Q&A: Mullen Lowe Group's chief Alex Leikikh on why this time will be different

Douglas Quenqua, Campaign US's editor-in-chief, catches up with Alex Leikikh, the new chief executive of the Mullen Lowe Group, on why Lowe has finally found its American sweetheart.

Alex Leikikh: the new chief executive of the Mullen Lowe Group
Alex Leikikh: the new chief executive of the Mullen Lowe Group

Earlier this month, Campaign US  reported that the Interpublic Group would once again try merging Lowe with another of its US agency brands.

This time, it’s Mullen’s turn. In an exclusive Q&A, the chief executive of the Mullen Lowe Group, Alex Leikikh, shares his view on why he thinks Lowe, one of the world’s oldest agency brands, has finally found the right partner.

Over the past few decades, IPG has tried pairing Lowe with Ammirati Puris Lintas, Bozell, Deutsch and Campbell-Ewald. Why is The Mullen Lowe Group going to work?

We were well aware of the history of trying to merge Lowe with a US agency, so we studied it carefully.

One, we asked ourselves, what would be the benefit for Mullen clients and staff? And we found obvious advantages. We have multiple clients who wanted representation in key international markets.

Two, we are engaged in an ongoing talent hunt. We need to start tapping international markets to attract talent to work on our clients. Lowe was an ideal partner for both those reasons, not only based on their geography, but if you look at their offices around the world, they’re quite strong.

They have great talent pockets around the world, and we wanted to tap into those.

And then if you look at Lowe, they’re a strong international company that’s never been able to enter the US properly. If you look at the most recent one, with Campbell-Ewald, that was about putting the company together around a single client, Cadillac. And as we know, that didn’t work out, for reasons to do with Cadillac doing a review and moving on.

With respect to Deutsch, the management teams didn’t align. There was just no desire on either part to work together. So for Lowe, Mullen represented the opportunity to partner with a proper national US brand with a great client roster and great talent.

We then spent a lot of time thinking about culture and shared values, and what we found is we’re both focused on creativity, we both tend to represent challenger brands, and we had a similar positioning in the market.

For those reasons, it made a lot of sense. We have clarity in terms of leadership, so it won’t be dual CEOs butting heads. It will just be one guy in charge. So we felt there was a lot of benefit there. It’s really a union based on shared spirit and shared focus on creativity with benefit to clients coming from both sides.

Speaking of clarity of leadership, what have you learned from studying the failure of the Deutsch-Lowe pairing?

My understanding is there was a management team in the US at Deutsch, and particularly Deutsch New York, and there was a management team at Lowe - Michael Wall and the guys running the company - and there wasn’t strong clarity in terms of who would take over, who would be in charge.

And I think IPG would admit, if you asked [Tom] Cunningham, he’d admit, we probably didn’t provide the clarity that the entity at that time needed to make sure that there was one leader at the top. My understanding was that there was a management team coming in, a management team in the US, and the two couldn’t figure out who was going to be in charge.

There was also an understanding that Lowe was going to bring in some international business, and that never really materialised. What is your expectation in terms of Lowe bringing in global work, and why will that work now?

For us, it is important. And if you look at Unilever, an extraordinarily important Lowe client, they have a lot of global brands that we’re going to represent together.

What we’re working through now is how we onboard those brands into Mullen Lowe US, and particularly Mullen Lowe NY, and that was a big advantage I think for Lowe and for those clients. So we’re going to be focused on those in the very short term.

Unilever is a critically important client for Lowe. How have you ensured the company’s commitment to this new group?

We spoke to the majority of our large clients on both sides prior to the merger to ensure that they knew what the benefits were, both in terms of talent and entering markets, and then also just to make sure there weren’t any conflicts, because that’s a question clients ask.

Those conversations were held either directly or over phone in the days leading up to the announcement.

Who first approached you with the idea of merging Mullen and Lowe?

Michael Roth, Phillipe [Krakowsky] and Frank [Mergenthaler] brought the idea to Michael Wall and myself. Michael and I are close. We started working together first in 1998, when I was at Fallon Minneapolis and he was starting Fallon London with his partners. So we’ve had a very good and open relationship. And so the five of us started kicking around the idea, and it became interesting and real rather quickly.

After we started to look at conflicts, and as we started to look at advantages on both sides, over the course of four or five meetings at IPG, we determined it was a good idea.

I’m surprised to hear Michael was a big part of this in light of his departure.

Michael’s been trying to find a proper US partner for Lowe in the States. Truth is, Lowe is a great creative agency everywhere in the world except for in the US So they’ve been trying to enter the market in the proper way, which is why they tried to do the Deutsch merger.

It’s why they tried to give it a go with Cadillac, and those didn’t work out. So yeah, he was very supportive of it. And we spent a lot of time together at IPG working on it.

So why isn’t he a part of the new company?

You have to ask Michael, but I think probably he got to a point where he said, "I like IPG, I like Lowe, I like Mullen, but I don’t want to live in the States." And that was important to IPG, to make sure that we are represented by an executive here in the States, and I think Michael just kind of realised, "I’m going to stay in Europe and move on."

Is Mullen sufficiently well known outside the US to bring value to the Lowe brand internationally, or do you now have to educate people on what Mullen is?

I think you have to educate the clients outside the US to what Mullen is inside the States. I think there’s some awareness - we didn’t do a study, I’m just shooting from the hip here - but there’s some awareness of Mullen.

We’ve done pretty well on the awards circuits and gotten a bunch of national recognition over the past four, five years. But I think the benefit to international clients, certainly for Unilever, is we’ve got a really strong top-five, top-ten US agency brand on our roster now that we can tap into for strategy and creative thinking.

This will be your first time leading an international network. How are you personally preparing for that?

Well, it’s not my first time around the world. When I was at Fallon, I ran the United Airlines business globally. But the brief for us for the first 24 months is to apply intense pressure to grow this joint brand in the US.

Certainly we’re going to continue to grow and push in international markets, and over-commit to our important Unilever client. But for us, I think the reason IPG found this interesting, and to put me in this spot, is because of our ability to do well in the US market.

That’s really the push for the first 24 months.

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