THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO FRANK

As MD, owner and ultimately global corporate man, Sir Frank Lowe cajoled several generations of staff to greater things. Now he's written a book about it. Caroline Marshall has a preview.

Advertising memoirs are, of their very nature, a tricky genre. There you are deciding to write about that most fascinating of subjects - yourself.

But how do you set about doing it and what precisely inspires the urge?

Money or putting the record straight are two common reasons but neither applies here.

Frank Lowe's brief but illuminating book - Dear Lord Leverhulme, I think we may have solved your problem - is explicitly written for Lowe's 9,000-plus staff in 80 countries. Published 21 years after Lowe Howard-Spink opened its doors, it is a guide to help them create, and to encourage their clients to buy, better advertising. Working for one of the few networks with a living founder who actually stands up for the work, Lowe staff should be grateful for this vivid glimpse into his thinking.

Lowe's roots in British advertising are obvious right from the start.

The famous quote which inspires the book's title - "I know that half of my advertising budget is wasted, but I'm not sure which half" - is usually attributed in the UK to Lord Leverhulme, when he was head of Unilever.

Yet it is impossible to prove where Lord Leverhulme is supposed to have made this damning analysis of his advertising and in what context. What is beyond doubt is that in the US - where the Lowe network is headquartered - the quote is not attributed to Leverhulme at all but to Henry Ford or John Wannamaker.

So, with the book's title alone, Lowe has set out his stall. He may have risen to be the chairman of the Lowe network, which has been wholly owned by Interpublic since 1990, but the years that underline his philosophy were spent in Britain as the managing director of Collett Dickenson Pearce during its golden creative era in the late 60s and 70s and the as founder of Lowe Howard-Spink from 1978 until its sale to Interpublic.

He's been manager, owner and global corporate man but the period that fired his ambition was before most of Lowe's staff were born.

Lowe's early career was in the era when CDP, under its legendary creative director and chairman, Colin Millward, was producing unmistakably British advertising for Hamlet, Hovis, Fiat and Benson & Hedges. This work set the gold standard and was produced by creatives whose status had been raised by Millward to heights undreamed of by previous generations.

But CDP aroused the anger as well as the admiration of its peers by buying up the finest talent in town through seemingly limitless profligacy. You want a Ferrari? Fine - have two. It may never have been as outrageous as that but, for a time, it felt like it, and other agencies must have been exasperated by being unable to compete on the same terms.

Of course, CDP's was a world far removed from today's more competitive, global and recession-hit ad business. In the late 60s and 70s, it was the one agency in London where clients could be guaranteed to buy a brilliant ad; today there are 20 or more such agencies in London and hundreds elsewhere.

Its preoccupation with quality at the expense of everything else also led to a somewhat carefree attitude towards the husbandry of finances which proved its ultimate undoing.

Nonetheless, underlying much of Lowe's book is the thought that we have much to learn from the best of CDP - even when the best, as it is explained here, appears blindingly obvious.

Taking some of his points in the order they appear in the thematically arranged entries, you may draw your own conclusions.

Opening with a reference to the fact that we are using more media to communicate facts and less to communicate emotion, Lowe argues that the main function of advertising is not to impart facts to people but to persuade: "The truth is they are increasingly indifferent to and suspicious of advertising, particularly as it comes at them in an ever more strident or incomprehensible manner through an increasing number of media channels, for products which are increasingly similar."

Lowe is candid when explaining the dilemma of clients in response to the advice they receive from their agencies. "Our advice," he offers, will nearly always be what the client already knows - "spend more above the line". However, when the client has made up his mind, it is the agency's job to ensure that every penny earns the trust of the consumer and embraces the image of the brand. "We should consider offering consumers the gift of a good commercial which they can enjoy watching," he writes.

