CLOSE-UP: NEWSMAKER - DAVID BELL. Why IPG's chief hopes to be more than a stop-gap

David Bell has had enough experience to handle the tough calls.

David Bell has never had much time for sleep and thinks nothing of rising at 4.30am even after a late-night working dinner.

Just as well really. The last thing a man whose task it is to rescue the limping leviathan that's now Interpublic needs is to be laying awake through the wee small hours mulling over what has to be done.

It's not a job for a nervy insomniac. Rocked by an accounting scandal, beset by a profits slump to $20.3 million - a fifth of what they were at the same time last year - and forced into a boardroom upheaval, Interpublic is crying out for firm and dynamic leadership.

The question is whether Bell - a church-going and unflashy Minnesotan and old-school adman who couldn't be more different to his predecessors, the loquacious John Dooner and the cigar-chomping Phil Geier - can deliver it.

In fact, Bell barely had time to switch from his job running Interpublic's Advanced Marketing Services Group to the chief executive's chair before industry onlookers began speculating whether his appointment will be no more than a transitional one while Interpublic stabilises and waits for somebody with the stature of Omnicom's John Wren to shake loose.

In short, there's a widespread belief that Interpublic's board asked Bell to take on the role because it had little choice. "Bell's appointment was a no-brainer," an industry source says. "An outsider would have taken at least a year to get their head around the job."

But Bob Willott, the editor of Marketing Services Financial Intelligence, declares himself perplexed by Bell's elevation and questions whether, at 59, he can be considered a long-term prospect as chief executive.

That's not to say Bell doesn't bring some valuable attributes. For one thing, he carries no historical baggage. Interpublic's inherent problems and the $184 million accounting errors, now the subject of a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation, occurred before his arrival.

For another, he has an enthusiasm and relish for the big challenge, which associates claim is undiminished either by almost 40 years in the business or by the considerable wealth he has amassed from it.

What's more, he's earned his spurs as the head of a public company, True North, where he impressed Wall Street analysts long cynical of adland's reckless ambition and lack of financial acumen.

Indeed, it's hard to escape the feeling Bell's career thus far has been a preparation for the job in hand. For a long time he seemed to be biding his time as the shadowy deputy to Chuck Peebler, the aggressive boss of Bozell.

After the network's sale to True North, the expectation was that Peebler would succeed Bruce Mason as the group's chairman. However, Peebler's forthright style wasn't to the liking of many senior managers at the True North-owned FCB and it was Bell, one of Mason's oldest friends, who landed the job.

Yet, during his tenure, True North's stock outperformed its rivals. In addition, Bell managed to guide the operation towards a takeover by Interpublic, the neatest fit of any of True North's potential suitors.

Even cleverer was the timing of the deal under which True North was sold for a healthy $2.1 billion just before the global economic downturn struck.

It's a cruel irony that Bell now has to deal with the legacy of such over-priced acquisitions made in order for Interpublic to match its rivals' diverse range of marketing services. No deal better exemplified Interpublic's dangerous over-confidence than the acquisition of Brands Hatch Leisure, now blamed for the $135.8 million losses at the group's Octagon Motor Sports division.

Addressing the threat of a "domino" effect of account losses on the group's income will be one of Bell's key tasks along with the need to get all the bad figures out at the earliest opportunity and ease the pressure on Interpublic from the banks. Insiders speculate that the key clients Coca-Cola and Nestle will be nervous about an association with Interpublic, should it be found guilty by the Securities and Exchange Commission.

The sale of NFO WorldGroup, Interpublic's market research specialist, would help ease the debt. But, as Willott points out: "The state of Interpublic's finances is bound to encourage potential buyers to screw down the price."

Equally crucial is whether Bell can survive the politics among senior executives of the operating companies, some of whom have a reputation for backstabbing, and form a comfortable relationship with Dooner, now back in charge of McCann-Erickson.

"It's the vital question," an Interpublic source admits. "The group's rehabilitation largely depends on Dooner doing a first-class job at McCann. But Bell was scrupulous in never disparaging Dooner when he was the chief executive and Dooner knows that."

Whatever happens, Bell fits the chief executive's mantle more comfortably than Dooner and will make the difficult calls. It was Bell, after all, who was prepared to brave the blood-letting that occurred when True North merged FCB and Bozell.

And there will be more tough judgments ahead. A successor for Brendan Ryan, the FCB boss, needs to be lined up while Lowe is weighed down by the poor performance of its London and New York offices. "They think London is in meltdown," an insider says.

All of which begs the question of whether a failure to improve the group's fortunes could result in Interpublic splitting apart in a similar fashion to Cordiant and the Saatchi group six years ago. Emotional ties would almost certainly keep McCann bound in. But Lowe might be a different matter.

For the moment, though, Bell won't be losing any sleep over it.