Feature

This charming man

Having resisted publishing his memoirs until after the death of Margaret Thatcher, Lord Bell has finally spilled the beans on his life in advertising and beyond, including that tempestuous relationship with the Saatchis. John Tylee speaks to him about adland, then and now.

  • Lord Bell

    Lord Bell

  • Bell outside Saatchi & Saatchi’s Charlotte Street office

    Bell outside Saatchi & Saatchi’s Charlotte Street office

  • The Conservatives’ celebrated 1979 general election poster, ‘Labour isn’t working’

    The Conservatives’ celebrated 1979 general election poster, ‘Labour isn’t working’

  • Bell with Frank Lowe, with whom he partnered after leaving Saatchis in 1985

    Bell with Frank Lowe, with whom he partnered after leaving Saatchis in 1985

  • Bell stands beside Margaret Thatcher at William Hague’s ‘Keep The Pound’ dinner ahead of the 2001 general election

    Bell stands beside Margaret Thatcher at William Hague’s ‘Keep The Pound’ dinner ahead of the 2001 general election

  • Charles and Maurice Saatchi circa 1978

    Charles and Maurice Saatchi circa 1978

  • Saatchis’ 1975 health education poster, ‘pregnant man’, which Bell says is ‘the greatest print ad I’ve ever seen’

    Saatchis’ 1975 health education poster, ‘pregnant man’, which Bell says is ‘the greatest print ad I’ve ever seen’

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It’s mid-morning in Tim Bell’s Chelsea office that overlooks the Saatchi Gallery’s manicured lawns, and its occupant is drawing on his umpteenth Benson & Hedges of the day.

He has tried kicking the habit – and even managed to abstain for three years – but when he went to South Africa to advise its then president, FW de Klerk, an 80-a-day man, his reserve went up in smoke.

De Klerk is one of a number of famous names that pepper his conversation. It’s not boastful but indicative of a contacts book any PR man would die for.

And Bell is the PR man to beat them all. He can be fiercely opinionated and disarmingly self-deprecating, but he’ll always wrap it all up in a very quotable quote.

This is Bell on himself: "I’m very flash and I’m not proud of that, but at least I’m honest about it. The only talent I have is charm."

And this is Bell on the state of British advertising: "The industry has lost its self-confidence. It’s been confused by digital and allowed itself to be pushed around by regulators, health fascists and do-gooders."

It’s apposite – although not deliberate, Bell insists – that Bell Pottinger is the Saatchi Gallery’s next-door neighbour. Asked who have had the most influence on his life, he talks warmly of his lawyer stepfather who married his mother when his natural father walked out on them while he was still a child. But he also, unhesitatingly and unsurprisingly, names the gallery’s founder, Charles Saatchi, his brother Maurice and Margaret Thatcher.

Naturally, all figure prominently in his newly published memoirs, Right Or Wrong, which Bell had thought of titling Life’s A Bitch And Then You Die.

It’s soon clear this isn’t a serious suggestion. At 73, he insists the book – the product of 42 hours of interviews – is no valediction but the result of a decade of chivvying by publishers to tell his story. "It’s not that I’m ashamed of it," he says. "I just didn’t want to do it while Margaret was still alive. No book so far has captured her as a person."

Yet it’s equally obvious the book is the manifestation of a man at ease with himself. He has found happiness in a new relationship and retirement is anathema to him. "Old age isn’t to be recommended, but I’m not ready to write my epitaph yet because I don’t want to die," he says.

When the time comes, he doesn’t think his epitaph can be better than the description ascribed to him by Campaign in its Hall of Fame citation: "Unreconstructed Thatcherite, unreformed smoker and a man never afraid to speak his politically incorrect mind."

The memoirs certainly bear that out. They are irreverent, racy and not entirely uncritical of the Saatchis – the bullying and explosively extrovert Charles and the quietly cerebral Maurice – between whom Bell often had to keep the peace while dodging the flying chairs. Moreover, he was uncomfortable about what he claims was the brothers’ willingness to set staff against each other if it suited their purpose.

So what does he think Charles, whom he has not seen for five years, and Maurice will make of his observations? "Charles won’t like the book – but the chances are that he won’t bother reading it," Bell predicts. "Maurice and I meet from time to time and we’re fine."

