The Networks: Jerry Judge

Jerry Judge thrives on challenges and, as the Lowe & Partners Worldwide chief executive, he needs all his powers to turn the network round. But, he tells John Tylee, it's not as bad as it looks.

Jerry Judge's face has long had a lived-in look. Now it appears almost over-occupied. Two days ago he was in the US.

Tomorrow it's Sweden. Today it's London - and the weariness of the Lowe & Partners Worldwide chief executive is evident.

He's seldom off duty, even when with his wife and two children at home in Greenwich, Connecticut. Now it's late evening and he sits in the Knightsbridge office which, until recently, was the lair of Sir Frank Lowe, the group's irascible founding genius. Lowe hired Judge and it's he who must sustain his erstwhile boss' legacy of uncompromising but effective creativity in the wake of the latter's enforced retirement.

It's turning out to be an energy-sapping job which, of late, hasn't provided Judge with much opportunity to indulge what a former colleague recalls was a continual delight at being able to burrow his way through a bar-room scrum to buy his people a celebratory round of drinks.

And it's a world away from the freewheeling early years of Bartle Bogle Hegarty where everybody was encouraged to be creative, regardless of whether they wore a suit. In fact, Judge must be unique among global network chiefs in having written an ad deemed good enough for the D&AD annual. Mind you, his art director was John Hegarty.

Fate hasn't been kind to the Lowe network since its eponymous leader stepped down, disenchanted with what the business had become but regarded by some closest to him as timelocked in a bygone age. Indeed, the turn of the year was a story of bad news with the London agency having to sacrifice its £40 million global Braun business and the New York office losing the £170 million Verizon Wireless account. "In the US, Lowe still has a pulse, but not a strong one," Advertising Age declared, much to Judge's chagrin.

To cap it all, HSBC, Lowe's flagship client, has opted to extend what began as a consolidation of its below-the-line activity into a full-scale communications review, putting a huge question-mark over Lowe's future tenure of the creative assignment.

With so much Lowe business now in review, it's little wonder that the rumour mill has gone into overdrive. The network's Interpublic masters are running out of patience, it is claimed. Word is that even if the holding company resists calls from some of its senior executives to close Lowe and divide its remaining clients among other Interpublic operations it will, at the very least, shake up the senior management.

Without his long-time associates Paul Hammersley and Tim Lindsay around him - the former fell victim to a Lowe power struggle, the latter fell out with the chief executive over the pace of change within the network - Judge, 53, strikes a solitary figure.

The departure of Lindsay seems to have been a significant blow, not least because the pair had been soulmates since their time together at TBWA in the 70s. Such firm friends were they that Judge was Lindsay's best man at his wedding.

"Jerry was very jolly while Tim was far more serious but they compensated for each other's strengths and weaknesses," a former BBH senior manager remembers. "It's a big surprise that their relationship has fallen apart."

Now alone at the top, Judge must convert critics who claim the job is overwhelming him. The well-being of 8,000 Lowe staff around the world is in his hands and he's under no illusions about where the buck stops.

"The only management to be shaken up is me," he remarks. "If I do a bad job, Interpublic will take urgent steps. But I intend to make this work."

Now more than ever Judge, the Paddington-born son of a one-time film stuntman, believes he must hold his nerve. But he has a track record of being fired up by challenges. He left the safety of TBWA for the fledgling BBH when it was headquartered above a shoe shop, only to quit when life seemed too comfortable to help re-energise the ailing Young & Rubicam.

"Maybe I'm just meant to deal with the ugly stuff," he muses.

At least these experiences have allowed him to keep things in perspective.

Sure, the losses and the HSBC review were big blows, he agrees. But they should be seen as short-term and unpreventable reverses that mustn't be allowed to blow the network off course two years into a five-year strategy that will make it more relevant to the demands of the market.

Whether Lowe is a glass half-empty or half-full depends on your vantage point. Many onlookers see a network not only still struggling to meld the disparate cultures of the Lowe and Lintas groups since their merger under the Interpublic umbrella in the autumn of 1999 but still one of insufficient scale to allow it to compete effectively on the global stage.

Needless to say, Judge sees it very differently. More than 200 pieces of new business, as well as 70 extra assignments from existing clients, helped give Lowe its most profitable year ever in 2003, he claims. "If I could show you the figures you would see we were a very successful business last year."

So why the persistent doubts about the network's long-term viability?

