Gatfield summoned to fix last-chance Lowe

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Stephen Gatfield has to bring Lowe back from the brink.

Bosses and turnaround plans have come and gone, but Interpublic is still confident it can fix the troubled network and is rolling out another fix-it strategy, to be overseen by another top manager.

This time it's turning to one of its own, Mr. Gatfield, a 47-year-old internationalist with deep ad-agency experience, to shoulder some of the day-to-day operational load from Worldwide CEO Tony Wright. It's unclear whether Mr. Gatfield, recently promoted to Interpublic exec VP-strategy and network operations, will take on a formal Lowe title.

"It's an evolution of my Interpublic role," said Mr. Gatfield. "Tony is firmly installed as part of the future of the Lowe operation. I'm working with Tony to figure out where I can be the greatest help to him."

A lot of help is needed. The network is a poster child for the dark side of the agency-merger mania during the late 1990s and early part of this decade. A series of combinations sent some important Lowe clients fleeing and helped diminish its creative brand. Now, it's dealing with another headache: the re-emergence of founder Frank Lowe, whose upstart agency walked away with Lowe London's Tesco business late last year.

Ironically, Mr. Gatfield emerged from that same merger mania with a stellar reputation based in part on his work in integrating D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles into Publicis. He joined Interpublic in 2004, after a stint as chief operating officer of Leo Burnett Worldwide. Mr. Gatfield's name has surfaced before in relation to Interpublic agencies, particularly Foote Cone & Belding and Lowe.

Sometime before its March 27 investors meeting, Interpublic is expected to release another turnaround plan for Lowe, frequently identified by Interpublic Chairman-CEO Michael Roth as one of the company's biggest trouble spots, alongside its media operation.

The most recent plan was announced about a year ago by Mr. Wright, who eliminated a layer of regional management, a pair of global roles, and focused attention on 11 offices known as Lighthouses.

At that time, Mr. Wright insisted there would be no office closings, but that's unlikely to be the case this time around. It's likely that Mr. Gatfield will have to help Lowe achieve a somewhat smaller footprint. It currently operates in 84 markets and insiders speculate that some of that overhead will have to be cut out in part by selling some local offices back to original owners.

Mr. Gatfield declined to talk about those plans.

`Premiere franchise'

"We'll have precisely the network we need to be effective for clients," he said. "The important issue is not the size of the network. In the Interpublic portfolio, Lowe performs as a premiere creative franchise. That's what it has to be. In a number of markets, it's doing very well in those terms."

Mr. Gatfield's presence will likely see Mr. Wright shift to a more client-focused role, but Mr. Gatfield said the breakdown of duties hasn't been firmed up: "It's not nailed down yet. Both of us have a lot of client experience. I have more operating experience than he has so there's a bias to that."

Mr. Wright was brought in from Ogilvy & Mather in November 2004. But insiders said that the business of running an agency, particularly such a troubled one, doesn't play to the strong suits of Mr. Wright, a highly regarded planner.

Mr. Wright could not be reached for comment. A Lowe spokeswoman had no comment.

Last week, Lowe New York CEO Susan Cantor stepped down from her role, though she said that wasn't related to forthcoming changes at the network.

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