Tim Bell, latterly Lord Bell, one of the giant figures of adland in an era where there were many contenders, has died aged 77.
Bell founded the Bell Pottinger PR firm with Piers Pottinger – which imploded many years later shortly after Bell had wisely departed – but is just as well known for his role as one of Margaret Thatcher’s closest advisers and MD of Saatchi & Saatchi when that agency was setting out to be the biggest in the world.
Bell began as the Saatchi & Saatchi media man when the youthful agency lodged in London’s Golden Square. This at a time when it would pull in people off the street to make the agency look more populous when a visit from a big client was due. Described by journalist Gail Amber as the person dogs would cross the street to be stroked by, Bell had more than enough charm and smooth delivery – like a cross between a radio presenter and the most persuasive of barristers – to charm any client: Mrs T being one.
This despite a colourful personal modus operandi which often engaged the attentions of Private Eye, among others.
Saatchi & Saatchi’s role in the Conservatives’ surprise General Election victory of 1979 put the agency and Bell on the map. The British Airways account, then helmed by Thatcher supporter Lord King, was allegedly a thank you present.
Bell, then hailed by many as the “third brother” long before another alumnus Martin Sorrell, eventually left what was a family business and took up with another huge character Frank Lowe, to add his PR skills to Lowe Howard-Spink in what became Lowe Bell. Predictably, though, while Lowe Bell was successful it wasn’t built to house two such egos so Bell Pottinger went its own way.
Bell Pottinger was the centrepiece of Chime Communications which expanded to include the HHCL agency but this eventually hit the buffers too, to be bailed out by one Martin Sorrell, then leading WPP. This didn’t play especially well with Bell for whom Sorrell was still the bumptious finance director.
There used to to be a number of short films of an IPA event with Bell, Sorrell and Lowe on stage together (by that time it’s Sir Martin and Sir Frank.). The extremely tall Lowe spends most of the times examining his shoes when he’s not speaking, Sorrell is up and down like the clever boy at the back of the class while Bell handles proceedings with aplomb, like a cross between Michael Parkinson in his prime and a tolerant uncle. They may be richer than him, he seems to indicate, but he’s a Lord while they’re mere knights of the realm.
Always controversial – Bell held the most hard right opinions possible and worked for some horrible characters including Chilean dictator General Pinochet – Bell was personally kind, behind the sometimes staggering front.
I remember him once resting his ample stomach on the table at Langan’s Brasserie and telling me in all seriousness that he stayed trim throughout all these lunches and dinners by only eating half his food – as he demolished an equally ample plate of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding.
Once, in the early days of MAA we became caught up in a spat between Easyjet and departed founder Stelios. Some Stelios supporters were not pleased to see Easyjet’s ad account find its way to VCCP (where it still resides) which was then owned by Chime. One of the pitch panel then sold his company to Chime, which we duly reported.
Bell sent over a comment, printed, saying we were muck-raking guttersnipes, which we took as a compliment. Shortly after I dialled Bell’s mobile entirely by mistake and, before I could remedy things, came the famous husky tones (Bell always answered the phone, even the office one.) Here we go, I thought.
There was a very slight pause followed by a perfectly agreeable five-minute conversation as if nothing had happened. Maybe he’d already forgotten but I doubt it.
Bell Pottinger imploded after it launched a pernicious social media campaign for South African president Jacob Zuma. Bell’s version was that he won the business but quit before things turned nasty. Let’s hope he was right.
One of his last public appearances followed this, when he turned up on Newsnight rather too well refreshed by Friday evening drinks. He would have known the risk of this but, I got the impression, by that time he didn’t care. It made painful watching.
Better to remember Bell at the top of his game: charming, highly intelligent (in his idiosyncratic way) and kind – and not just to the toffs and captains of industry he hung out with.