Lord Bell, Tim Bell as was in his Saatchi & Saatchi days, is that rare breed of adman who proved equally adept at doing something else.
Public relations is not so different from advertising of course but the cultural divide between the two used to be vast.
But Bell, in his latter guise as chairman of mini-marcomms group Chime (that isn’t so mini any more), now sees his company surging ahead on all fronts, reporting today that revenues for the first half of 2010 are ahead of last year’s record, boosted by a 30 per cent uplift in new business revenues.
Chime’s main PR company Bell Pottinger is now comfortably the biggest in the UK by revenue while its advertising agency VCCP, boosted by the fame of Comparethemarket’s meerkats, is also thriving. Group new business wins this year include Airbus and Barclays.
Just a few years ago it looked like Chime was destined for the knacker’s yard. It had bought once high-flying ad agency HHCL and installed its boss Rupert Howell as Chime CEO. This proved something of a disaster and Howell left to join, first, McCann-Erickson and then ITV as commercial director.
HHCL withered away and Bell had to go cap in hand to WPP’s Sir Martin Sorrell, his old finance director at Saatchis, who rather generously bought 25 per cent of Chime.
Bell then spent the best part of £20m on VCCP, a promising though hardly earth-shattering young agency, a move most people thought was mad.
That decision (and Sorrell’s of course) is being vindicated but the real strength of Chime is its gaggle of PR agencies headed by Bell Pottinger. While other PR agencies have suffered in the recession, including WPP’s Hill & Knowlton, Bell Pottinger has gone from strength to strength, enjoying the benefits of being the market leader, a notable benefit when nervous companies are choosing advisers in tough times.
And Bell, despite his remaining interest in advertising through VCCP, has never made any bones about his belief that PR is the real essential for companies and others battered by 24-hour media attention.
The others, for Chime, seem to include many of the world’s more disagreeable dictators and regimes, a process that began with the nasty Chilean General Pinochet. But Bell, who’s even more right wing than his old friend and client Margaret Thatcher, is more than happy to let them into his cab.
In many ways they’re the ideal clients of course. They don’t really expect PR to make much of a difference to their grubby image but they spend hugely on it just in case.
With a Tory government now finally in office one would expect Chime to carry on doing well. Bell is no longer close to the Tory leadership (he was highly critical of elements of the Tories’ election campaign) but his former relationship as Mrs T’s closest adviser won’t do him or the company any harm.
So it looks like more good tidings for Chime.