Sir Tim Bell’s death has been greeted with an outpouring of, well, confusion from the PR industry.
Danny Rogers and Arun Sudhaman apply words like ‘controversial’, ‘colourful’, ‘divisive’ and ‘scandal’ in their excellent obituaries which elegantly memorialise the career of a man, who more than any other, defined the UK PR industry since Margaret Thatcher’s 1979 election victory.
The Morning Star proclaimed him “Thatchers former liar-in-chief” and Twitter is full of reminders of his work for Pinochet and various dictators and evil regimes, but in almost equal number, there are outpourings of affection and sympathy from those who worked for him and those who learned from him. And not all of them are Tories either. I never agreed with his view that everyone deserved PR representation as if it were a legal right, but I often heard him robustly and openly defend it against opponents. He was very modern in his transparency and authenticity about his beliefs and his approach.
And he did transform PR and the agency world (at least in the UK he did). He understood like so few PR people in those days that winning the argument was about the image and the visual and emotion as much as it was about the logical argument. I know, I know….but in the 1980’s that was a radical thought in PR. Believe me, I was there.
And he knew how to use advertising to generate headlines (again, not obvious then). Just as his US peer Mike Deaver was managing Ronald Reagan’s reputation, he did the same for Margaret Thatcher and the two shared many approaches like planning and research and a preference for choreographed photo-calls for their clients over hard hitting interviews with antagonistic and increasingly politicised media.
And he worked for CEOs and Chairman and boards and he had the balls to ask for fees that recognised the value of his advice and a lot of us tried in our way to follow his lead in this.
So for all the shame he and Bell Pottinger brought to the industry, he also shaped it. Which probably accounts for the confusion.
In the days after London was awarded the 2012 Olympics, Sebastien Coe and his head of communications Jackie Brock-Doyle brought a number of people together to help informally plan how to get the nation behind the games (and don’t let the passage of time deceive you on this, many people in London, in government and the country as whole were far from enthusiastic).
At the meetings Tim was sage and wise as you would expect, but he was also hard working, diligent, encouraging and respectful of others and great fun to be with. After one of our sessions at Canary Wharf, The Red Consultancy CEO Mike Morgan and I were unsuccessfully trying to hail a cab (pre-Uber) when a huge black Mercedes pulled up alongside us and a window slid down to reveal Tim cackling at us from behind clouds of cigarette smoke.
“What kind of agency CEOs have to catch a fucking cab? Want a lift boys?” We duly hopped in and ingested the equivalent of twenty Bensons as he regaled us with his views on our wayward lefty politics. He was unapologetic about the smoking and claimed that he had a section of his office categorised as a domestic residence in order to avoid the recently introduced workplace smoking ban.
Some in the industry may be glad he has gone, but even they cannot deny the influence he had on it.