Close-up: Newsmaker - Lowery's success at Grey will depend on a long-game plan

The planning chief will see different challenges from Grey clients.

Jumping the cultural chasm that has long separated Grey from most of the advertising mainland has never been easy, but John Lowery reckons it's worth the risk.

Martin Smith found the divide too wide during his short stay as the chief executive of the London agency, while the ambitions of Garry Lace, the job's most recent occupant, proved incompatible with those of his erstwhile employer.

As Grey's newly appointed chief planning officer for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, will Lowery fare any better?

On the face of it, his background seems at odds with the job he's just taken on. His reputation as an advertising purist has been honed at two of the UK's most creatively acclaimed agencies, Lowe and Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO. Grey's traditional skill has been in co-ordinating the complex accounts of big, but creatively conservative, multinational advertisers such as Procter & Gamble and GlaxoSmithKline.

One of Lowery's former colleagues predicts he won't last five minutes in the job.

Those who know him well, though, are not so pessimistic. They suggest his success or failure will depend on whether his 18-month exile from advertising, most of it spent with his wife and two children at their home near Toulouse, has matured him and softened his perceived arrogance.

"He likes to let you know that he's cleverer than you are," a former colleague remarks. "He either forms very close relationships with clients or alienates them totally. If he's happy to play the long game at Grey, he'll have to accept that he won't be able to change the likes of P&G overnight."

By common consent, Lowery is one of the best of his breed. "He's highly intelligent, loves advertising and was a massive asset to us," Tim Lindsay, the former Lowe Worldwide president, comments.

Leslie Butterfield, who hired him as a graduate trainee at Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, describes him as "a planner of the first rank" and praises his "impatience for knowledge".

Jonathan Rigby, Lowe's former new-business director, now the managing director of Banks Hoggins O'Shea/FCB, says: "As a planner and strategist, he's one of the most inspirational to work with."

Jeremy Bowles, the Lowe managing director, agrees. "He's a very bright guy who can add tremendous value to what he does."

At the same time, Lowery is seen as somebody for whom the cliche "doesn't suffer fools gladly" might have been coined. "He sometimes scares people," Jackie Boulter, the former AMV planning chief, remarks. Others admit his approach can come across as arrogance but point out that his tough treatment of staff is equalled by the hardness with which he drives himself.

Whether Grey can keep in check his propensity to get bored if he's not listened to and taken seriously remains to be seen. Lowery believes Grey is committed to change on a broader and deeper scale than was begun by Lace during his 15 months at the helm of the London agency, and that the true catalyst has been Carolyn Carter, the Grey Global Group EMEA president.

"Carolyn isn't only ensuring the right people are in place in the UK but across the whole of her region," Lowery says. "It's starting to look like it's really going to happen. Now we have to deliver the work and I'm confident that we will."

For her part, Carter says she would rather have someone committed to their beliefs, however controversial. "Planning goes hand-in-glove with creative work and John has a relentless commitment to excellence," she says. "He's a brilliant practitioner who has been behind some great work."

Born 42 years ago in Lytham St Annes, the son of a British Aerospace engineer, Lowery has always been beset by ambition. After leaving Durham University with a psychology degree, he was introduced to the industry by a photographer friend who did ad assignments.

His first job was at AMV where Butterfield was so impressed that he came back for him after leaving to help establish the then Butterfield Day DeVito Hockney.

A second stint at AMV followed, before being lured to Lowe by its then managing director, David Wheldon. The agency had developed a strong planning culture under Geoff Howard-Spink but the influence of the department had waned since his departure. "It was cowed," Lowery recalls. "It wasn't seen as central to the development of good advertising."

Challenged to build on Howard-Spink's legacy, Lowery responded in his usual high-octane fashion. His reward was the agency's deputy chairmanship but associates believe he was growing increasingly disenchanted by agency politics and frustrated at having to forsake day-to-day charge of the planning department.

His unease climaxed with Lowe's decision to resign the £43 million Orange account, on which he retained planning responsibilities, after the departure of most of the key agency personnel on the business. Already dismayed by what he saw as a dilution of the Lowe culture after the network's global merger with Ammirati Puris Lintas, Lowery opted to go.

Now, having licked his wounds, he is back. Friends believe his self-imposed exile has been a necessary catharsis and that he will be all the better for it. "I sense he has genuinely changed," one says. "Sometimes you can become so immersed in the business that you don't see the real issues. He knows he can't continue working the way he was and that he has to take his clients with him."


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