Arun Sudhaman 26 Aug 2019 // 12:37PM GMT
Lord Tim Bell, the Bell Pottinger founder who played a highly influential role shaping London's global PR industry, has died.
Bell died at home on Sunday surrounded by his family following a short illness, according to a statement from his family. He was 77.
Bell rose to prominence as a co-founder of celebrated London ad agency Saatchi & Saatchi, playing a pivotal role for its most famous client, Margaret Thatcher. As the UK PM's communications advisor, he is credited for creating the 'Labour Isn't Working' campaign and reportedly advised Thatcher on interview techniques, clothing, and hairstyle choices.
In 1985, Bell left Saatchi to co-found Lowe Bell, which he bought out in partnership with Piers Pottinger in 1989. The firm was floated as Chime Communications in 1994, with Bell serving as chairman, and all subsidiaries were renamed Bell Pottinger in 1998.
Bell Pottinger rapidly grew to become one of the defining forces in London's PR industry, led with irresistible verve by Bell himself. Built around corporate and public affairs expertise, the firm boasted broad capabilities and a credible international footprint, helping it to report revenues of £50m at its peak.
In the process, Bell helped to shape the very notion of public relations, securing major budgets thanks to an ability to advise not just CEOs, but government leaders. The latter component of Bell Pottinger's business proved not just lucrative but increasingly controversial, with the firm acting for foreign governments and leaders of such nations as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, South Africa, Sri Lanka and Belarus.
Bell rarely betrayed any concern about the polarising nature of his clients — even if he was quick to plead his innocence. When the firm was caught on camera in 2011 promising to apply the ‘dark arts’ to a Wikipedia page, Bell suggested he was a victim of poor journalism.
In 2012, Bell Pottinger bought itself out of Chime Communications, a move that appeared to promise a measure of freedom but ultimately sowed the seeds for Bell's eventual exit from the business in 2016. And there was still time for one final, spectacular act to the story — thanks to Bell Pottinger's fateful decision to represent the controversial Gupta family in South Africa, which ultimately led to the firm's collapse into administration.
Bell may well be best remembered for his high media profile during Bell Pottinger's final days in the summer of 2017, when he regularly briefed against his former firm, most memorably on an episode of Newsnight. Yet while Bell Pottinger's collapse, and the consequent ethical reckoning across the PR world, may have tarnished Bell's legacy — his influence in terms of shaping London's communications industry cannot be overlooked.
In particular, Bell oversaw the development of a broad offering that spanned political counsel to corporate communications and brand marketing. And he played a critical role in terms of elevating public relations as a strategic, boardroom function.
"I am grateful for the impact he had on my career but also for how he shaped the modern communications industry," said Ogilvy UK CEO Michael Frohlich, who worked for Bell for a decade. "An advertising man turned PR man, he was a trailblazer for the power of holistic communications. He understood the power of PR and brought gravitas, value and stature to the PR industry.
"He shaped our thinking of modern influence and the power of personal brand," continued Frohlich. "He was never afraid of dealing with the most complex of challenges and telling the naked truth. He demonstrated the true power of personality in business. A voice and stature the industry will miss."
“Tim was a pioneer in political communication, an amazing advertising executive and the most brilliant public relations strategist," said a statement released by Bell's family. "He was an inspiration to everyone who worked with him."