Sans Frontières: Why maverick PR man Lord Bell may enjoy being his own man again

7th September 2016

The big news in marcomms last week was the resignation of Lord Tim Bell from Bell Pottinger, the company he founded 30 years ago.

As the industry prepared for the August Bank Holiday weekend, Bell, a former adviser to Margaret Thatcher, announced last Thursday that he’d decided he would like to step back from the day-to-day running of the business.

The news was significant because Bell is the biggest of big beasts in the PR jungle; along with Matthew Freud, Lynne Franks and Mark Borkowski, he is the PR industry’s face. A sometimes controversial figure, he has perhaps more than any individual helped to shape the discipline over the past three decades.

James Henderson, CEO of Bell Pottinger, said in a statement: “Tim has been the founder and driver of this business since he started it in 1987. We are grateful for all he has achieved for both the PR industry globally and in building Bell Pottinger into a household name.”

Mark Smith, currently a non-executive director at Bell Pottinger, will become chairman with immediate effect, replacing Bell and ensuring a smooth transition for the firm. Smith’s connection to Bell Pottinger goes back to the company’s foundation. He was both chief financial officer and chief operating officer of Chime plc, and played a major role in the flotation of Chime through a reverse takeover and its eventual sale to Providence Equity and WPP in 2015. In 2012, he also helped Bell to buy the Bell Pottinger-branded agencies out of Chime Communications in a deal worth £26.5m.

So, it’s business as usual at Bell Pottinger. But what of Bell himself? The reasons for his departure are not known, but observers have noted that Bell Pottinger seems to be making noises about getting back into bed with Chime, which would not suit Bell, whose relationship with WPP boss Sir Martin Sorrell is famously frosty.

Henderson also hinted in the press last week that he was eyeing up possible acquisitions, and these, whatever they are, may also have caused friction. It should also be remembered that Bell is a colourful, headline-grabbing figure, a maverick who is not popular with a certain type of corporate culture. Going it alone may suit him and his former firm (interestingly, he has a 7 per cent stake in Bell Pottinger, and at the time of writing, it’s not know whether he’ll hang onto this share or sell it on).

Despite being 74, Bell shows no sign of settling or even slowing down. As soon as he’d resigned, he stated that he was setting up a brand new business called Sans Frontières. Perhaps not coincidentally, Sans Frontières was the original name of the public relations firm he set up before it was renamed Bell Pottinger; it was also the name of the unit that handled the firm’s controversial lobbying and consultancy work for the governments of countries such as Belarus and Sri Lanka.

It seems fairly logical to assume that Bell’s new venture will carry on this kind of work, which he has long been an advocate for.

At the IPRA Public Relations World Congress in Dubai in 2012, in a debate about the reputation of the PR industry itself, he said that “everybody has the right to representation”.

At the congress, Bell pointed to Bell Pottinger’s work for the Belarus government in 2008, which at the time faced numerous sanctions and scrutiny of its human rights record. “Good PR needs substance,” he said, noting that Bell Pottinger only accepted the contract after being satisfied that Belarus was committed to positive change.

During Bell Pottinger’s work for Belarus, said Bell, three top political prisoners were released from prison, parliamentary elections were “slightly better”, and the EU dropped travel sanctions. “Was it a success for the reputation of Bell Pottinger?” asked Bell. “Bell Pottinger was vilified in the press. I was personally abused. No attempt was made to understand what we were doing. The result was we were branded as toxic and immoral.”

Eventually, the firm terminated the contract, he said, because “Belarus reneged on its promises”, and sanctions were reinstated. The country remains something of a pariah to this day.

Despite Bell’s protestations, his willingness to take on controversial clients gives commentators ammunition to attack not only the man himself, but also the whole industry. He also caused consternation in the City a couple of years back with his remark in a Financial Times interview that bankers were “complete criminals”. And his forthright views on Twitter campaigns (he regards them as a waste of money) will not have endeared himself to many of his peers; although, in typical Bell fashion, he has his supporters, with others regarding his views as “a refreshing counterbalance” to “utopian” views.

Not that he will be bothered by any of this – he seems to enjoy his reputation as a maverick. And there is big money to be made from representing governments and other entities, no matter how reviled they are.

The problem is, this kind of activity sits increasingly uneasily with corporates keen on projecting a responsible image. That’s why I think that the new Sans Frontières – which aims to begin trading next year – may, whether anyone likes it or not, do quite well. However, it will almost certainly have to be a privately-owned company (Bell is a rich, and well-connected, man).

In fact Bell has long been an advocate for private ownership for agencies. Back in 2012, he said in an interview: “People who start public relations companies are entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurial people carry on being entrepreneurial. It’s quite difficult being entrepreneurial inside a large corporation, because one of the tragedies of business life is that entrepreneurs start businesses by taking risks and they get bigger and bigger and bigger, so the risk gets bigger, and so they stop taking risks. But the people within it want to go on taking risks, so they find it a stifling environment and they go on and do something else.”

He is also on the record as saying that he thinks the stock market doesn’t value PR businesses to the same extent that it values other marketing businesses. So he may find himself a lot happier operating as an independent.

Whatever Sans Frontières ends up doing, we haven’t seen the last of this colourful character, a man who, over the past 30-odd years has helped change the industry, and shape it as a “grown up” discipline. Lord Tim Bell helped transform PR from being a minority interest for marketing departments into something chief executives regard as mission critical. For that, he deserves to be taken seriously.