Nevertheless, Bell is unequivocal in his admiration of both men. It began before he joined their agency in 1970 and was sparked by the "pregnant man" ad. Such was his hero worship that he agreed to take a 50 per cent salary cut to leave Geers Gross and become the Saatchis’ media director.

"Maurice and Charles saw me as a charming suit who could sweet-talk people," he remembers. "I never thought I was a brilliant strategist but I was good at listening to people and working things out. I could sell creative work because I understood it better than the creatives."

When the Tories came calling before the 1979 general election, Bell, whose posh persona belied the fact that he was a grammar school boy who never went to university, was seen as a natural to handle the account. "I suppose it had something to do with being brought up in a proper family where I was taught good manners," he reflects.

Bell, though, was reluctant to take on the assignment: "I’d been involved with the Tory account at Colman Prentis & Varley and I knew how disruptive it could be. But Maurice made me do it."

Thatcher, however, swept his doubts aside and he became a lifelong fan. "She recognised me as ‘one of us’ and I responded to that," he says. "She had extraordinary qualities and trusted you as an expert in your field. But if she thought you’d moved beyond your area of expertise, she’d handbag you."

The most tangible piece of memorabilia from that relationship is the famous "Labour isn’t working" poster. Its authorship has never been entirely clear, although Bell is emphatic that it was he who sold what was arguably an election game-changer to the Tory leadership.

"Margaret not only had to have the joke explained to her but didn’t like the idea of a poster that mentioned Labour in the headline," he recalls. "This was at a time when the party’s posters simply said ‘vote Conservative’. This meant explaining the poster to a few other people, but that’s not an uncommon experience for an account man."

Bell quit Saatchi & Saatchi in 1985. Some said it was because the agency had become too small for him, because he was denied a place on the group board and because he was never fully accepted by the brothers as family. "Sometimes Charles says he got rid of me, sometimes he says I resigned," Bell smiles.

He claims the split was provoked by a number of issues: that the agency had actually got too big for his style of micro-management, that he had been misled over the agency’s pitch for British Airways, and Bill Muirhead’s rising star. "They decided Bill was the right person for them – and he was probably a better suit than me," Bell acknowledges.

He regrets not letting the brothers help bankroll him in his own public affairs consultancy. "I wish I’d agreed to it," he says. "If I had, I’d have become very rich."

Nevertheless, advertising remains his first and true love. He has taken many of the lessons he learned from the discipline into PR, he says, and would work in it again if he could turn back the clock. "If I started an agency now, I’d have eight creatives, one account man and a brilliant production director," he says. "And I’d charge large fees for our ideas."

He takes a gloomy view of today’s adland."Ninety per cent of what’s out there is just wallpaper," he claims. "There are few campaigns worth watching. I love the meerkats, but I struggle to think of anything else."

His current favourite ads are those for US Tourism, created by London, the agency headed by the former M&C Saatchi executive Michael Moszynski. They carry the line: "You’ve seen the film, now visit the set." Bell says: "Brilliant. They remind me of Saatchi & Saatchi in its prime."

Right Or Wrong: The memoirs of Lord Bell

Extracts from Bell’s book

It always felt to me as though the 70s started on Monday 14 September 1970. That was when Saatchi & Saatchi launched. The day before, the agency had placed an enormous ad in The Sunday Times. It promised a "new kind of advertising". For me, it would deliver a new kind of life.

One Monday morning, while I was in the office at Geers Gross, somebody rang me up and said: "Hello, my name’s Saatchi. We’re thinking of starting an advertising agency. Would you like to come round and have an interview?"

Meeting Charles did not include any introductory pleasantries – he is constitutionally incapable of them. He asked me if I’d like to join them; he told me he would pay me only half of what I was already getting – although there might be a 4.5 per cent option on the equity.

I never really knew why they employed me. Some say it was just because I happened to be taller than the other two interviewees.

Almost every day, Charles came in and said: "What accounts have you won? What have we got? What are we doing?" He’d bellow at Maurice and Maurice would shout back and I would sit in the middle, with things flying past my head (even a chair once hitting me). And they were happy to set staff against staff if it suited their purpose. They won’t like me talking like this, incidentally, but it’s the truth, as everyone who’s met them knows.