Judge insists Lowe's problems are more about presentation than reality; that it has failed to convince the world at large that the departure of two major clients and the decision by another to call a review were unique situations which belie the group's underlying strength. "We weren't fired for not being good enough," he asserts.

In none of the three cases was Lowe in a position to influence the outcome, he claims. Verizon never bedded in comfortably after its arrival in the wake of Lowe's merger with the Bozell agency in New York early last year.

"I continue to believe that Verizon was unhappy because it didn't choose the agency itself," he says.

The Braun loss was unavoidable given the intention of the company's Gillette parent to reduce costs by consolidating all its advertising within BBDO.

HSBC simply extended the scale of its review beyond its original boundaries.

"HSBC isn't unhappy with the advertising and the account certainly isn't a lost cause," Judge insists.

For some, though, Lowe's handling of the HSBC situation smacked of a "head-in-the-sand" approach. The network was in denial when reports of the review surfaced and seemed incapable of reacting to what was happening.

Judge acknowledges the deficiency. "I refuse to accept we've had a disproportionate amount of bad news. However, we've not managed it well," he confesses.

"I've been remiss in not being the public face of our company and not being as available as my peers.

"I'm not denying we have issues, but we've not managed our relationships with the press very well, haven't talked ourselves up like our competitors do and have been very bad at PR. That's my responsibility and I'm taking steps to change things."

Doubtless being part of a holding company beset by a poor financial performance and an accounting scandal hasn't helped. Judge, though, admits being pleasantly surprised by David Bell, having feared that his old-school adman background made him a less than ideal choice for the Interpublic chairmanship.

"I questioned whether David could handle it but he's done a spectacular job," Judge says. "Whenever clients show concern he's always ready to get on a plane and meet them."

Many onlookers, however, trace the difficulties back to the marriage of the creatively led Lowe with the solid-but- dull Ammirati Puris Lintas.

Interpublic's hope was that the marriage would create a whole greater than the sum of its parts. APL was a "cultural vacuum", according to Judge, with no creative profile but the kind of geographical coverage Lowe lacked.

Some say the merger was botched. Judge concedes the coming together was far from smooth, not least because nothing on a similar scale had been attempted and there were no points of reference to guide anybody. Only the merger of Doyle Dane Bernbach with Needham Harper had come anywhere close to it - and that had taken up to nine years to settle.

Judge cites the fact that some Lowe offices were not wholly owned and that a lot of APL business was up for review as key reasons why the coupling was so complicated. "These things caused difficulty because it made the urgent take precedence over the important," he explains.

"When I look back, I think there were problems that were consequent on the merger but the merger didn't sow the seeds of them. Lowe was the prevailing culture but that was diluted by the size of what we digested. Lowe didn't have the experience of APL-type business."

It's been suggested that Lowe might have a more compelling proposition if it merged with its global below-the-line Interpublic stablemate, Draft. Judge is effusive about Draft's founder, Howard Draft, comparing him to the godfather of direct marketing, Lester Wunderman. "He's a brilliant businessman who really understands his world."

What's more, he applauds the alliance with a specialist operation which understands and respects what Lowe does. Merger, though, is a different matter. "People speculate and it's nonsense," he says. "These businesses are constructed so differently that they're not capable of being merged. People who are good at direct marketing aren't necessarily good at advertising."

Much of Lowe's future health, however, will depend on a London operation that can reverse a tide of misfortune. Chris Thomas was ousted as the chief executive in the wake of a series of devastating account losses but a transformation is proving tough even for his zealous and reforming South African successor, Matthew Bull. Lowe has been accused of making Thomas, now the chief executive of the direct marketing specialist Proximity, the fall guy for problems that pre-dated his appointment. Judge believes Lowe paid the price for a precipitate decision to elevate Thomas from his managing director role.

"Chris was a victim of timing," he claims. "He has great integrity and decency but I and others made the mistake of promoting him to chief executive when he should have served more of an apprenticeship. Chris encouraged us to appoint him but he was pushed too far too fast."

Can Bull turn the London agency around? Judge has little doubt. "He's intelligent enough to feign naivety and asks the questions others are afraid of," he says. "He may have more difficulties to overcome but I believe he'll be one of the great successes of modern advertising."

Praise indeed. But then Judge needs all the internal allies he can muster to hold the Lowe ship steady. On the surface, at least, the captain is keeping his cool, safe in the knowledge that he's been there before. "There are people who thrive on danger," he declares. "So it's just possible I'm in my element at the moment."

Next week: Kevin Roberts.

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