My campaign: John Tylee remembers 'Lacegate'

When Grey London hired Garry Lace to "give its London agency a profile", no-one could have guessed how 'successful' this strategy would be. John Tylee on "Lacegate" and other stories...

People sometimes ask what the best story I ever covered was in the more than three decades I’ve spent writing for Campaign. It depends how you define "best". But if you mean those high in human drama and full of gobsmacking twists and turns, I’d name three.

One was Hugh Salmon’s 1993 High Court writ against his former agency boss Chris Munds, which gave rise to, arguably, Campaign’s most sensational ever headline: "Sex and fraud scandal explodes at CM Lintas."

Another was the £448 lunch bill for two charged in 1992 against "PR" by D&AD chairman Edward Booth-Clibborn, when it was deep in a financial mire. It was a pivotal moment of profligacy that helped spark the organisation’s reform.

The third was what has become known in adland’s lexicon as "Lacegate".

This story had it all. Revenge, naked ambition, egomania and ruthlessness

This story had it all. Revenge, naked ambition, egomania and ruthlessness. Above all, it turned out to be the UK ad industry’s greatest tale of mystery. Fourteen years on, the author of the hoax email implicating Garry Lace, then Grey London’s £800,000-a-year chief executive, in a secret plan to quit the agency and go into business with one of his clients hasn’t been unmasked. This, despite a police investigation initiated by Lace, who insisted the claims were false.

Maybe the culprit was an embittered Grey staffer – one of some 50 axed by the flamboyant Lace, who was drafted in to rid the agency of its starchy reputation – who chose not to get mad but get even. Somebody at the time compared the hoaxer to a jilted girlfriend who breaks into her lover’s flat and takes a pair of scissors to his wardrobe of expensive suits.

Undoubtedly, the mischief-maker knew where the email should be sent in order to cause maximum damage: Ed Meyer, Grey’s then-worldwide chairman, a number of leading agency managers and senior clients, and Campaign’s then editor, Caroline Marshall, were among the recipients.

If creating extreme havoc was the plan, it worked. Within a month of the email story breaking, the marriage of Grey and Lace was over after just 16 months. Whether or not the hoax precipitated the divorce is conjectural. What’s more likely is that Grey, accustomed to steady-as-you-go motoring, found it couldn’t cope with a boy racer at the wheel. Indeed, the cheeky chappie with a relentless eye for the main chance was more of a cornered animal during his final days, bereft of the swagger he brought with him on his arrival from TBWA\London. "I don’t need this job," he bragged at the time. "I’m only 35, I’m at the top of my game and all I’m going to do is get better."

Now the writing was on the wall and Lace was cowed by it. "John," he growled when I phoned to ask him about the latest swirling rumours, "will you just get off my fucking back!"

"Grey hired Garry Lace to give its London agency a profile," I wrote subsequently. "It certainly has
one now."

Lace lived the lyrics of that well-known 1930s song Tain’t What you Do (It’s the Way that you Do It) – whether that was in the conspicuous consumption at his rented villa during Cannes Lions week or the 2003 Grey party at a Belgravia hotspot to which the entire industry seemed to have been invited and where the bar was reportedly six-deep all night. It all served to highlight the contradictory persona of someone who liked to boast of his staff’s youthfulness while embracing the sybaritic and loadsamoney lifestyle that was a throwback to the 1980s at Saatchi & Saatchi, where he was a graduate trainee.

Lace bowed out of the Grey melodrama with a final attempt to get some redress for the press coverage of it. This led to an exchange of legal letters with Campaign on the issue of whether or not he had received a severance settlement. The matter came to nothing and many believed Lace’s propensity for attracting unfortunate headlines would mean no other big agency jobs coming his way.

Imagine, then, how far the industry’s collective jaw dropped when Lowe Worldwide began 2005 by naming Lace chief executive of its perpetually problematic London office. Did Lowe pay for what many saw as an attempt at a quick fix? It seemed so when Lace was suspended the following year after allegations that he’d had meetings with Sir Frank Lowe immediately before Tesco shifted its £45m account into Sir Frank’s Red Brick Road start-up. Lace’s chutzpah, though, couldn’t be dented. Within hours of his suspension, he was holding court to an audience of well-wishers at The Ivy.

Today, Lace is out of the headlines – well, almost. The last word on him came at the end of 2017 courtesy of the Devonlive website, which reported that Lace’s involvement with the private Tower House School hadn’t gone to plan, with parents in revolt over a mid-term fees hike and teachers not being paid. The school went into receivership. Lace and controversy seem destined ever to be travelling companions.

John Tylee was associate editor at Campaign


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