Can Bell Pottinger survive? Five industry figures on the embattled agency's options

Is Bell Pottinger's South African scandal terminal? Five agency leaders and experienced industry professionals have five very different takes on the question.

Alison Clarke, consultant and former Grayling UK CEO

"This truly is a reputational crisis and unless there is wholesale restructuring of their operations and leadership - and by that I mean much more than the CEO falling on his sword - it seems hard to see how they can recover.

"After all, as a client there are other fine international consultancies out there and as a practitioner there are plenty of excellent employer consultancy brands to choose from. It's evident that some clients and employees have already voted with their feet. As any good practitioner will tell a client – you can’t talk your way out of poor behaviour. That needs to be Bell Pottinger's starting point if they want to survive."

Charles Lewington, founder, Hanover Communications

"If you listen to the BBC or read the Guardian, you would think Bell Pottinger does nothing but represent dodgy regimes or corrupt individuals. In fact, it has a profitable financial and corporate business with some great consultants, blue chip clients who have remained loyal despite the extreme provocation of South African activists and a rapidly growing business in key Asian markets and decent revenue in the Middle East which has not been touched by events.

"The big question is whether accountants BDO can move fast enough to find a buyer as clients and staff drift away and Tim Bell continues his bizarre and rather sad vendetta against James Henderson. The company has a seasoned Chairman in Mark Smith and a determination to keep the show on the road, despite a tough PRCA verdict.

"I very much hope it survives, because no business deserves to be brought down by a few bad apples and a poor management culture which Smith is about to change."

Peter Gilheany, PR Director at Forster Communications

"I think they can survive and even thrive as an agency, but it will require radical change. If they are only looking for how they can continue on a business-as-usual basis, then I think they are doomed. But the reformed sinner can be a very powerful and successful agent for change, and help the organisation or individual involved rescue their own reputation at the same time.

"In cycling, David Millar is a great example of poacher turned gamekeeper. His campaigning against doping is lent real weight and legitimacy because of his own history as a doper – he’s been there, done that. Bell Pottinger could become a champion in the industry for the power of transparency and values-led ethical practice. That could be achieved through a managed buyout by a group of leaders within the business with an appetite for that type of change, as well as bringing in a senior figure from outside the agency with a reputation for transparency and ethics."

Tony Langham, CEO, Lansons

"As has been apparent since early July, Bell Pottinger is dead. Management have now missed the opportunity to transfer the quality corporate and financial business to a rival or spin-off under a new name.

"Like Fishburn Hedges, Dewe Rogerson and Ludgate, they won’t be missed as there are too many corporate agencies in London for the business available. Clients will continue this week’s stampede for the door as nobody needs an agency that damages their reputation. The best staff under 40 will find other jobs fairly quickly, as will more senior consultants that can bring in business."

Paddy Blewer, strategic comms adviser (formerly of Ketchum Pleon and Instinctif forerunner College Hill)

"Some of the best people I've worked with in the industry were and remain at Bell Pottinger. If the firm has any chance, it needs to keep them in place, as it's these men and women that have the long-term relationships built on trust and respect that could be the foundation of any turnaround.

"This isn't just about client relationships, although obviously they're vital. It's about senior comms advisors that are trusted by the media and wider comms environment".


Read next: Bell Pottinger hires BDO to look at options as clients and staff abandon crisis-hit agency

 

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