LONDON (AdAge.com) -- U.K. advertising legend Frank Lowe, famous for both his uncompromisingly high creative standards and his lavish lifestyle, has stepped down from his third agency as he nears his 70th birthday.
The founder of Lowe Worldwide and, more recently, London shop Red Brick Road, refused to elaborate on the uncharacteristically subdued statement he put out just before Christmas, which said he is "stepping back from day-to-day involvement" but will "remain as a shareholder" in Red Brick Road.
The move marks a 50-year career that began in 1960 in JWT's mailroom. From this modest beginning, Mr. Lowe grew into the kind of adman even the scriptwriters of "Mad Men" wouldn't dare invent.
There are many stories about the five-times married Mr. Lowe: He made his executives talk to a toy animal; in 1988 he spent $300,000 on a desk, crafted by Queen Elizabeth's nephew, designer David Linley, for his New York office, but it didn't fit into the elevator. Some may be myths, some are likely true.
But above all else, Mr. Lowe has always believed that a brand has to have a fundamentally powerful creative idea -- and that is the lifelong quest he has bullied and cajoled others to take with him.
Despite being an account man by background, his reputation is inextricably linked with memorable work he demanded from creatives and championed with clients. Stella Artois, Smirnoff, Heineken (he is said to have composed the brand's famous slogan "refreshes the parts other beers cannot reach" line on an airline sickbag), Diet Coke, Reebok and General Motors Corp.'s U.K. subsidiary Vauxhall were among Lowe's many creative triumphs. Mr. Lowe was pals with Heineken's Freddy Heineken, made commercials with future Hollywood directors like Ridley Scott, and presided over the star-studded annual Stella Artois tennis tournament.
Michael Wall, now CEO of Lowe Worldwide, will never forget the night in 1993 before Lowe London presented a new campaign to its biggest client, Tesco, when Mr. Lowe rang up the agency's creative director, Charles Inge, and said, in his famously husky, sometimes menacing, tones, "Charles, I do hope you're not going to disappoint us tomorrow."
The "Every Little Helps" campaign presented that day is still running and helped make Tesco Britain's No. 1 retailer. "He had this reassuring terror," Mr. Wall said. "He had a personality and a presence that made you, out of fear or sheer desire, give it your utmost."
A perfectionist, Mr. Lowe is still remembered as the jury chairman at the Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival who caused an uproar by refusing to award the coveted Grand Prix because he wasn't convinced any of the work was good enough. That was back in 1995, but for years the festival had to promise that there would be a Grand Prix.
Frank Lowe's towering reputation in the U.K. and elsewhere was never quite matched in the U.S. Brilliant but unpredictable, Mr. Lowe built Collett Dickenson Pearce into London's hottest shop in the 1970s, then started his own U.K. agency, Lowe Howard-Spink, in 1981 and made it the best in London at a time when British advertising was renowned. Interpublic Group of Cos. bought the agency in 1990 and Mr. Lowe built and chaired the Lowe Group and the Lowe & Partners Worldwide network, including taking over ailing Ammirati Puris Lintas in what was then the ad industry's biggest-ever merger in 1999.
Despite spending time trying to develop the Lowe network in the U.S. and around the world, and a pricey foray into sports marketing at Interpublic's expense, Mr. Lowe may be better known in America for fighting with the holding company and its executives.
A Frank Lowe timeline
1960: Starts his career in JWT London's mailroom
1981: Founds Lowe Howard-Spink in London
1990: Interpublic buys Lowe
1999: Lowe merges with Ammirati Puris Lintas
2002-3: Leaves Lowe, IPG
2006: Opens Red Brick Road
2009: Steps down from Red Brick Road
By 2003 he was gone, from Lowe and Interpublic, but not forgotten. "He wasn't done," said Peter Minnium, Lowe's director of the Americas, who worked closely with Mr. Lowe in different roles. (In recent years, Lowe the agency has maintained its creative reputation and a robust international presence, but struggled mightily in the U.S., where the brand was all but erased in a merger with Deutsch in October.)
Taking on Interpublic again, Mr. Lowe surprised the ad world with another agency in 2006, named Red Brick Road after the path not followed in the Wizard of Oz. He and his new partners immediately walked off with Lowe London's biggest account, $90 million retailer Tesco. Trying to stop the staff and clients who kept defecting to Mr. Lowe, an annoyed Interpublic filed arbitration proceedings against him alleging "violation of contractual and fiduciary duties arising from his tenure as head of its Lowe Worldwide agency network." Mr. Lowe fired back demanding Interpublic apologize to him and withdraw the claim.
Since then, Red Brick Road has been a profitable agency, thanks to Tesco, but hasn't matched the runaway success of Mr. Lowe's previous agencies. He is said to have fallen out with co-founder Paul Hammersley by effectively dividing Red Brick Road into two separate agencies -- one headed by Mr. Lowe, leading the Tesco business, and the other run by Mr. Hammersley, left struggling to build a U.K. agency because retail giant Tesco presents a conflict with so many potential clients. Mr. Hammersley declined to comment.
So what's next for Mr. Lowe? "Anyone who knows Frank knows he's been on a single quest since he joined JWT's mailroom," Mr. Minnium said. "He can't sit on his hands. And he's a serial deal maker. He's going to do something with someone somewhere."