PERSPECTIVE: Put craft before the profit motive or see the magic slip away

The news that Chris Thomas has left Lowe is about as surprising as the news that further accounting irregularities have been unearthed at IPG. It was really just a question of when.

The inevitability comes not because Thomas was solely responsible for Lowe's recent problems (the loss of key accounts such as Orange and Vauxhall business); those who have worked with Thomas speak of his phenomenal energy, describing him as an extremely positive and focused ad man. Thomas, for all his strengths, has been forced out because Lowe has lost some of the lifeblood that made it a magical agency and as chief executive he must take final responsibility. That's the job.

With the management changes, Lowe is acknowledging that it needs a chief executive who will be an inspirational touchstone, a figurehead from whom can trickle a whole culture and identity around which everyone can rally.

Such a figurehead makes the good times, drives success; but when times aren't good (and your parent holding company has managed to get itself dragged through the mud) such a leader becomes an absolute necessity.

Thomas never seemed to crack this and the heritage that comes with the Lowe name has been allowed to wither. Lowe is not unusual in this. As entrepreneurial agencies have become harnessed to amorphous holding companies and the names above the door have moved on and up, ensuring the heartland agency retains the sort of culture that made it great in the first place is an immense challenge.

BMP DDB seems to be struggling in a similar way to hold on to the spirit that made it one of the greatest agencies.

What Lowe now needs - and believes it has found in Matthew Bull - is a leader with flair, vision and a real passion for making advertising. Someone for whom the chief executive title is not a career goal, but an opportunity to make a difference. Someone who is driven by a desire to deliver the best solutions for clients and has the confidence to hold their ground in defence of what they believe is right. All of which might sound like airy fairyness when economic realities require tough decisions and shrewd business nous.

But while agencies have to be run as tight businesses, this cannot be sustained without impassioned leadership with a love for the craft of their industry.

In his book Dear Lord Leverhulme I Think We May Have Solved Your Problem, Frank Lowe warns against agencies that shift "from the business of doing advertising from which they make a profit, to that of creating profits by means of advertising". This has become the uncomfortable reality for most agencies, and a prerequisite for holding-company survival. But it should never become the spirit in which agencies are run or the motivator that drives staff - unless more agencies want to get cosy to the Securities and Exchange Commission.

- Caroline Marshall is on maternity leave.

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