by the 1999 merger of the then Lowe Howard-Spink with Ammirati Puris Lintas.

The merger had implications nobody foresaw. Tesco and HSBC took priority in the bedding down operation while Vauxhall, without a champion on the management team and less than impressed by the agency's brand campaign, sought solace at Delaney Lund Knox Warren & Partners. Meanwhile, the £43 million Orange account had to be cut loose as key managers on the business left.

The relentless bad news weighed heavily on Thomas. The one-time APL chief executive had been defined by a decade spent in the well-mannered surroundings of Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO. He found himself uncomfortable in Lowe's often-unforgiving environment.

"Chris is a lovely guy but he was never the right choice for chief executive," an ex-Lowe staffer says. "It's not that he was a 'yes' man. He just didn't say 'no' often enough."

Bull, who along with the agency chairman, Paul Edwards, will report to Tim Lindsay, the president of Lowe & Partners Worldwide, has a clear set of challenges. He must restore Lowe's self-belief, get a core team of like-minded people around him, introduce more creative consistency and repair the faltering new-business machine.

He is aware of the recent chequered history of Lowe in London. "It's done some great work in the past but I think it's off its best," he says.

But he claims the job he is about to take on is the only one he would leave his homeland for.

He worked as a journalist on computer and marketing magazines and in PR before becoming an agency copywriter aged 22.

After a spell at Ogilvy & Mather in Johannesburg he joined TBWA/Hunt Lascaris, the country's creative standard bearer.

There he linked with Tony Granger, now Saatchi & Saatchi London's executive creative director, to form a Cannes gold-winning partnership. "We were always given the most difficult assignments," Granger recalls. "It was the place where we grew up."

The Smirnoff account first brought him to Lowe's attention. The small outfit at which Bull was working had the business. He claims its performance was less than impressive until his team got to grips with it.

When Bull Calvert Pace was formed, Lowe bought into it and Bull was introduced into the culture he always craved. Seven years on, Lowe Bull Calvert Pace has 140 staff, offices in Johannesburg and Cape Town, a number-eight ranking and a blue-chip client list that includes Unilever, Coca-Cola, Microsoft and Dulux.

Can Bull's alchemy prove equally successful in London? One UK agency boss who knows him has no doubts. "I'm going to start worrying about the threat from Lowe more than I've done for some time," he says.

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