Matthew Bull

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[London] Today, Matthew Bull's trademark tight T-shirt says, "Too busy to FCUK." No, the controversial apparel company isn't a Lowe client, but the South African-born chief executive of Lowe Worldwide here is indeed a busy man.

He's set himself to the task of turning the Lowe network's flagship office-which has recently suffered a string of account losses including General Motors Corp. and failed to get into new-business pitches-into "the greatest advertising agency that ever existed."

The U.K. is especially important as the Lowe network faces reviews for the global accounts of HSBC and Braun.

Mr. Bull's first move was to cut down on bureaucracy. He trimmed the agency's board from 60 people to seven as part of a management restructuring and, in a bid to create a more open environment, removed all office doors.

Staff have been stealthily rehanging their doors, but Mr. Bull is satisfied that he's made his point. "It was a stunt," he admits, "and I've gotten the necessary reaction out of it."

His forceful personality is matched by an imposing physical presence. Mr. Bull is 6-foot-2, shaven-headed and sports an earring. Last summer, he was drafted from Lowe Bull Calvert Place in South Africa, where he had become a dominant force in the local ad industry, to inject some energy and spark into the network's once-legendary London office.

`utter confidence'

"I have complete and utter confidence," Mr. Bull declares. "I'm not as stupid as to say it will work, but I've done it before. I have a strong vision, and I hope we will succeed. Why bother playing the game if you know you're going to win?"

All is not gloom for Lowe as it has won the $28 million pan-European launch of a new line from Johnson & Johnson.

"We are in the black by quite a long way," Mr. Bull says, "but it's still not good enough. I refuse to grasp at straws, but we have gained positive momentum. It's a very small snowball, but it's a snowball."

Mr. Bull, 40, started as a copywriter at Ogilvy & Mather, founded Bull Calvert Place in Johannesburg with two partners in 1996 and built it into one of South Africa's biggest and most awarded agencies. He sold a stake to Interpublic Group of Cos.' Lowe in 2000 but is still the majority shareholder.

Last June, Mr. Bull moved to London. Unlike many admen, he has little interest in working in the U.S., saying, "It may be a broader canvas but there's a lot less paint."

It's still too early to tell whether Mr. Bull will turn Lowe London into the greatest ad agency that ever existed, but after making the tough management changes, 2004 is crucial.

"We now have to deliver," he says. " We are in walk mode, not talk mode."

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