Law's St. Luke's run is over, a journey from 'hot' to not

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This column comes from London, where there is a story that's been devoured with barely concealed glee: the departure of founder Andy Law from the once achingly trendy advertising co-operative, St Luke's. His exit followed internal disputes with joint Managing Directors Phil Teer and Neil Henderson. St Luke's, once "agency of the year" and the fastest-growing boutique in town, lost half of its billings in two years. Law believed it was no longer radical enough. He proposed further expansion overseas, with New York a target, in addition to existing offices in Stockholm and Mumbai. Teer and Henderson rejected this idea in favor of consolidation. Law quit.

St Luke's is internationally known as the agency that resisted globalization to become the industry's first co-operative. It was born out of the rejection by Law and David Abraham of Omnicom Group's proposed takeover of Chiat/Day, the California-based agency whose London office they ran-despite the fact it would make them very wealthy.

In "Open Minds," his intriguing book, Law says the moment of truth occurred when his former hero, Jay Chiat, announced the news to Chiat/Day in London-not in person but by a giant-screen satellite link in an anonymous hotel. Chiat repeatedly got wrong the name of TBWA's then London agency, with which Chiat/Day, London, was to merge. Despite the ever-more-lucrative blandishments of Omnicom heavy-hitters, Law left, taking 37 staffers and nearly all of the agency's business with him.

Of course, sympathy alone is not enough to move major clients into a startup that didn't even have an office, or to win new business from other major advertisers. Law, a decade older than everyone else at the agency, put together an outstanding group of talented young employees. Each had a share in the company and a say in how it was run. They had a cult-like belief in the brand.

With specially created individual client rooms (such as a teenage girl's bedroom for Boots Cosmetics) and its wonderful in-house restaurant/boardroom, St Luke's felt like no other ad agency. It really did practice "hot-desking." And it helped staff to pursue outside interests such as music.

There was outstanding work, notably for BBC Radio 1 and IKEA, whose "chuck out your chintz" campaign, challenging the fundamental British right to have terrible taste in furnishings, caused a furor. But cracks appeared. St. Luke's was pilloried after a TV documentary showed staffers arguing heatedly over the "ethics" of sending an employee flowers as a "thank you." Even Abraham left.

As clients left, Law argues the agency got distracted. "It was never my intention to create a company where we had to have a staff vote on whether to change our brand of toilet paper" was his pithy parting comment.

Law says he wants to modernize the ad business, either starting from scratch or partnering up. He polarizes opinion. Posters once went up in London asking, "Andy Law: Genius or Tw*t?" But he shouldn't be written off. For a while he did what many dream of doing. He has a flair for publicity and unshakeable self-belief. In fact, he'd probably do better in the U.S. than in cynical London.

Stefano Hatfield is contributing editor to Advertising Age and Creativity.

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