Close-Up: Live Issue - 'Frank has no interest in recreating the past'

Paul Hammersley tells John Tylee his start-up is not just Sir Frank Lowe's business, and vows it will look forward, not back.

Paul Hammersley has been left holding a large baby. It's a bouncing infant agency whose birth announcement was remarkable as much for its brevity as for its timing.

What's more, Tesco saw the agency secure third spot in Campaign's new-business rankings at the end of last year without either being properly christened or finding a home.

Last week, with Sir Frank Lowe, whose brainchild the agency is, playing the role of absent father - and with major hirings yet to commit themselves - it fell to Hammersley, 43, to be its public face.

For him, it is a period of mixed and conflicting emotions. He acknowledges some guilt about quitting as the chief executive of DDB London after a ten-month spell in which significant progress was made in restoring the agency's fortunes, leaving work remaining to be done. To make matters worse for DDB, the agency's chief strategic officer, David Hackworthy, was dithering over whether or not to jump ship with his erstwhile boss as Campaign went to press.

Hammersley also confesses concern about the impact on the Lowe London staff (although little for the agency itself) of him grabbing its £50 million flagship Tesco account. This impact will be compounded if Hammersley also manages to take the highly decorated creative director Ed Morris, who at the time of going to press was still considering his options.

For the moment, though, there's little time for sentiment. Not with negotiations for temporary office space in Soho to deal with, or the need to bed in up to 35 members of Lowe London's Tesco team, who will be offered jobs so that the agency is ready to take over the business from 1 March.

While the movement of such a huge chunk of business is inevitably disruptive, this one is being made as smooth as possible. Paul Weinberger, the former Lowe London chairman, will continue as the account's creative overlord, with the seasoned Tesco creatives Sam Cartmell and Jason Lawes to help him.

Meanwhile, Mark Cadman, having finally resolved his "should I stay or should I go?" dilemma as JWT's managing director, comes in to reprise his old Lowe role as the senior suit on Tesco, while taking over the fledgling shop's day-to-day management.

What remains to be seen is how big a part Sir Frank, 64, irascible, demanding, but a brilliant communicator and the agency's catalyst, will play in its development. Some onlookers wonder if he will be able to curb his inclination to meddle. Mindful of his associations with a more extravagant and flamboyant era, some question his relevance in today's fast-evolving world of integrated communications.

Significantly, he is not expected to take a higher stake in the agency than any of his eventual seven partners. Moreover, having declined to include the Lowe name above its door, it's evident that the founders want to build on Sir Frank's legacy rather than trade on it.

"Frank brings a fantastic reputation, some great connections and a strong intuition about brands and strategy, which has not been dulled by the years, and he'll always challenge us to do the best possible work," Hammersley says.

"But this isn't Frank's business. We're looking down the road, not in the rear-view mirror, and Frank has no interest in recreating the past. He'll be active, but he'll be in the directors' box while the rest of us are on the pitch."

Nevertheless, it was Sir Frank who sent out a precipitous press release on 1 December, detailing only his own involvement.

The other intriguing question is whether the agency would ever have come into being, had it not been for a series of missed opportunities and what some see as insensitive management decisions. Would Tesco have stayed put had a multimillion-pound media rebate not raised concerns about the conduct of the Lowe network's Interpublic parent? Would Sir Frank have contemplated a start-up had IPG been able to swallow its pride and offer him an ambassadorial role suited to his talent?

"Getting rid of Frank was a dreadful mistake," an associate says. "The Lowe Group would have had a clear sense of itself and its place in the market, had Frank been put on a pedestal."

Nevertheless, it was little more than a year ago that Sir Frank was still professing no interest in setting up "Lowe-in-exile" and recapturing Tesco.

So what happened to change his mind?

The answer lies in the relationship between Weinberger, a long-time Sir Frank devotee, and Tesco. As long as Lowe London could keep its chairman happy, the Tesco account was safe.

But Weinberger was growing increasingly unhappy. Although not short of offers from rival agencies, he had always rejected them, fearing the repercussions for Lowe London would be too great. However, his disenchantment with IPG was growing.

Some observers believe events may have been precipitated by IPG's decision to hand back to Tesco £3 million partly attributable to volume discounts Lowe London had received from its suppliers but not passed on. The move embarrassed Weinberger and is believed to have been a contributory factor in the decision of Tesco's marketing director, Tim Mason, to move the business. So began the chain of events that resulted in the start-up.

However, Hammersley denies it is a vehicle for Sir Frank to get his own back on IPG.

"Frank hasn't been plotting his revenge," he insists. "He just wants to set the record straight in terms of his reputation."

So what kind of agency will Sir Frank's baby be? The partners are reluctant to award themselves titles, although it is likely that Hammersley, Weinberger and Morris will combine to form the agency's outward face. "We're fortunate in having a team that's not only capable of running Tesco from day one, but also of focusing on client relationships and new business," Hammersley comments.

Apart from Tesco, the agency's client list remains blank. Hammersley expects that to change before it opens its doors, prompting speculation that Heineken, currently housed at Clemmow Hornby Inge, could be on its way. Hammersley also has close ties with DDB's £10 million Weetabix account.

As far as going international is concerned, Hammersley cautions against trying to run before you can walk. In time, the agency might want to look at replicating the global models established by Bartle Bogle Hegarty and Wieden & Kennedy, he says. But not yet. Which may explain why the contact between Sir Frank and Sir Martin Sorrell has not extended beyond informal conversations. The WPP chief has offered advice and help, Hammersley says.

But, he adds: "There is no outside involvement in this business and I don't expect there will be."

Given the background of its guiding spirit, it is no surprise that creativity tops the new agency's philosophical agenda. "We all believe the quality of creativity has deteriorated," Hammersley says. "One reason is because agencies don't try hard enough to produce better work. As a result, consumers are turning away to other forms of entertainment. As Bill Bernbach said, 'creativity isn't an indulgence, it's a business tool.'"

Bearing that in mind, the agency partners are looking to bolster their offering not with specialist divisions, but by bringing in talent, particularly planners with specialist skills that extend beyond the conventional. With Tesco's media account expected to remain with IPG's Initiative, the agency's media arrangements have yet to be resolved.

Meanwhile, there's the small matter of whether to allow in a production company that wants to produce a TV reality show about an agency start-up. Move over Big Brother, here comes Sir Frank.