Sir Frank's greatest strength is also hisweakness

Although I don't know Sir Frank Lowe well, I met him quite a few times over the course of 2003. It wasn't a good time for him: Interpublic Group was tightening its grip on the agency he had founded and seemed to have little time for indulging the great man behind the brand.

At that time Sir Frank was, by turns, determined and broken. He was not exactly a beneficent force back then for his agency, but, on the other hand, it probably seemed to him that all that he had built up was being brutally dismantled by Lowe's IPG parent.

By the end of that year, Sir Frank's coterie appeared to turn against him and he was unceremoniously ousted from the agency that still proudly bore his name. With his departure, the Lowe network lost the paterfamilias that had given it a semblance of culture; it may be the benefit of hindsight, but things haven't been going too well for the network since then.

In the intervening couple of years, Sir Frank has never been far from adland's thoughts. We've had stories that Sir Frank would return triumphant to buy back his old company from its ailing IPG parent. Then, the agency was supposedly begging him to come back as the figurehead for a network that seemed to have lost its lifeblood after his departure. Most recently, there was speculation that he would use his IPG shareholding to wreak revenge on the holding company that he felt had treated him badly and squandered the inheritance he had handed it.

I imagine all these options have been seized upon and waved vigorously in the ether by Sir Frank over the past year or two - the Machiavellian plot being something of a Lowe forte. But despite all the speculation, there is something absolutely delicious about the news of his start-up; stories like this one come along only rarely and the implications are dazzling.

It's still early days, so the rumour mill is still in full swing (who else will join? Will any big name backers emerge? What about other accounts in the bag?). But really the focus is on the man himself.

Without a doubt, Sir Frank is the best thing going about this start-up.

He is obviously the catalyst and without him it's almost impossible to imagine Paul Weinberger (who, after all, has reputedly resigned from Lowe several times before to no avail) or Tesco (an account subject to the most concerted efforts of adland's new-business machines over the past year or two) quitting the Lowe agency. It took Sir Frank to do it.

And there's no doubt that Sir Frank's name will open new-business doors and raise the profile of the new agency as very few other advertising names could. What's more, regardless of the future fortunes of the new outfit, it will always be entertaining to watch as long as Sir Frank is involved: he is one of the last remaining legends of British advertising's golden age.

But, but. Sir Frank might be the best thing about the new venture, but I suspect he's also the worst. Critics will dismiss him as a throwback, and he is - though of course that's where that invaluable legendary status comes from. If Sir Frank can accept that his new team might know more about modern advertising than he does, then the fact that his values come from a different era might not matter too much.

What will matter is whether Sir Frank can allow his team actually to run the agency without his (overly emotional) interference; he might be a standard-bearer for advertising excellence, but as an operator Sir Frank also has the ability to be poisonous and destructive. In the old, parochial, personality-driven advertising order, these were probably useful business tools. But the world has moved on to become much more accountable, more professional, and, yes, more bland; the maverick will find it harder to fit in.

What Sir Frank stands for is the real jewel in the new set-up, but what he might actually do could be the real barrier to lasting success.


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