Close-Up: Live Issue - Morris keeps control as Lace plots Lowe's future

With its executive creative director staying, Lace must now bring in new business and raise staff morale, John Tylee reports.

Hours after Campaign revealed details of his £1 million-plus "golden handcuffs" deal securing him to Lowe London for three years, Ed Morris was in little doubt who would be picking up that day's lunch tab at The Ivy.

The agency's executive creative director has been the subject of the most intense "will he, won't he" speculation since Sir Frank Lowe's start-up announced his impending arrival to take creative command.

Last week, Morris gave his decision. He won't. The relief is palpable, not only for Garry Lace, Lowe London's chief executive, but also at the New York headquarters of the agency's Interpublic parent.

It has been a bewildering period for Morris. Little more than a year ago, he was barely known outside Lowe's creative department. Last month, fearful Sir Frank's capture of Morris would be the precursor of a full-scale raid on Lowe staff, IPG announced it was going to law.

On the face of it, IPG's decision to keep Morris at any cost looks more symbolic than rational. Yet there are important reasons why the group should want to retain him - and why it was prepared to dig deep into its pockets to do so.

It was not just his key role in sustaining the quality of Lowe's creative output in tumultuous times.

IPG had calculated the possible price of him going and concluded it was too high.

IPG insiders say offering Morris the money was better than having Lowe hit by further client departures. Then there was the prospect of having to pay top dollar for a creative chief of equal pedigree. As Lace confirms: "I can hardly emphasise enough the importance of Ed's decision to stay with us."

Cynics will say the only reasons for Morris not packing his art bag all have the Queen's head printed on them. So is he staying for the money?

"Of course that's true in part, but only in part," he replies. The news that Tesco, the agency's flagship client, planned to follow Sir Frank was a massive setback, he agrees. But this was offset by the agency's ongoing creative potency.

"It is amazing what we do on a fraction of the resource Bartle Bogle Hegarty has," he says. "Also, I am a bit of a control freak. I like having my way and I was worried that wouldn't happen if I left."

However, keeping Morris is vital not only for Lowe London's immediate wellbeing, but also because of the internal debate about how the network will be positioned globally and whether or not the Lowe name should be dropped.

At the end of next month, Tony Wright, the Lowe Worldwide chief executive, will make some landmark announcements about what his enfeebled network will do to make itself more competitive.

The success or otherwise of these plans may well determine the network's future. While Michael Roth, the IPG chief executive, remains publicly supportive, the feeling in the group, according to one insider, is that "this is the last throw of the dice as far as Lowe is concerned".

The likelihood is Wright will aim to build a creatively focused and ideas-centric network around its 20 wholly owned offices. Part-owned or affiliate shops could be cut loose or aligned with Lowe's sister networks, FCB and McCann Erickson.

The intention is to get the network lean and fit enough to invade the space occupied by the likes of BBH, recently victorious in the race for the £60 million global British Airways account.

To do that, Wright wants to leverage the reputations of its best creative chiefs, including Morris and Mark Wnek in New York. That will almost certainly mean putting their names above the door.

Still to be determined is whether the Lowe identity will be ditched.

It is a tough call: Lowe may be synonymous with a bygone era of flamboyance and free spending, but it is also associated with some of the most outstanding creative work of the past 25 years. If the name is dropped, will whatever replaces it have any credibility?

Whether or not the network pulls through will have a lot to do with how well Lowe London shakes off the grogginess caused by the huge blow of losing the £50 million Tesco business. With revenue and morale in need of raising, Lace has promised no redundancies this year.

Along with the hiring of a planning director, Lace's priority is to prove to prospects that Lowe is not a horizontal heavyweight. The most positive thing to come out of losing Tesco is it allows the agency more flexibility on new business.

"We were shut out of six pitches last year because of Tesco," he says.

Just over one year into the job, Lace claims to have overcome the temptation to get momentum going by chasing clients who would be unsuitable travelling companions for the agency. Chasing clients is only one part of Lace and Morris' challenge. Preventing further reviews is a more pressing issue.

- Leader, page 18

HIGHS AND WOES AT LOWE

January 2004 - Lowe London loses £40 million global Braun account to BBDO following Braun's Gillette parent's decision to consolidate the business.

May 2004 - Loses HSBC as the brand consolidates its £350 million global account within the WPP group.

July 2004 - Loses Unilever's £25 million pan-European Flora account to Bartle Bogle Hegarty.

October 2004 - Diet Coke moves its £9 million business into VCCP.

January 2005 - Garry Lace named as Lowe's chief executive, succeeding Matthew Bull, who becomes the chief creative officer. Paul Weinberger proffers his resignation as chairman in protest at the secrecy over Lace's hiring.

February 2005 - Mark Cadman resigns as managing director after being denied the chance to succeed Bull. Russ Lidstone quits as planning director. Weinberger withdraws his resignation. The agency loses most of its Nestle confectionery business to JWT. McCann Erickson's Chris Hunton is named as Cadman's replacement.

Lowe wins lead status on the campaign to promote Nokia's new generation of handsets.

March 2005 - M&C Saatchi's Judy Mitchem becomes the chief marketing officer.

May 2005 - Opens talks to buy DFGW in bid to boost management team and bolster position on the General Motors roster. Staff vote against a voluntary 10 per cent pay cut.

July 2005 - Agency axes 29 jobs. Wins the British Heart Foundation's anti-smoking assignment. Named lead agency on Unilever's pan-European Cif account.

September 2005 - Wins £9 million Twinings, Ovaltine and Options business.

October 2005 - Wins £7 million Innocent Drinks account. Misses out on Unilever's £135 million Omo global business.

November 2005 - Tony Wright, Lowe Worldwide's chief executive, names Lowe London as one of four key agencies in his global "lighthouse" strategy.

December 2005 - Weinberger quits to join start-up being launched by Sir Frank Lowe. Tesco switches its £50 million account into the start-up. Lowe ends DFGW talks.

January 2006 - Ed Morris, Lowe's executive creative director, turns down offer to join Sir Frank's start-up in return for enhanced financial package.

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