It was only a bit more than 10 years ago, remember, that Interpublic was considered the ad industry's boorish giant. It was a growth machine, to be sure, but compared with its competitors among the multi-network advertising holding companies, Interpublic was a creative klutz. McCann-Erickson's glory days-"Hilltop Reunion," "Mean Joe Greene"-were long behind it. Lintas had never taken off. Meanwhile, over at Omnicom, BBDO was raking in awards, and DDB was gaining new life. The Saatchis were still a creative force. WPP's Ogilvy had never really lost its luster.
But Interpublic's corporate culture seemed antithetical to creativity. I still remember what a former senior IPG creative told me in 1990: "You cannot be a creatively driven agency on a growth pattern within the IPG system, where the system is more important than anything else."
This presented a problem, not just of honor but of growth. During the last recession, marketers awakened to the fact that breakthrough advertising, however defined, was the most effective way to capture the wandering attention of an increasingly preoccupied public. Eventually, Interpublic recognized the potential crisis and, a decade ago, acquired all of the Lowe Group, with the intention of making it Interpublic's "creative network."
Lee Garfinkel was the individual who made that happen. "He gave Lowe a creative identity, and made it an agency everybody wanted to work at," says my friend Susan Friedman, the leading creative headhunter.
Lee's accomplishments as chairman, CEO and chief creative officer at Lowe North America are legion. His Mercedes-Benz campaign, with its artful imagery and startlingly retro reach into the musical past, may be the best auto advertising of the `90s.He reinvigorated Sprite, and won the Diet Coke account. More recently, he's deployed a visual subtlety rare in the category to transform Heineken into a trendy beer. Under his guidance, Lowe became a regular presence in the awards shows-events that are, again, central not just to agency honor but, in a talent-driven economy, to growth. He also had the good sense to engineer the acquisition of Goldsmith/Jeffrey, an admired 1980s mini-shop, further augmenting Lowe's new creative reputation, and giving it management bench strength.
Few would have predicted Lee could carry this off. Not only was Interpublic creatively uncongenial; it was less than a hotbed of executive diversity. Lee is a wiry fellow-my height, but thinner-in a place that favors Big White Men From Connecticut. He's an urban ethnic-he once accused me of being insensitive to Jews-in a place that favors ... well, Big White Men From Connecticut.
You'd expect someone who's achieved so much against such odds would be revered in his own house. Yet last week it was disclosed, not by him, that Lee would be leaving the Lowe Lintas & Partners after eight years.
Alas, Interpublic seems unable to handle its Lowe Lintas problem. Actually, that's two-two-two problems in one. Lintas' problem is one of character. Formerly "Lever International Advertising Services," Lintas has never had a real identity as an agency, and IPG, which acquired it in 1979, hasn't been able to settle on one. It was the company's cool, Euro-style agency. Merged with Ammirati & Puris, it was to be a creative brand. Now, married to Lowe, it's heading toward a more insouciant creative proposition. That's a lot of buffeting in 21 years.
The Lowe problem is chronic management infighting: executive set against executive, unsourced rumors, legal battles (with clients held hostage). That's what happened when Marvin Sloves was forced out. In the past few weeks, it seemed as if Lee was getting "Sloved". One hopes the fate doesn't befall his able successors, Gary Goldsmith and Rob Quish. Curiously, the one name rarely heard in these affairs is that of Frank Lowe, the mercurial Brit who founded and runs the global agency, and who, as an IPG board member and major shareholder, can't really be expected to take the fall for his agency's difficulties.
No, this time the fall was Lee's. So, too, shall he rise-perhaps with his own shop, maybe at Interpublic. If it's lucky.
Mr. Rothenberg can be reached at email@example.com.