Although nameless, without an office and still missing a partner or two, Frank Lowe's new agency is the talk of the town. There were rumors earlier this year that Mr. Lowe-said to be anywhere from 63 to 67, depending on who you talk to-that he wanted to buy back his namesake shop or start anew. But his reappearance-and apparent Tesco coup-has taken by surprise even people who worked with him for years.
"We wondered if he would come back, but thought if he was going to do anything, he would have done it by now," said a former Lowe executive who knows Mr. Lowe well. "Most thought `No, he's out of puff,' but he's back. You can never tell with him. He's a cunning fox."
Speculation about why Mr. Lowe is back ranges from his dissatisfaction with the Lowe legacy given the network's many problems, to restlessness following the recent departure of his fourth wife, a blonde Texan named Dawn. "He's very gregarious," the former Lowe exec said. "He can't stand being on his own."
But he wasn't very gregarious last week. No one picked up the phone at his house in posh London neighborhood Chelsea (he doesn't have an answering machine, but a butler usually answers the phone). He also couldn't be reached by cellphone (according to a former associate, he sometimes tosses out offending units when the batteries go flat because recharging them is boring).
The news of Mr. Lowe's return spread like wildfire after Lowe's London Chief Executive Garry Lace told the agency that Chairman Paul Weinberger was leaving. Mr. Weinberger, the steward of the prized Tesco account, is joining Mr. Lowe as a partner. Executives also said there is an offer on the table to former Lowe executive Mr. Hammersley to join the new agency as the third partner. But Mr. Hammersley did not return calls and a DDB spokeswoman said the agency had no knowledge of the offer.
After meeting with Lowe on Dec. 2, a Tesco spokeswoman said the company is still "in discussions about the reported changes" but few expect the business, accounting for about 10% of the London office's revenue, to stay.
Meanwhile, the new agency is assembling its team. A spokeswoman for Messrs. Lowe and Weinberger said a Lowe creative pair on the Tesco account had quit. The agency confirmed the resignations.
Although Mr. Lowe enjoys being mysterious, he is also being very careful. His own noncompete restrictions expired several months ago, but Mr. Weinberger and other prospective partners and staff have them. It's also unclear to what extent he can legally use the Lowe name in a new venture.
Part of the frenzy of speculation about who will join Mr. Lowe centers around the challenges of working with a mercurial personality. "The Sir Frank folks are like members of a cult," said one agency executive.
Veterans of the Cannes festival still shudder at the memory of Mr. Lowe. Against all advice, the festival invited him to be the jury president in 1995. Under his guidance, the jury gave very few Lions and no Grand Prix awards, and Mr. Lowe was roundly booed on stage at the show. Since then, the festival impresses on every jury president that the Grand Prix is not optional.
Although stingy with Lions, he can also be generous. After losing a tug-of-war to keep creative director Charles Inge from joining a startup, Mr. Lowe flew to Amsterdam to suggest Heineken move its account to Mr. Inge's new agency Clemmow Hornby Inge when Lowe had to give it up due to a conflict.
Now, Mr. Lowe may want Heineken back. He was good friends with former Heineken head Freddie Heineken and has a good relationship with Charlene de Carvalho Heineken, the daughter who inherited a controlling stake in Heineken, leading to speculation that's the account he'll go after next.
At his peak, Mr. Lowe was a Pied Piper in a cricket sweater who inspired dazzling creative work and mesmerized clients despite his legendary eccentricity. When he started London shop Lowe Howard-Spink in 1981, he took many of the clients from his former agency CDP and built one of London's best agencies, but Lowe struggled as a global network.
Marketers came to Lowe-or stayed away from the agency-because of Mr. Lowe. Such was his charisma that one story had him selling an ad that was upside down to an admiring client; probably an apocryphal tale but only told about Frank Lowe.
Already bleeding business throughout multiple mergers and management turnover, Lowe (the agency) was thought to be approaching a more stable place following the appointment in 2004 of Worldwide CEO Tony Wright, who shook up the London office and added high-profile creative director Mark Wnek to help lead the New York office.
Mr. Wnek, however, was greeted with yet more defections when the A&P grocery chain took its advertising in-house and retailer Macy's pulled Lowe's AOR duties from New York. London has also suffered major losses. Globally, Lowe held on to some countries in a Unilever detergent review but lost more than it kept.
This latest chapter will fuel the speculation that Interpublic Chairman-CEO Michael Roth has to take more dramatic steps to fix the perpetually ailing Lowe network. One on-again, off-again discussion is a merger with marketing-services network Draft. Another is closing some offices.
Contributing: Matthew Creamer