Book review: Lord Tim Bell’s scribblings remind Kelly Bennett of the Devo era

Commentators and critics acknowledge the venerable UK ad-man turned PR supremo, Lord Tim Bell, as being charm personified.

In fact, when reading his memoirs (‘Tim Bell: Right or Wrong’ ) recently, I couldn’t help thinking there were some parallels with the life of David Walden, one of New Zealand’s larger than life ad-men, who passed away late last year. 

Bell was “the third Saatchi” and, as one of the first hires the two brothers made, helped set the agency up. 

Shortly thereafter, he became their sharpest suit and managing director, growing the business to become one of the best agencies in the world. 

Having been thrust into the spotlight shortly after leaving school, as the Saatchi business grew, Bell was afforded access to “a flamboyant lifestyle – drinking fine champagne, smoking great cigars and going to very expensive restaurants”. 

He worked hard, played hard and enjoyed the spoils of success.

Sound familiar?

The work was intense and he threw himself into it, resulting in some breathtakingly clever campaigns. 

In the seventies, for example, Bell was partly responsible for producing one of the best political advertisements of all time: the insightful, punchy and poignant “Labour isn’t working” poster. 

This stemmed from his role as a close advisor to Margaret Thatcher. 

It was to become a long-standing relationship he courted and maximised to great effect, eventually parlaying his experience and networks into a remarkable career in PR. 

Much of the book focuses on his genuine love for Thatcher, a leader who he clearly adored for being “right of right”, single-minded and principled. 

He laments that the political and business leaders of today don’t demonstrate the same moral compass and fortitude.

That sort of hard line political content is offset by gossipy anecdotes about his life in business, communications and PR. 

For example, here’s 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.” 

On himself, in a typically self-deprecating way: “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 opening up to being far from saintly: “Why tell the truth when a good lie will do? I used to quote the line to people,” he recalls, “and there was many a time when I would adopt the same philosophy.” 

Many of those utterances – particularly the first one – sounded strangely familiar to me, having worked for Whybin TBWA\ during the creative purple-patch that Devo presided over, nearly a decade ago.  

Although he was often politically agnostic, Devo would dismiss civil servants, the green party, and pretty much anyone or anything he disagreed with by quipping, “bloody hell, their idea of a good time is a glass of water”. 

And as anyone who ever worked with him will know, success was always swiftly followed by celebration. His lunches were legendary, the wine flowed all too freely, and he would seize upon any excuse to have a party.

As was the case with Mr Walden, you won’t agree with everything Bell has to say. He’s extremely opinionated, resolutely right wing, and proudly ‘old school’ – which is hard to take over 220 pages.  

Still, despite his fervent political beliefs and the way he rails for a rebirth of ‘real conservatism’, one can’t help but admire the fact that at least he has a point of view, particularly in an age of poll groups, research findings and hedged bets. 

If you’re interested in how advertising, political ideology and PR shapes society, his memoirs are well worth your time.

Now in his early seventies and Chairman of Bell Pottinger, his approach remains as simple and successful as when he started out half a century ago: “My profound belief is that a small number of words and a strong visual image, can change the way people think. We are, after all, raconteurs and storytellers”.  

Come to think of it, just like Devo. 

  • Kelly Bennett is the founder and managing director of One Plus One Group, a corporate communications and strategic engagement consultancy.
  • Read any interesting marketing/advertising/media books lately? Share your thoughts with us ([email protected]). 

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