Tim Bell: The PR high-flyer who lives for the buzz

Clients are fleeing Bell Pottinger, notes the Evening Standard. The City PR firm has become “so toxic” amid accusations that it stirred up racial tensions against white business people in South Africa to draw attention away from the wealthy and well-connected Gupta family, that it faces extinction. Yet “the seeds of the disaster” were sown years ago, says the Financial Times, when relations broke down between CEO James Henderson and its larger-than-life co-founder, Tim Bell, who was ousted last year.

In his heyday, Lord Bell of Belgravia personified the 1980s PR ideal: tough, chain-smoking, politically driven. When Margaret Thatcher hired Bell and his then-employers, Saatchi & Saatchi, to advise the Tories in 1978, he became “one of the closest in her inner circle of clever, often slightly roguish informal advisers”, says The Guardian.

They had a similar worldview: “us-against-them, fiercely anti-communist, unquestioningly pro-market”. Bell Pottinger, formed in 1998, majored on “special situations” – reputational and crisis PR – going “where other agencies feared to tread”. A “controversial” client roster included former Chilean leader Augusto Pinochet, several repressive governments and the occasional oddball such as Oscar Pistorius. Bell always saw the company as “a force for good”. But there was bound to be a culture clash when he teamed up with “financial whizz” Henderson to lead a management buyout from Chime in 2012, says the FT. Not least because the deal gave Henderson, the main shareholder, “the upper hand”. 

Bell, 75, has always been “a strange mixture”, says Stephen Foster on the More About Advertising website. On the one hand, the north London boy “supped fully of adland excesses”; on the other, he says he believes in “the Tory virtues of respect for your elders”. Educated at Queen Elizabeth’s school in Barnet, Bell’s background was “entrepreneurial and middle-class”, says The Guardian. His mother came from a line of shopkeepers; his father was a salesman who left the family for South Africa when Bell was five, and later became known as Uncle Paddy, “South Africa’s most popular radio compere and chat-show host”.

Bell’s first job as a post-boy at a TV company opened up “a vibrant new world” of glamour, says The Mail on Sunday. As a young man in the 1960s, he was less interested in politics than in his blossoming advertising career (he joined Saatchi in 1970), “but he found time to canvass for several north London Tory MPs”, including Thatcher, the member for Finchley, says The Guardian. It was the foundation of their later “rapport”.

Reviewing Bell’s memoir for The Mail on Sunday in 2014, Craig Brown noted that you get the impression that when Bell says he won’t sit in hasty judgment of someone, “he really means he won’t say no to their money”. Yet empire-building has never meant much to Bell. “I don’t think he’s ever been interested in being [part of] a big PR conglomerate,” his biographer, Mark Hollingsworth, told The Guardian. “His life is about buzz.” There’s certainly still no shortage of that.