One of our accounts was Avalon Promotions, run by Alan Cluer (who set up the business after he won a lot of money on the football pools). They ran these full-page ads offering bulk-buy scissors for under five shillings. In those days, before strict trading laws, they would wait until the money came in, and only then go and buy the stock. But soon he went bankrupt and left us to deal with a £1 million bad debt. I had to go and negotiate the non-payment of bills for the space that he didn’t occupy. Charles was livid. That was probably the first time I saw his really violent streak. He got an iron bar, went round to where Cluer worked and smashed his Maserati to pieces.

I never knew why they employed me. Some say it was just because I happened to be taller than the other interviewees

I tried to get a degree of business discipline into the company. I used to handle the client relationships, did the media buying, the marketing – and so, after a time, I self-styled myself the managing director. The brothers never, ever called me that. To them, I was always the media director. But half the time, people in the company just made up their own titles. And the press had started calling me "the third brother" – you can imagine how well that went down.

Charles figured that the way to become a very famous agency was to be talked about and make everyone aware of you – and that we needed to be in Campaign every week. The publication had been started by Maurice when he was working at Haymarket, and there were strong links. Peter Elman was the editor, and he was reasonably malleable, mainly because, in those days, he had very few journalists and was always in need of content, so you could always persuade him to run a story.

Charles used to ask everyone in the agency to come up with news stories to feed the paper – and add a Saatchi angle. He’d read Grocer’s Gazette and The Grocer, see a launch of a brand – a new variety of Stork margarine, that kind of thing – call Campaign and make it seem as if the agency was about to win the account.

After a while, he got bored with ringing up under his real name, so he’d hold a handkerchief over his nose and tell them it was "Jack Robinson". He’d say "I’ve got three stories for you this week", and one of the stories would be that Saatchi & Saatchi was about to win Cadbury, or a budget for something had been increased by a few million, or that this or that agency was on a pitchlist – all of which would destabilise the clients or the rival agencies to our advantage.

After a while, Charles had other directors at it, including me. I’d phone Campaign from a call box and claim to be "John Robinson". As the paper became a more successful publication, it became more intolerant of these calls and the tip-offs. In fact, Elman once said that if he added together all of the business that he heard Saatchis had won, it would be greater than J Walter Thompson and McCann Erickson’s turnover combined.

Charles was preoccupied with the agency’s size. If we had a prospective client due in, we would bulk up the office staff pool with "extras" – friends, family members, people off the street – and plonk them down at desks, telling them to pretend to be working. We’d give them a few quid just to sit there.

When we actually started recruiting, they dragged in ten candidates all at exactly the same time and left them in reception, all in a row, avoiding eye contact with each other and not knowing what to say.

Charles walked out into the reception area pretending to be casual, and then came back in and said that he liked the third one from the left. We asked him what his reason was, and he said it was because that interviewee was the tallest. We hired him: a chap called Bill Muirhead. And – whether Charles had a sixth sense or it was just luck – as it transpired, he turned out to be one of the best account men ever.

Charles figured that the way to become a famous agency was to be talked about and be in Campaign every week

Maurice decided to go hunting for an agency to take over. Garland-Compton had some good fmcg accounts – like Procter & Gamble (spending more on advertising than any other company in the world),

Rowntree and United Biscuits – plus a wide global network, but lacked our creative abilities. Maurice pitched it to Ken Gill, its chairman, and persuaded him that it would be a great merger – although we all knew that, really, we were swallowing them up.

Gill started getting all sorts of calls from other London agencies – who didn’t like us – saying that he would come to regret the move. And then he saw the Campaign headline that read  "Saatchi swallows up the Compton Group" (which Charles had briefed, obviously). Some of Gill’s friends said that it brought him close to tears.

I only knew half of what was in the brothers’ minds. You were never told what the strategy was. You gleaned it from whispers and conversations: most of us used to sit around until late at night trying to work out what they were trying to do. There was no point in asking them, because they would never have told you the truth – if they even knew themselves what the truth was.

"Let’s be number one" – that’s all Charles ever used to say. But, of course, in the end, that’s exactly what they got to be.

This is an adapted version of The Brothers chapter from Right Or Wrong: The Memoirs Of Lord Bell, published by Bloomsbury at a price of £25. ©2014 Tim Bell, Charles Vallance and David Hopper

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