A light has just gone out in adland, but Tim Bell's legacy will live on

London Advertising's founder remembers his friend and colleague Lord (Tim) Bell, who has died at 77.

Lord Tim Bell was inducted into the PRWeek Hall of Fame in 2016.
Lord Tim Bell was inducted into the PRWeek Hall of Fame in 2016.

Tim Bell was a remarkable man in many ways, not least for his role as one of the world’s foremost practitioners in advertising to virtually single-handedly establishing the contemporary PR industry.

He was most famous for his role as "Thatcher’s adman" and he certainly had a way with the Iron Lady, as she stuck with him through three election wins after he had split with the Saatchi brothers.

According to Tim, at their first meeting, she asked what poem he liked the most and when he recited If by Rudyard Kipling word-perfectly, they never looked back.

His first role in the ad industry was as the media man in the fledgling Saatchi & Saatchi in the early 1970s, where soon the brothers’ dependency on his ability as an all-round fixer/managing director resulted in him earning the sobriquet "the third Saatchi".  

Tim then joined forces with another of the big names in UK advertising, Frank Lowe – this time creating Lowe Communications, a new type of agency that specialised in managing relationships with journalists on behalf of clients. According to PRWeek, Tim was "the founding father of the modern UK PR industry".

This morphed into the Chime Group, owning the likes of HHCL and VCCP – two more of the UK’s best agencies.

Subsequently, he sold a stake of Chime to WPP. Tim took me to lunch at Le Gavroche and told me it was where he always had lunch with Sir Martin Sorrell as, much to his obvious enjoyment, the maître d' would greet them: "Good afternoon, Sir Martin. Good afternoon, Lord Bell."

His boyish humour was something that Tim never grew out of and was one of his most endearing qualities.

A few years later, Tim undertook a management buyout of Bell Pottinger from Chime/WPP and he introduced me to his new business partner and chief executive, James Henderson.

By this time, I had set up London Advertising and as we were both now independent agencies, we renewed our plans to create the global, fully integrated advertising, PR and political lobbying business we had both desired. Unfortunately – or, in retrospect, fortunately – I soon discovered that James clearly did not get on with Tim, so the plans were put on hold. But it gave me a ringside seat at the end of Bell Pottinger.

Nonetheless, I did get to work together with Tim on some esoteric clients, such as the president of Congo-Brazzaville. We flew to Congo and were put up in one of the president’s villas. Very early one morning, the president turned up unannounced, so I had to get Tim up to meet him. After hammering on his door, Tim eventually appeared in a red silk dressing gown with his long grey hair – normally slicked back – standing on end like someone had plugged him into the mains. I returned to the sitting room to keep the president engaged with my long-forgotten O-level French. When Tim appeared soon after, he looked his usual impeccable self and had the president eating out of his hand with his similar level of French but which he pulled off with a certain elan.

That was the wonderful thing about working with Tim – nothing phased him. But, more importantly, he was genuinely interested in diverse issues; for Congo-Brazzaville, it was about how to tell its story to attract inward investment by differentiating it from its neighbour, the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Over the years I knew him, I was repeatedly told by many people who worked with him about his loyalty to them and how he would unstintingly support them through difficult periods.

So, it was ironic that his own most difficult period was at the sunset of his career around the demise of Bell Pottinger, and for which I believe he was wrongly chastised.  

The title of his biography was belligerently Right or Wrong, but it actually summed up his personal philosophy of always doing the right thing, telling the truth and helping people get out their side of the story.

While I fear our industry will not see the like of another Tim, I am pleased that his legacy will live on for many years to come. It may surprise some to learn that Tim was continuing to work right up until his death and was instrumental in the campaign to get Boris Johnson elected as Conservative leader. Even though by this summer Tim was very ill physically, his mind was still razor-sharp.

Six months ago, Boris had been written off as ever being able to get enough MP votes to go through to the membership ballot. Tim recognised that Boris would be the only Conservative leader who would be able to see off both [Nigel] Farage and [Jeremy] Corbyn in a general election, but that the only way for this to happen would be to ensure Conservative MPs understood this too. 

Tim commissioned a YouGov poll to see the impact different Conservative leadership candidates would have on the public’s general-election voting intentions and he was adamant that the results should come out immediately following the results of the European Union elections in June.

He personally wrote to every Conservative MP with the results, telling them that only a Conservative Party led by Boris would win the next general election. The "Boris bounce" he forecast has been confirmed by the latest polls, showing the Conservatives are now benefiting from a 14% lead.

Tim was an ardent Brexiter, so I am sure he was hoping to live to see it happen, but he would have taken heart in helping to ensure that the UK has a prime minister who is committed to it.

He was also an ardent cricket fan, so I am sure he would have been more annoyed to have missed seeing Ben Stokes score 135 on Sunday and keep alive England’s hope for the Ashes.

He died just three hours before, in the arms of his wife Jacky and son Harry, surrounded by love.

Michael Moszynski is the founder and chief executive of London Advertising.

A version of this article first appeared on PRWeek sister title Campaign

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