OPINION: Perspective - Sir Frank steps down from Lowe at the right time

Sir Frank Lowe, who has announced his retirement, is a complex man who is an archetype of good and bad in the advertising world. In the daily drama of the business - first as manager at CDP, later as founder of Lowe Howard-Spink and latterly as global corporate man within Interpublic - he has doubled as hero and villain, crusader and monster, rascal and king.

A working class boy who started out in the postroom at J. Walter Thompson, Lowe achieved more in the business and was associated with more excellent work than almost anyone. Benson & Hedges, Stella Artois, Smirnoff, Heineken, Weetabix, Tesco, Hamlet, count them for your self. Count too the number of creatives who name Lowe (an account man, dammit) as their inspiration in our "Where are they now?" series.

The riddle is why Lowe cultivated a persona that meant all his relationships were based on the master-slave principle. Lowe was this master's theatre, and especially Lowe London. His skills, the ability to charm, excite, distress and deceive all at once, were far too unorthodox to appeal to IPG or indeed any large corporation, American or otherwise.

With Lowe's retirement, the civil war that has consumed so much time and emotion in the upper echelons of the network is finally over. And not before time. To couch it in Sopranos terms, the debate became will Jerry Judge whack Frank or will Frank whack Jerry?

Now the question is academic. Against a background of all the emotions you would expect to be generated by patricide, Jerry and the Lowe board have whacked Frank.

It could have been different. When Judge took over two years ago he and his team faced a huge challenge in bedding down the marriage of Lintas' knowledge and understanding of its key client Unilever with the better creative product of Lowe. Judge retained Lowe as a consultant. He was to serve as a mythological figure embodying the Lowe creative values.

Of the five agencies that Unilever Home and Personal Care uses, Lowe has the largest number of global brands so there was an important job to be done.

At first, the continuing presence of Lowe was a symbol that the new regime was different from Lintas' intermittent attempts to shake off its poor reputation by taking over various smaller creative agencies and, in every case, "vampiring" the corpse back down to Lintas' standards. The reality, however, was that Lowe himself was UK focused and therefore he had little impact on the overall Unilever business which is mostly outside the UK.

That duty fell to the other members of the Lowe management - and, in particular, to Adrian Holmes, Lowe's worldwide chief creative officer who now takes on the network chairman role.

Lowe's thinly disguised rant at the holding companies and the new ad landscape in his book published last year symbolised the iceberg-tip of a Titanic division between himself and everything that IPG and the modern business stands for. It was called Dear Lord Leverhulme, I Think We May Have Solved Your Problem.

To look at the past 40 years in advertising through the eyes of someone whose career has neatly encompassed that period should have been a revealing, sobering and, yes, exciting exercise. For Lowe, as the book made abundantly clear, it seems the best years were the early years. His was the era when media knew its place, research could be manipulated to suit the needs of the creative agencies and advertising was all about 60-second TV commercials. He's leaving at the right time.


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