The last couple of months have not been easy for Lowe Bell. First
Lowe Bell Financial was on the wrong side of the bid to break up the
Co-op - as adviser to Andrew Regan’s investment trust Galileo.
More seriously, according to its competitors, the agency was on the
wrong side of the election campaign. Many of its top people had high
profile roles in the Conservative campaign - not least its eponymous
chairman Sir Tim himself .
The departure, announced last week, of two of the best-known New Labour
figures from Lowe Bell Political - Neal Lawson and Ben Lucas - provoked
a spate of predictions from competitors claiming the agency would find
itself frozen out by the new Government. The simultaneous announcement
that the company had bought lobbying firm, the Russell Partnership, was
met by a resounding ’who?’.
But before we write Bell off, it is worth considering that seven years
ago he was said to be washed up politically. By last summer he was back
as one of John Major’s key advisers.
Bell himself rejects the idea that the only people who will be able to
lobby the new Government are Labour insiders. Most lobbying is done in
order to change Government policy, he says - ’You don’t hire lobbyists
to compliment the Government on how good its policies are.’ Neither do
you want them to be selling the Government’s policies rather than those
of their clients.
Bell also makes the point that working with Labour in Opposition is very
different from working with them in Government. And of other lobbying
firms he says: ’We’re all in the same situation.’
And yet there is no doubt that he is sensitive to charges that Lowe Bell
is too associated with the Tories - to the point that he has conducted
an audit of Labour contacts within the agency. He also admits that the
low-key and essentially apolitical profile of his latest purchase, the
Russell Partnership, was part of its attraction. ’We will have to make
some minor adjustments,’ he says, and promises to announce two Labour
Of course Lowe Bell Political is just one of nine companies within the
mighty Lowe Bell empire. At around 15 per cent of total fee income, it
is nowhere near the largest. And yet the question of Bell’s own
political profile and influence are key to the agency in a way they are
not for Lord Chadlington - another member of Major’s kitchen cabinet -
and his company Shandwick.
Bell is adamant that he does not want to turn Lowe Bell into a branded
shop. He believes firmly that: ’these businesses need a figurehead,
somebody the outside world and clients can identify with’. This, along
with the sheer power of his personality and his evident enjoyment of the
political limelight, ensure that as long as he is around coverage of his
business will focus on him.
Of the rest of the senior management team, perhaps the best known is
Piers Pottinger. However, he has his hands full with Lowe Bell Financial
where the departure of Terry Collis last year and, more recently, the
news that deputy chairman Jem Miller is to retire have left the agency a
little thin in the ’grey hair’ department. Even if the agency has found
the senior figure it said it would look for when Collis went, the signs
are that they will come in as deputy chairman, rather than chairman as
The need to bring more managers into the business and provide another
focus apart from Bell provide some explanation for the company’s stated
intention to buy another major well-known brand. Negotiations are
believed to be underway with at least one top 30 independent UK
advertising agency, although M&C Saatchi has been ruled out.
Such a move would, insiders suggest, be a natural extension of the
group’s services as well as providing a solution to one of Bell’s
biggest frustrations - his failure to move the share price. Despite
impressive financial results - a 21 per cent increase last year in both
operating income, to pounds 22.5 million, and operating profit to pounds
3 million - parent company Chime’s share price is now languishing at
38p, two pence above its introductory price in 1994.
The truth, according to Bell, is that with a market capitalisation of
pounds 22 million, Chime is just too small to attract much of a
following. Market watchers believe his aim should be to at least double
the size of the business.
Bell again dismisses rumours of a merger with Shandwick, which surfaced
in February after UK Active Value Fund added a five per cent stake in
Chime to its existing 15 per cent holding in Shandwick.
Yet, the group is undoubtedly very active with the acquisition of the
Russell Partnership, a prime example of Bell’s strategy of growing
existing businesses by buying in good people and clients. Russell may
not be the most dynamic lobbying firm - its client list has hardly
changed in five years - but it comes with an excellent monitoring
operation, some good clients and Westminster office space.
Mindful, perhaps, that Lowe Bell has been weak in terms of international
coverage, Bell has been active on that front. After backing away from a
deal with Adamson Associates in Brussels, he has now signed a joint
marketing deal with European lobbying network EPPA. A lacklustre
start-up in the US under Alan Capper has also been scrapped in favour of
an equity stake in local firm The Torrenzano Group.
In the UK, the company is believed to be looking at acquisitions in
sports and entertainment PR. At the other end of the spectrum, Bell
confirms he is keen to move into the corporate strategy business - which
he describes as a kind of half-way house between communications and
With such activity, it seems PR’s great survivor intends to be around
for a while yet.