The Kings of Madison Avenue: David Bell - The new chief executive of True North talks to Caroline Marshall about life as Bruce Mason’s successor

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?

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

are based.

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

Diversified Communications.

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,

aggression, hunger.’

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

Bozell, says.

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.


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