There has never been a man more suited to the opulent 80s than Sir
Tim Bell. Fast cars, fancy restaurants and bubbles were indulged in
unashamedly during advertising’s glorious era by the man deemed ’the
But Bell is back, having secured the pounds 21m merger with one of
advertising’s hottest agencies, HHCL & Partners, last Thursday. The
deal, which saw Martin Sorrell’s WPP take a 29.9% stake in the group,
pushes Chime’s value to pounds 65m.
The question is, why, after reaching the pinnacle of success in adland,
Bell should wish to re-enter a world which is arguably less attractive
than it was. Cynics have suggested that filthy lucre has been the
driving force, a suggestion dismissed by Bell, who is not exactly on the
Instead, the need to grow the company following its mediocre share
performance is cited as a primary reason, along with the PR guru’s quest
for a new challenge and a desire to return to his roots. But after a
30-year stint in advertising, does Bell have anything more to offer the
According to Moray MacLennan, joint chief executive of M&C Saatchi, Bell
is by no means a spent force and he welcomes him back. ’There’ll always
be a need for audacious ideas and bold thinking just as there is a need
for his skills of entertaining and charming people. He’d bring a bit of
colour to an industry which has perhaps lost some in recent years.’
The combination of Bell’s colourful charm and Howell Henry’s Tango-style
radicalism could certainly add some much needed fizz to the ad
Bell’s foray into the industry happened almost by accident. He really
wanted to be a pop star - a jazz musician to be precise - but at 16, he
started logging commercial bookings at ABC television in London. He
avoided university because in those days, apparently, students all wore
duffle coats - clothing toward which Bell had a particular aversion.
After ABC, Bell worked in the media departments of three now-defunct
London agencies and in 1970 was hired as media director by the newly
formed Saatchi & Saatchi.
At Saatchis he built a reputation as a charmer, an exhibitionist and a
workaholic. Regularly putting in 16-hour days, staff joked that you
could hear him rattle with the pills and vitamins he took.
His lavish lifestyle included wooing clients at his favourite
restaurant, L’Etoile in Charlotte Street, where he would arrive,
chauffeur-driven, from his office 250 metres down the street. On
becoming joint managing director of Saatchis in 1973 he treated himself
to a red Ferrari - a source of consolation as much as a status symbol.
’When I have to take crap from a 23-year-old assistant brand manager,
the only thing that consoles me is that when we go home, he gets into
his Vauxhall Cavalier and I get into my Ferrari,’ he said to art
director John Hegarty.
He was once one of ten people selected to have Christmas lunch with
Margaret Thatcher. It was the Saatchi team, led by Sir Tim, that helped
secure the Tory victories in 1979 and 1983 - a result of their
innovative and controversial ad campaigns.
While the campaigns impressed the then Prime Minister - she called him
one of her ’laughing boys’ and sent him a thank-you letter and a photo
signed, ’From Margaret, with love’ - not everyone was impressed by his
flamboyance or his ideas. Sir Bernard Ingham, Thatcher’s press
secretary, found some of his ideas ’absolutely bloody barmy’ but was
grateful he didn’t interfere with decisions on government policy.
After 15 years with Saatchi & Saatchi, where he became international
chairman, helping Saatchis become one of the biggest agencies in the
world, Sir Tim set up PR firm Lowe Howard-Spink Bell within Frank Lowe’s
Lowe Group and in 1989 bought it out.
Since then he has built up the UK’s second-largest public relations
group, Lowe Bell Communications, which went public last year under the
holding name Chime Communications.
His services to Lady Thatcher were rewarded in 1990, when he received
Having become a household name in the UK, Bell looks like he’s aiming at
the international stage now the WPP group is on board. Three years ago,
the idea was inconceivable to Bell, who said, ’PR doesn’t travel’.
Equally inconceivable was the idea of buying an ad agency. In PR Week in
1992 he said he would never buy one: ’I did run the largest agency in
the world. What would I want to do that again for?’ Why indeed?
Chart boy, ABC Television
Media director, Saatchi & Saatchi
Joint managing director, then international chairman
Saatchi & Saatchi
Chairman, Lowe Bell Communications
Chairman, Chime Communications