Sir Frank brings down the curtain on long ad career

LONDON - Three years ago, Frank Lowe donated £2m towards a project to rejuvenate a failing secondary school in north-west London. 'I have been fortunate in my life in terms of business,2 he declares. 'I thought, wouldn't it be nice to do something for others?'

At first glance, this seemed like an extraordinary act for somebody more regularly seen among the ski set at Gstaad than in the rather less chic Willesden. The cynical interpreted it as an attempt to "buy" his knighthood.

But then Lowe has always been a contradiction. A charmer capable of unsung acts of kindness but also a tyrant and an eccentric; wise and mercurial but also manic and cunning.

Now, at the age of 63 and with retirement soon to bring down the curtain on an illustrious career, it seems that a more mellow Lowe is revisiting his roots. His mother lived near Willesden High School for almost 40 years. "I thought I might be able to inspire a few of the children," he says.

In many ways, his reaction reflects the way he has always regarded the industry he entered via the J. Walter Thompson postroom in 1960. He has always taken the view that advertising should remain true to its roots and his forthright views about giant networks that have moved from the business of doing advertising from which they make a profit to that of creating profits by means of advertising are well known.

So also is his nurturing of upcoming talent, something his long-time friend, the film director Alan Parker, has called his "single-handed cajoling a whole generation of writers, art directors and film directors into revolutionising British and world advertising".

Benson & Hedges' mould-breaking "iguana" ad, the Fiat Strada "robots" commercial, Heineken's "refreshes the parts" campaign, not to mention Tesco, Weetabix, Stella Artois, Smirnoff and Reebok. Few might have seen the light of day had it not been for Lowe's ability to win the confidence of a string of nervous marketing directors.

Lowe's championing of the Heineken campaign during his time as the managing director of Collett Dickenson Pearce at the height of its creative potency in the 70s was a textbook example.

"There was a huge amount of trust between Anthony Simonds-Gooding (then the Whitbread marketing director) and Frank," Tim Lindsay, now the president of Lowe & Partners Worldwide, remembers. "The initial research on the first Heineken TV spot said: 'On no account run this, it'll damage the brand's standing with consumers.' Simonds-Gooding ignored this and went ahead and it was pretty much an instant hit."

Inevitably, given his uncompromising stance, Lowe has become increasingly isolated on the international scene. His apparent sidelining in a boardroom restructure at the Lowe Group's Interpublic parent last year seemed to suggest his active involvement in the business was coming to an end.

Lowe staked his claim to fame at CDP where he became the managing director aged only 31 and was to flourish under its legendary creative director and chairman, Colin Millward. Millward raised the status of creatives by paying them more than ever before, fought for the budgets needed to employ world-class photographers and directors, and then insisted they earn every penny.

Hovis' atmospheric films and the deadpan humour of the Hamlet cigar films are among the best-remembered examples of the agency's innovative work.

"Millward was the crucial element," Lowe recalls. "He taught me so many things. But, above all, he taught me that to compromise was the worst thing of all."

No surprise, therefore, that Lowe Howard-Spink, which Lowe helped found in 1981, was his mirror image and, according to some, lost some of its vital spark as Lowe scaled down his involvement to concentrate more on international matters including the problematic merger with the then Ammirati Puris Lintas.

Certainly, there's a belief that the agency has lost its edge of late with its enforced resignation of the £43 million Orange account and the loss of its Burger King business to Delaney Lund Knox Warren & Partners, which has also just beaten Lowe for the launch of the new Vauxhall Astra.

Whether any or all of this would have happened with Lowe still at the helm is a moot point. Certainly, the agency's success owes much to its founder's very clear vision of what advertising can do and how agencies are best equipped to produce it.

Advertising isn't to impart facts but to persuade people who are often indifferent to it, he says. Research needs to be treated with caution and increases the danger of creatives trying to produce ads merely to get through focus groups.

Moreover, as a one-time account man, he rejects the neutering of his species within agencies. "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."

"There has never been, and perhaps never will be, an account man quite like Frank Lowe," his citation for the chairman's award at the 1998 British Television Advertising Awards said. "His obsession with the quality of the creative knows no bounds."

Somebody once said of the late Frank Sinatra that Heaven and Hell would both have to make allowances for him. Maybe they'll also be saying it of Frank Lowe who has never stopped doing it his way.

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