To call Tim Bell unique, one of a kind or iconoclastic does not do justice to the man or his life.
He carved out a role that over five decades saw him at the nexus of advertising, PR, political communications, reputation management and lobbying. His charm and knowledge of people and events knew no bounds which enabled him to feed a virtual circle of insight and gossip. The more he knew, the more he shared, the more people fed him in return. His speed dial was a veritable ‘Who’s who’ of the great, the good and even the not-so good.
I believe we are not going to see anyone fill his shoes. Partly because of who he was, but also because he was a man of his times and those times are a-changing.
He is rightly remembered for his instrumental role in helping Margaret Thatcher win three elections, so he was central in transforming Britain from a failing state into the progressive country we live in today. The irony is that when Charles and Maurice Saatchi first told him about the prospect of working for the Conservative Party, he advised them to turn it down as it could destabilise the agency.
Tim was accused by his enemies of working for some unsavoury clients. His defence was that he believed people had a right to be represented in the ‘court of public opinion’ and if they had done bad things would take them on if they promised to change. If they then did not, then he would no longer represent them. For him it was the PR equivalent to the Barrister’s Cab Rank principle.
However, the problem in the age of social media and activist shareholders is that if your firm represents strait-laced corporates, these can get concerned about the impact on their image of sharing an agency with clients who are less so.
This was the issue that was at the heart of Tim’s spat with the CEO of Bell Pottinger, James Henderson. Together they undertook a management buy-out from Chime in 2012. James’s background was financial PR and Tim’s extended into briefs for less than democratic countries as well as media management for people of mixed repute.
Having made his bed with Tim, James soon did not want to lie in it. I had a ringside seat as the tensions grew as I was in negotiations to merge my global ad agency with Bell Pottinger. (Once I saw how things stood between the two, I quickly parked the idea.)
The final act of this Götterdämmerung was played out in South Africa over the Gupta Brothers’ Oakbay account. The irony of what happened is so extraordinary that I believe it is important for the full story to be known.
It starts with Tim flying to South Africa with Jonathan Lehrle, who headed up Bell Pottinger’s Geo-political team to secure the account. The Gupta’s, who are of Indian descent, felt they were being discriminated against in South Africa. Tim recommended it should be directed by Jonathan as it would need someone with his skills to handle an account of this sensitive nature.
However, soon after the win, Tim had a stroke and was on three months medical leave. James used Tim’s absence to ensure the account was run exclusively by his Financial PR Team, under Victoria Geoghegan,who had no experience of this type of work. This was simply a case of an unabashed turf war over revenue and nothing to do with what was in the client’s - or even the agency’s - best interests.
Victoria and her team set up over 100 fake Twitter accounts accusing white South African businessmen of ‘white monopoly capital’, including Johann Rupert, owner of Richemont, who was a Bell Pottinger client. Can anyone who has a modicum of knowledge of Tim Bell, who was vehemently against the likes of Twitter, consider he would be behind doing such a thing to his lifelong friend? This was PR as narrated by Tom Sharpe.
When Tim returned from sick leave and saw what was going on, he had a stand-up row with James telling him he had to resign the account. When James refused, Tim told the Board they had to do so immediately, or it would bring the company down. When they failed to act, Tim felt he had no choice but to resign from the company he had dedicated 30 years of his life building and which had his name on the door. This was in 2016. In 2017, the story broke about Victoria’s Secrets, which resulted in Bell Pottinger being expelled from the PRCA and the firm going into administration.
It is a measure of the man that Tim felt compelled to have no more to do with Bell Pottinger. It is fair to say that after he resigned, he was keen to ensure that the person he blamed for the disaster, should resign or be fired. Another irony is that in the infamous Newsnight interview where Tim was accused of being responsible for running the account, the person trying to call him was Johann Rupert who wanted to thank him for being “the only person to have acted with honour in the entire affair”.
One of Tim’s proudest achievements was helping end apartheid and the hand-over of power without bloodshed to Nelson Mandela and the ANC. Why anyone could imagine Tim wanting to blot his copy book by whipping up stories of ‘white monopoly capital’ is beyond me? FW De Klerk, another great man, wrote to Tim’s family to condole them on their loss and express his thanks for the great work Tim did for South Africa.
So, the final irony was that James was so hellbent on getting rid of Tim that he fought to control a client that was precisely the type of client he wanted to avoid Bell Pottinger representing. Whilst Tim would have ensured that it was handled meticulously, James did not have the experience or oversight to manage it. Unfortunately, that is what destroyed the company and resulted in many good people losing their jobs.
As a result we will not just not see the likes of Tim Bell again, we will never see a PR firm try to juggle the client mix that under Tim saw Bell Pottinger become the most famous name in its industry.
Tim was not immune to personal foibles and was not someone for all tastes, but his positive impact on the world was immense. I, like his family and many others, will miss him tremendously and remember him for all the right reasons.