Earlier this month, executives at Bozell parent True North Communications tapped Mr. Bell to court Wall Street and unify the holding company's 30-odd agencies. Mr. Bell, 55, is once again making a move-this time from New York to Chicago to head up the sixth-largest ad agency holding company. What-ever he may lack in Wall Street savvy, he'll make up for in hard work, his supporters still claim.
"There's never a challenge that's too big for him," said Leo-Arthur Kelmenson, the longtime Bozell chairman who takes over Mr. Bell's CEO post at the agency.
In 1986, for instance, when Mr. Bell headed to Detroit, he knew virtually no one in the auto business. Yet, less than two years later, he had built an extensive network of business contacts at Chrysler and its national dealers.
Now, amid bruising criticism of True North-a bitter divorce with former European partner Publicis, slow revenue growth and a flimsy international network-Mr. Bell's boosters are hoping he'll prove them right again. Indeed, executives close to Mr. Bell say he's already begun to tackle some of True North's challenges.
Mr. Bell wouldn't discuss his plans for the holding company. However, executives close to him say he plans to acquire more agencies, possibly even casting an eye toward Saatchi & Saatchi or Cordiant Communications Group's Bates Worldwide.
He also plans to beef up True North's interactive capabilities, an area Mr. Bell says is ripe from growth.
Even for Mr. Bell that's a tall order. Revenue growth at True North lags behind its competitors-Interpublic Group of Cos., Omnicom Group and WPP Group. While those three reported revenue gains ranging from 9% to 31% in 1998, True North saw only a 3.1% rise.
"It's not a good operating story," said Jim Dougherty of Prudential Securities. "They're growing more slowly than the industry and certainly more slowly than the companies they want to be considered peers of."
MASON: FIND NEW MODELS
Even outgoing True North CEO Bruce Mason, whom Mr. Bell is succeeding, has suggestions as to where the company needs to go. "David's challenge is to define new business models," said Mr. Mason, 60, who shifts to a consulting role after his March 31 retirement.
Mr. Mason adds that Mr. Bell needs to look at all aspects of the company's growth potential, especially in the digital and technical arenas, in order to create a point of difference.
In an interesting twist, Mr. Mason has been at Mr. Bell's side since the beginning of his career. Literally.
Thirty-four years ago, at Leo Burnett Co., Messrs. Bell and Mason not only shared a small desk but also a lone calculator-both were employed in the Chicago agency's media research department.
Mr. Bell's stay at Burnett was brief, only lasting for two years. He eventually moved on to Knox Reeves Advertising, Minneapolis. He became a Bozell executive in 1975, after Knox Reeves-where he was president-was acquired by Bozell & Jacobs.
Mr. Bell is well-known in advertising circles for the time he donates to both industry and outside causes. He's a past chairman of the American Association of Advertising Agencies, two-time chairman of the American Advertising Federation and soon to be vice chairman of the Advertising Council.
Along with his industry commitments, he is involved in a multitude of charities. Earlier this month, Mr. Bell was named the 1999 Good Scout Honoree by the Boy Scouts of America for outstanding community service.
KNOWN AS TEAM-BUILDER
Mr. Bell is widely credited as a team-builder. Last spring, after Bozell lost its prestigious $70 million Merrill Lynch & Co. account, he led the drive to join forces with sibling shop Temerlin McClain, Irving, Texas, to pitch the $100 million BankAmerica Corp. account, which it won in December.
Mr. Bell describes himself to Advertising Age as "aggressive, verbal and collaborative." And those qualities are what True North is counting on.
Executives close to the company said True North needed an executive who can pull together top ranks of its culturally different agency networks: Bozell and Foote, Cone & Belding.
Mr. Bell said that although "there will always be cultural differences between the two agencies, on all major issues [FCB CEO Brendan] Ryan and I have been on the same page."
TN Technologies, TN Media and the Diversified Cos. unit also fall under Mr. Bell's watch, with Mr. Kelmenson stating that Mr. Bell must "make each of these agencies work together."
Mr. Kelmenson said an internal goal is "to become a bigger player in the marketplace" and to someday rank among the top three agency holding companies. To do this, executives said, Mr. Bell needs to foster international expansion.
INTERNATIONAL STILL WEAK
Although True North claims 347 offices in 83 countries, it is still seen by many as lacking in the international arena.
In 1998, 72% of True North's revenues came from the U.S. Two of its largest global clients out of a reported 25 are DaimlerChrysler and S.C. Johnson & Son.
"These guys aren't recognized by anybody but themselves as a full-fledged global network," said Alan Gottesman, a financial consultant specializing in marketing communications. "They're not a global ad agency, just a big ad agency with lots of branches."
Managing Director Abe Jones of AdMedia Partners, adds: "They clearly need to find ways to enhance the international networks of both Bozell and Foote, Cone & Belding
. . . They need to be much more active on the acquisition front."
TN has made a major commitment to international growth through acquisitions.
For all of True North's troubles, however, no one is willing to count out Mr. Bell.
"David Bell is a very respected and talented individual," said Mr. Jones. "By no means sell him short on his ability to enhance the holding company."
Just consider one of Mr. Bell's nicknames-Magic Mouth. It's a moniker given to him by his wife because of his ability to solve complicated problems by talking