Did revenge sound the death knell for Bell Pottinger?

Without fear or favour, Richard J. Hillgrove VI tips the tables up on world leaders, brands and countries who all often think they can hide behind the smoke and mirrors via their communications professionals. Bang On takes a full throttle, punk approach to dissecting and analysing modern PR and marketing. It's not for the faint hearted....

Bell Pottinger’s implosion has been spectacularly rapid, so much so it raises the question whether this was an inside job.

Was the South Africa meltdown the trigger for a controlled demolition? Take Lord Bell’s ‘inept’ Newsnight interview, for instance. Could he really have been so crass? And just who made those company emails public?

Could it be that the unravelling of this PR empire might have less to do with mischance and more with immaculately manoeuvred Machiavellian machination?

Bell’s feud with Bell Pottinger’s former chief executive James Henderson is a matter of record. It looks like the young gun was aiming to clean up the agency’s reputation by targeting City and financial PR.

He was forgetting that what built up Bell Pottinger’s reputation in the first place was its geopolitical work, representing the untouchable.

The power struggle between the two men started after their £20m buyout from Chime in 2012. Bell’s salary and expenses – including mobile phones for his two children – were challenged. There’s no doubt the two stags had locked horns.

Henderson was obviously gunning for the old guard, but if he thought he was in control of one of the world’s most famous PR brands, he was wrong – and Bell made it clear he wasn’t going anywhere. In 2014 he said he would "never retire".

Still, he had to go. Forcing the chairman and founder Lord Bell out, then announcing his immediate resignation on 25 August, 2016, probably marked the beginning of the end for Henderson.

Significantly, there was no quote from Bell in the press release at the time. Also, Henderson’s assertion that “we will find ways of mutually working together with him in his new business where there are clients that need a combined expertise” never happened.

Instead, what we got was the start of a campaign that would ultimately destroy Bell Pottinger. Details started to come out about a seamy side to the “economic emancipation” campaign in South Africa.

Would it have been possible for still-loyal factions within Bell Pottinger to arm the enemy? Absolutely. Of course, they would have to make sure no fingerprints were left anywhere.

South Africa’s Democratic Alliance leader Mmusi Maimane must have thought all his Christmases had come at once when he got his hands on more than 100,000 highly private and confidential emails between Bell Pottinger and the Guptas.

This wasn’t so much a leak as a raging flood, but no one’s accusing Maimane of hacking the computers of either Bell Pottinger or the Guptas. That would be a criminal offence. The leak had to come from within.

Exposing these internal documents would also effectively tip off clients about the conflict of interest. And so it did.

In January, Johann Rupert, who heads up Remgro and Richemont, ended an 18-year contract with Bell Pottinger due to its ‘concerted effort on social and other media to discredit him’ on behalf of its other client Oakbay, owned by the Guptas.

Since then, clients have been jumping ship in droves. The PR giant became so toxic that Chime even gave back its remaining 27% share in the company, just to make sure they it distanced itself far enough.

All the while, the man whose name is forever synonymous with the agency was quietly sitting back and watching – until that Newsnight interview.

Pundits have labelled it a car crash, unimaginably crass for a PR of Bell’s stature. But it might just have been a work of genius, a stunt that only the Lord of the Dark Arts himself could have pulled off.

If you assume the Machiavelli approach, it achieved everything it set out to do. Bell wasn’t on TV to shore up Bell Pottinger’s reputation. Quite the opposite.

As the living embodiment and personification of the Bell Pottinger brand, Lord Bell expertly buried its reputation good and proper. Newsnight became the nail in its coffin.

Bell repeatedly said: “They don’t listen to me.” He said he left because of the “smelly” relationship the agency had with the Guptas, which he said had “nothing to do with me”.

Nope, it was: “All Hendersons fault. He would most definitely have to go.” And the pièce de resistance: “They don’t listen to me. That’s why I left the company.”

“Of course, James Henderson is to blame. Of course, he should have resigned.”

The final exchange was the torch that lit the funeral pyre.

Kirsty Wark: “Do you think this is curtains for Bell Pottinger?”

Lord Bell: “Almost certainly. But it’s nothing to do with me.”

Kirsty Wark: “So, the company really is a busted flush?”

Lord Bell: "I think that probably it is getting near the very end. Yes. You can try and rescue it. But it won’t be very successful.”

If you think the Newsnight act couldn’t possibly have been deliberate, be prepared to think again. There are clues that suggest otherwise.

His new ‘Baby Bell’ agency is called Sans Frontières Associates; that’s French for ‘Without Limits’.

Notoriety with a capital ‘N’ made Bell Pottinger’s name and proudly positioned it as the world’s most controversial PR agency. From Rolf Harris to Augusto Pinochet, the Chilean dictator, Bell has never been embarrassed or ashamed by his client list.

He takes it all in his stride. It adds to the legend, along with being fined £50 in 1977 for indecency after exposing himself while masturbating at his Hampstead bathroom window. By his own admission, he snorted cocaine for five years between 1978 and 1983, referring to it as “ancient history”.

In his 2014 memoir, Right or Wrong published by Bloomsbury, he says he’s able “not to give a fuck about what people think of me”.

PR Week said: “He can slag off individuals – even entire nations – with an acid tongue but always with that trademark charm and twinkle in his eye.”

Even the publisher’s blurb says: “This is a book that is as polarising as Tim Bell himself. It will attract admiration and rage in equal measure. And he would not have it any other way.”

Bell has always been the outsider. He relishes controversy. It’s his oxygen.

The grammar school-educated barrow boy from Barnet was never part of the British establishment. He wasn’t even part of the PR establishment, having slid into PR as the former managing director of Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising.

His much-vaunted relationship with Margaret Thatcher worked precisely because the grocer’s daughter wasn’t born with a silver spoon in her mouth either.

James Henderson, with his society and royal connections, was never a good fit with Bell. He might have thought he held the upper hand on the brand with his 40% share in the company.

But the brand was Tim Bell. To screw with him was to screw with the company itself and revenge can be a powerfully destructive force.

Administration needn’t be the end, though. What if Bell were to buy Bell Pottinger back from the administrators for a song and get it dancing to his tune once more?

If anyone could get this phoenix to rise from the ashes, it would be Lord Bell of Belgravia, the shameless master of PR’s murkier waters.

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Richard J. Hillgrove VI

All by Richard J.