Indisputably ambitious businessman, 4.30am riser, Wall Street
innocent, tireless advertising advocate, skilful motivator, acquisition
hunter, 1999 Good Scout Honoree from the Boy Scouts of America for
community service ... which David Bell do you want?
Actually, True North’s new chairman and chief executive is a King of
Madison Avenue who earns the title by proxy. Born in Minneapolis and
midwestern by style and inclination, Bell splits his time between Chicago
where True North is headquartered and New York where his operating groups
After 34 years in the business, latterly as chief executive of Bozell
Worldwide, where he oversaw a four-year growth rate of 125 per cent, Bell
is well known and well liked in US advertising circles.
He started out with a two-year stint at Leo Burnett Chicago where he
shared a desk in the media research department with Bruce Mason - who he
succeeded as True North’s chief on 31 March. He joined Bozell & Jacobs in
1975 when it bought Knox Reeves Advertising, where he was president by the
age of 27.
He owes part of his profile to those days at Knox Reeves, which was the
leading creative shop in Minneapolis. It also stems from his various
industry positions: he is a recent past chairman of the 4A’s (the US
equivalent of the IPA) and twice chairman of the Advertising Federation
(the AA equivalent).
Bell is less well known on Wall Street, but that will have to change.
’I’m looking forward to spending time with the Wall Street guys,’ he
’You have to be comfortable there, people are gonna know if you don’t like
Chuck Peebler, who was named chairman emeritus of True North two weeks
ago, had been seen as the likely successor to Mason. Another internal
candidate was FCB’s Worldwide chief executive, Brendan Ryan, who
reportedly didn’t want the job. Peebler was known on Wall Street: he sold
Bozell to True North and had an appropriate track record as an adept,
abrasive, dealmaker. Bell, meanwhile, carved his reputation as the
problem-solving agency man, Peebler’s number two. Now, with Peebler
sidelined, the roles have been reversed and everybody is watching to see
how Bell fares. Can he add value to the company?
True North is the sixth-largest advertising group in the world with
dollars 1.2 billion revenue and dollars 12 billion billings. Its operating
groups are FCB Worldwide (major clients SC Johnson, AT&T, Kraft), Bozell
Worldwide (Daimler Chrysler, Hilton, Bristol Myers-Squibb) and True North
TN Media in the US has more than dollars 3 billion in billings; BJK&E is
its joint European media venture with Tempus. Creatively, the current
highlights of the True North reel come from Bozell: Daimler Chrysler’s
Jeep work and the ubiquitous ’milk moustache’ campaign.
The holding company was created at the end of 1994 when Mason announced
that Foote Cone & Belding Communications was to rename itself True North
Communications. The change signified the urge to play on a bigger stage,
but it was the acquisition of Bozell Jacobs Kenyon & Eckhardt in December
1997, that turned the group into a player, doubling its revenue. ’Until
then,’ scoffs a rival King of Madison Avenue, ’True North was a holding
company without the holding.’
I meet Bell in New York at the Soho offices of Bozell Worldwide. With his
straightforward manner, friendly but not at all slimy, he manages to look
both boyish and middle-aged.
You are easily convinced that he has little personal vanity - he can’t, he
still wears those enormous 80s-style specs with coloured frames! Chugging
on a Diet Pepsi and apologetic for being a bare ten minutes late, he
plunges into his views on the role and positioning of True North.
’The role of the holding company is to add strength to the brands, to help
them financially and in other ways,’ he says. ’My target audience is
employees, shareholders, potential acquirees and clients who want to
consolidate in a holding company. We have to be on point with the
fundamentals - growth and earnings per share, top line revenue and so on -
but beyond that our culture is going to be about quick response time,
So, no different from the heavyweights like Omnicom and Interpublic?
’We are smaller,’ he says. ’And the sense of urgency is both necessary and
His urgency is driven by several things: the length of time it took to
name a successor to Mason, a bitter divorce from former European partner
Publicis, the need to build both his advertising networks and sluggish
share price growth.
The succession took more than a year and was complicated by a headhunter’s
report, leaked to Adweek magazine, that talked of poor relations between
the True North subsidiaries and the board, disappointing stock performance
and over-reliance on too few global clients.
Anyone who’s run an advertising holding company can, of course, expect to
get the odd heel-biting from the trade press. Very often it’s just some
disaffected former client, ex-employee or rival coming out of the woodwork
to spin their version of events. It doesn’t mean it’s gospel.
But the headhunter’s document can’t be ignored.
’One US journalist went on a tear about that report,’ Bell says. ’Of
course, it’s good that the search is over but those that knew about the
succession process are much more comfortable with it, they feel it was
thorough, both inside and outside the companies.’
Nonetheless, it is a fact that the emergence of the successor to Mason
from Bozell looked like a reverse takeover, especially when you throw in
the prevailing theory of lingering unhappiness at FCB over the money
picked up by Bozell managers when True North bought the network.
’That’s also been overblown,’ Bell replies. ’It’s true that some people
made a lot of money, but what wasn’t told was that many Bozell
shareholders mortgaged their homes to buy their company in 1988.’ (In
1985, Lorimar Telepictures bought Bozell & Jacobs for dollars 41 million
and merged it with its Kenyon & Eckhardt agency. Three years later Lorimar
hit financial trouble and Bozell Jacobs’ management bought the agency back
for dollars 133 million, of which more than dollars 100 million was in
Bell insists and insists and insists that he has the confidence of the FCB
management: ’Yes I do, yes, it’s all been overblown, this is not a
loggerheads thing. Mergers always throw up cultural issues, but we’ve
emerged with those issues of style, chemistry and priorities behind us. My
wife worked for Brendan Ryan so I knew about him and I respect what he’s
The origins of the ill-starred marriage between Publicis and FCB go back
to way before Bell’s time. It was 1989 when Publicis and True North joined
to create a European network known as Publicis Communication. In a bid to
emulate its peers in going global, but with no strong presence in Europe,
FCB agreed to assimilate its operations with Publicis. Publicis, with no
capability beyond Europe, allowed FCB to service its business in all other
markets. But cracks appeared immediately: it was one of those deals that
made sense conceptually, until you got down to detail.
