The news hit those assembled in the bar of Lowe London's refurbished new Sloane Avenue home on Wednesday last week like a thunderbolt.
Gathered around Matthew Bull, Lowe's towering, shaven-headed South African chief executive, the staffers stood in stunned disbelief at what they were hearing.
Not just by Bull's announcement that he was to become the network's chief creative officer, but that his replacement was to be Garry Lace, one of UK advertising's most flamboyant and deeply controversial figures.
Even by the standards of Lowe's recent turbulent history, this was breathtaking stuff. "I don't think Bull was prepared for how pissed off people would be," one gobsmacked executive said later. "We'd stopped the rot, steadied the relationships with our clients, had good creative work coming through and, for the first time in three years, we had a stable management team that was really bonding. Now we feel we've been sold out."
Others questioned the judgment of Tony Wright, Lowe's newly arrived worldwide president and chief executive, a Briton who has spent the past 15 years of his working life in the US. "You have to ask whether he really understands the London market," one executive remarked bitterly.
The fear is that Wright has opted for a quick repair job at Lowe rather than evolving a succession management. "Lace will not have the war chest that Grey gave him to bring in the talent and he must not think he can fix it within six months," an ex-Lowe chief warns. "And, unlike when he began at Grey, he won't be drawing on a blank sheet of paper."
Seldom can a senior manager have joined an agency with so many fences to mend and bridges to build. For many at Lowe, Lace carries too much historical baggage. There are concerns about what the appointment signals to the outside world and what the impact might be on existing and potential clients.
"Lace's first challenge will be to assure clients that he is a man with ethics and integrity," an ex-Lowe employee says. "You can bet other agencies are already whispering in the ears of those clients and asking them if Lace is really a man who they want to do business with."
So why did Lowe turn to Lace? Those who know him believe that he has acquired some humility since his very public exit from Grey nine months ago, after he was implicated by a hoax e-mail in a plot to start a new company. Moreover, there's a belief Lowe couldn't go on as it was and that Lace could be its catalyst. "It was clear something had to be done," one of Lace's former colleagues remarks. "Maybe the jolt that Garry can provide is just what the place needs."
What's more, onlookers suggest that Lace's big personality will be more to the liking of Lowe's clients than the conservative advertisers on Grey's books. Also, some who have been taking the temperature at Lowe suggest that while senior staff have misgivings, the junior ranks look forward to his arrival.
The downside is the seeming mismatch of Lace with the existing Lowe management.
The problem is particularly serious with Mark Cadman, the managing director, who, associates say, is good at disguising his high ambitions.
Nevertheless, some blame Wright for not appreciating the existing ill feeling between the man who had the chief executive's job in his sights and the new arrival.
Industry insiders trace the source of the personality clash back to the time when Lace worked for Cadman at Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO. "To hear Cadman talk about Lace, you'd think he had Tourettes Syndrome," one says.
Having ruled himself out of contention for the managing director vacancy at J. Walter Thompson, Cadman is now expected to consider his future.
"I can't see how he can possibly stay," a colleague says.
The biggest danger posed by his possible departure is the effect it could have on Lowe's £42 million Tesco business. Cadman, the account's senior suit, runs it along with Russ Lidstone, the planning director, and Paul Weinberger, the agency's chairman, who oversees the creative work.
Cadman's departure alone might not put Tesco under threat, as Weinberger is the pivotal figure on the business. Weinberger is much respected for his integrity and guardianship of the Lowe culture and a lot rides on whether he can establish a relationship with Lace. "Paul is just bemused by it all," a Lowe source says.
Equally bemusing is Bull's sudden switch to a worldwide global creative role. With it will come the inevitable questions about his 20-month turbulent term of office at Lowe London. "There's no doubt Matthew wants his new job but probably not just yet," a friend says.
The consensus is that Bull's experience in South Africa, where his former agency Lowe Bull Calvert Pace is a dominant force, bore no comparison to his task in the UK. "He had no idea how competitive the UK market was," a leading consultant claims.
Bull's refreshing management style won him friends, but the loss of the global Braun and HSBC accounts, both of which were beyond his power to influence, sapped morale, while new business proved elusive. "People got disenchanted because nothing seemed to change," a former staffer says.
Now Bull leaves an agency that is beset by as much internal strife as when he started, to the dismay of some senior managers who feel badly let down.
Soon he will bring his strident style to the job of selecting and developing senior creatives across the network and maintaining the quality of its creative output.
Undoubtedly, Bull's approach will contrast sharply with that of Adrian Holmes, the exisiting chief creative officer and worldwide chairman. "Adrian is a benign dictator with a proven creative pedigree who works in a gentle way," a Lowe source says. "I don't know if Bull has the patience for it."
Meanwhile, Lowe's battle-weary workers long for a tranquil period away from the limelight. "Lace may be good at getting headlines," one sighed. "But we have had our fill of them."
Garry Lace, incoming chief executive, Lowe London
Luxury-loving and headline-grabbing former boss of Grey London. Hugely ambitious. Renowned as a new-business go-getter and great client man but some see him as the personification of industry excess.
Tony Wright, Lowe worldwide president and chief executive
A planner by background. Had never run an agency, let alone a network, when he joined Lowe. Knowledge of the UK adscene called into question by Lace's appointment.
Paul Weinberger, chairman, Lowe London
Creative guru on Tesco and crucial to the agency's tenure of the account. Guardian of the Lowe creative culture with lots of integrity.
Matthew Bull, chief executive, Lowe London
Charismatic manager with a polarising style who found it much harder than expected to replicate his South African success in London. Bull is supremely self-confident and highly opinionated.
Mark Cadman, managing director, Lowe London
Senior suit on Tesco, very much the people's choice to succeed Bull as the agency's chief executive. History of bad blood between himself and Lace from time at AMV BBDO.
Adrian Holmes, worldwide chairman and chief creative officer, Lowe
One-time creative chief of the London agency, the cultivated Holmes brings a high creative pedigree to his global role. Future uncertain.