Occasionally, Lowe appears to take a swipe at the forces shaping today's advertising establishment, the global holding companies which made his fortune and enabled him to build a network from scratch on a creative platform. "At the moment, I feel our business is in a bit of a crisis: caught up in the perennial battle between those who feel one advertisement is much the same as another ... and those who strive for excellence." Later he rails against agencies that have "moved from the business of doing advertising from which they make a profit, to that of creating profits by means of advertising".

Lowe's advice to his staff on researching whether advertising will succeed or fail is interesting, partly because it flies in the face of everything clients are voting for with their cheque books: "... if we replace our creative judgment entirely with research, whether client or agency, there are a number of dangers," he argues. One is that the research is wrong, another is that creative people, in their desperation to get something approved, write ads not for the consumer but to get through the research.

The most oft-repeated of all the "research stinks" anecdotes is, of course, trumpeted in the book. According to Lowe, two bouts of research on the "Heineken refreshes the parts other beers cannot reach" campaign performed abysmally - indeed, the first was so bad that they had to do it again. But "the client (Anthony Simonds-Gooding) had the courage to run it and it became the most successful beer campaigns of all time". One wonders whether today's clients would be willing or able to exercise the same freedom.

One of the most fruitful parts of the book is the result of Lowe's early life as an account man. "Boy, things have gone pear-shaped for the account man," he writes. "We've become an amalgamation of the Tin Man, the Straw Man and the Cowardly Lion. The planners do the thinking for us, the creative people present the work, and our job is to carry the bags and buy the booze."

Eager to restore the decline in standing of the agency account executive - which, one could argue, mirrors the decline in standing of the agency itself - Lowe offers three tips.

First, spend time studying everything - music, film, TV, fashion, other people's commercials and so on. Clients will not have time to, so you will be one step ahead. Second, stand up and be counted. Third, and this is where Lowe seems to lose the plot for a moment, he offers account handlers some solemn advice: "Be very careful where you live.

All too often, I have found that people in our business, having reached a position of some importance, remove themselves to a large property in the country as far away as possible from the consumers they are talking to. This is self-evidently foolish. How can you talk to people if you don't know how they live?"

Lowe may have personal and entirely valid reasons for wanting to spend much of his time over recent years in Gstad, Switzerland, as far away from the hurly burly as it is possible to imagine, but the unintentional irony of this piece of advice is clear.

Later on, Lowe highlights the downside of the separation of media from creative: "A generation of media people have never worked with the creative department - and vice versa ... We have media companies or departments doing the planning in advance of the strategy and having no relationship to the creative work, other than mandating it must be done in 30 seconds or less."

His solution - "to bring the media people back on to the team that is responsible for what we produce" - will resonate with lots of readers, though implicit in his remarks is a master/slave relationship between media and creative with creative leading. Lowe clearly believes that expertise in creating brands, in its purity, in the creation of something from a blank sheet of paper, exists almost entirely within advertising agencies. Media agencies, however, might beg to differ.

He is good at opening up areas of advertising life normally sealed off to the biographer. His view on the decline of craft skills in print is fascinating, as far as it goes. Junior staff will devour his thoughts about "management's attitude to advertising determining everything which happens in the agency".

Staff at agencies which specialise in grinding out process-driven work for process-driven clients are invited to ponder the deficiencies of their own management.

This book has plenty to offer today's reader, but if it has an overall theme, it might be said to be the backward look, to a world that advertising can never return. It certainly makes you realise that pushing yourself hard, so hard that you achieve some of the great things that Lowe has recorded over his career, takes ruthless ambition, talent (and not just your own), luck and determination in equal measure. Thus it was that Sir Alan Parker, a former colleague of Lowe's at CDP, once said that there was "... nothing more scary than Frank with a glass full of Krug, a handful of Valium and a mouthful of opinions".

Lowe concludes: "I warn you, from personal experience, that you will often find pursuing these sentiments a lonely and frequently derided task." One is left wondering, however, whether he really has solved Lord Leverhulme's problem: would a present-day Leverhulme be better advised by his admen to halve his budget and buy better advertising?

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