The divorce, in 1997, was played out against a background of attempts by
Maurice Levy, the Publicis chairman, to exploit his position as True
North’s largest shareholder (Publicis then controlled 18.4 per cent of
True North) by destroying True North’s purchase of Bozell and claiming the
network as his own. His bid failed - most read Levy’s intervention as
little more than an act of spite - but not without an expensive legal
Does Bell regret the break-up? ’I don’t have a point of view,’ he
’I wasn’t there to do the deal and the relationship was well on its way to
divorce before we (Bozell) joined True North.’
Publicis is still the largest shareholder in True North with 9.9 per cent
while True North owns 8.8 per cent of Publicis.
Surely, one of Bell’s immediate priorities is to dismantle the
’Since we have been on a highway to divorce, selling those shares is
something I’d look at strongly,’ he agrees.
But Levy sounds a different note. ’What we do with our stake in True North
depends on circumstances,’ he says. ’Even though True North’s share price
has improved, I don’t consider the price is good enough for me to sell.
Perhaps we could increase our share in True North if David turns out to be
a good CEO. Our stake is a nice one and we could hold on to it. Maybe
Levy’s words merely serve to reinforce that the issue of international
expansion remains crucial for True North.
Bell acknowledges that Bozell doesn’t have enough multinational clients
(’we want more and we’re gonna go after more’) and that FCB’s recent loss
of Kimberly-Clark to J. Walter Thompson left a hole in the network (’but
there were issues of efficiency and cost there,’ he says, hinting at
stories of JWT accepting a 4 per cent commission rate).
Cordiant is under-represented in the US, but attractive for its Asian and
European strengths, so could this be a logical purchase? No comment.
Basically, he is twitchy about the very notion that True North must buy or
be gobbled up. ’That’s by no means a foregone conclusion,’ he says, adding
his mantra: ’We’re builders of companies, not sellers.’
So what are his options for acquisitions? ’Everything is an option, there
are no specifics at this time,’ he says, enigmatically. ’Of course, we’re
taking a serious look at the TBD - To Be Determined - list. Our focus will
be FCB in Europe; it would be nice to be larger there. The same is true
for Bozell, worldwide. We have one of the best-kept assets in the world in
BSMG Worldwide (the PR group grew by 85 per cent in 1998). My guess is
that they’ll end up first or second and we’re going to acquire to make
that a reality. And we have some needs in the Diversified group to expand
in sales promotion and direct marketing.’
True North’s Diversified Companies group is the home of various interests
including PR (BSMG) and interactive marketing (Modem Media.Poppe Tyson
which floated in February).
The term Bell uses for the non-advertising stuff is ’media neutral’.
’Arguably, we invented the term,’ he claims. ’We were talking about it
more than two years ago as being different from integration. Rather than
having separate components it starts with a plan that determines the right
Diversified accounts for roughly a third of True North’s income and, Bell
says, the percentage will get bigger. ’Those companies that are best able
to collaborate with others in the group will move up the food chain,’ he
How to offer clients media neutral solutions is occupying a good many of
Bell’s thinking hours at the moment. As well as Diversified, he has FCB
Direct with 28 offices in 23 countries. But the big vision is
technology-driven change: to create through acquisition a fourth network
of marketing services companies, shared between Bozell Worldwide and
Diversified, covering all global regions and principally concerned with
design, sales promotion and relationship marketing. True North insiders
suggest this will be based around one of Bozell’s 1998 acquisitions,
Marketing Drive, operating as a centre of excellence. The leadership and
the name itself will also come from the agency.
It won’t be easy, creating a fourth network from a collection of recent
and still-to-be-purchased entrepreneurial agencies, bound together on
paper by little more than a desire to hit their earn-out targets. And yet
Bell has both a vision and an uncommon ability to foster a sense of
collaboration in agency managers. It is as if hard-nosed suits become
zombies in his presence, bewitched by that midwestern honesty. ’It’s no
secret,’ Bell says, ’that getting people to move is a competitive
advantage. I do it because it gives me satisfaction, otherwise I
’David’s unusual talent is to combine the ability to see the business big
picture with an ability to electrify small groups of people with creative
insight and passion,’ Mark Lund, the chief executive at Delaney Fletcher
It is this characteristic which is perhaps the nearest we’ll get to the
question: what drives David Bell? He might get up at 4.30am every day and
end his day more often than not with a working dinner, but he’s
essentially an exceedingly wealthy Republican bloke who likes the ordinary
things in life: his five kids (two at home, ten and 15; three others,
adopted, from a previous marriage), going to his beach house at Long
Island, skiing, tennis, sea fishing, out-of-doors things.
Having trained as a chef in a French kitchen in Berlin and worked as a
cook-trainer during his stint in the Air Force, he is quite keen on wine
but he is positively fanatical about cooking. He likes throwing dinner
parties and he owns no less than 800 cook books; 100 are on barbecuing or
what he calls ’grilling and smoking’. He likes money, he says, but he
thinks the most fun you can have in business is ’getting a group of people
to see a mountain and wanna climb it, to figure out a way to climb it and
to stand at the top arm in arm and say, ’damn!’’
And guess what? He actually means it.
Next week: Maurice Levy.