Gatfield outlines masterplan for Lowe

The coming years are likely to be interesting ones for the new worldwide chief executive, Steve Gatfield.

As someone who has spent a lot of time living and plying his trade in Asia, Steve Gatfield is no doubt aware of the ancient Chinese curse: "May you live in interesting times."

Just as "interesting" barely begins to describe the turmoil that has bedevilled Lowe Worldwide in its recent past, so "challenging" is a scarcely adequate comment on its immediate future.

To Gatfield, 47, the politically astute Interpublic high-flyer, falls the task of bringing focus and a new raison d'etre to a network that has suffered so much client defection and management upheaval (not to mention the suspension of the Lowe London chief executive, Garry Lace) that the Indian sign seemed to be upon it.

Much rides on getting Lowe right. Not just for an operating company that has been the despair of its cash-strapped IPG parent, but for Lowe's newly arrived worldwide chief executive.

Success in the role could be the New York-based Yorkshireman's passport to leadership of the marketing communications giant.

Gatfield's has been a remarkable journey through the ranks - the one-time Saatchi & Saatchi account man who rose to become the chief operating officer of Publicis Groupe's Leo Burnett Worldwide.

As IPG's executive vice-president of network operations (a position he retains), he is part of the core team around Michael Roth, IPG's chairman and chief executive. Gatfield is a former managing director of Burnett's Asia-Pacific region and Roth is said to draw heavily on his knowledge of emerging markets.

"Steve can think unemotionally, and that's rare in our business," a former associate says. "He loves the challenge of thinking strategically about complex issues and that can be a solitary experience. He's not into brainstorming a problem."

That Gatfield should be moving at warp speed surprises no-one who has worked with him during his 25-year agency career. "As soon as he started one job, he'd be looking for the next," a former Burnett colleague recalls.

"I always thought he was a better management consultant than an adman."

Time has not slowed Gatfield's pace. Less than a month after his appointment was confirmed, Lowe announced it was halving in size. From now on, the global workload will be shared by 36 offices, including "hub" agencies in the UK, the US, France, Sweden, Brazil, China, India and Thailand.

In short, Lowe is morphing into a micro network, albeit one that stretches the definition of micro to breaking point.

Gatfield has been equally swift to eliminate unwanted distractions. One of his earliest initiatives was to negotiate a resolution of the contractual obligations that prevented the Lowe London chairman, Paul Weinberger, from following the agency's £50 million Tesco account into The Red Brick Road.

Not everyone is convinced Gatfield has struck the right balance in reconfiguring Lowe as he has. Critics suggest that a slimmer Lowe is still too big to be a match for other micro networks such as Bartle Bogle Hegarty and too small to compete with the likes of TBWA.

Gatfield argues that Lowe will be judged on the strength of its thinking and creative rather than number of offices. "Credibility is more important than tonnage," he reasons, suggesting that the current crop of micro networks are "mono-cultures" whose success largely relies on that of their flagship offices with no strong sense of local identity.

"And I speak as one who has worked with BBH and Fallon," he adds.

So what makes the new Lowe any different? In part, it is because of Lintas, which merged with Lowe seven years ago. It was a cultural force-fit, but its legacy is a number of well-established outfits in developing markets such as Latin America and Asia.

Defining what Lowe Worldwide is not is relatively easy. It cannot match the ubiquity of its IPG stablemates McCann Erickson and FCB. Nor should it, Gatfield says. "Planting flags everywhere is not an important part of the Lowe offering."

It is far harder to define what Lowe actually is. Indeed, many have asked why IPG has not put it out of its misery and merged it into FCB. Gatfield insists the option has never been considered. "Lowe doesn't need another merger," he says.

Instead, he aims to ensure Lowe is equipped to reflect the huge changes both in the way global clients work and in the evolution of new markets.

Those who know Gatfield believe this will not be an altogether comfortable experience for Lowe staffers. "Not only can he appear detached from his people, but he can be quite brutal with his intellect," one of his former senior managers says. "If he thinks it's the right thing to do, nothing will stand in his way."

Gatfield is unequivocal about the route Lowe must travel. During the past five years, the brand-management model of the 80s and 90s has changed out of all recognition, he explains. Clients are consolidating their activities in fewer places across the world and want their agency networks to align their talent to reflect this.

For Lowe, this means evolving into a coherent operation that takes a particular view of the world, is in the right locations for clients and can prove its ability to work closely with IPG stablemates such as Draft.

"It's a powerful proposition if we can get it right," Gatfield declares.

At the same time, he wants to draw media communications into the heart of the new offering. The network already works with Naked on some big clients and it is likely that "hub" agencies will form partnerships either with Naked or IPG's media network, Initiative.

Another major change will be having the network jointly headquartered in London and New York. Global clients expect a strong US presence, Gatfield says, while London is key to some big internationally aligned accounts including Unilever, Nokia and InBev.

Gatfield's top priority is to ensure the network maintains its reputation for fertile creativity of all kinds, by leveraging Lowe's best talent wherever it can be found. As examples, he cites the telecoms expertise accumulated by Sweden's Lowe Brindfors on the back of its Nokia work and the fact Fernando Vega Olmos, president of Lowe's Argentine outpost, Vega Olmos Ponce, has creative command of the network's Unilever business.

Whether Lowe's reinvention of itself can succeed is an open question.

In its favour is the fact it has a leader who has IPG's trust and who can expect to be given time to reform its problem child.

Moreover, Gatfield is anxious to dispel fears that he has been brought in to carry out a quick fix before being recalled to the mother ship.

"I'm enjoying the people here and what I'm trying to do," he says. "I expect to stay for a long time. A successor? I haven't even begun to think about it."