Sir Tim: Nobody schmoozes better

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PR maven who `made it all work at Saatchi'

LONDON--Charles is the mysterious one, Maurice, the charming one. While both have shown adeptness dealing with the media in their two-plus decades in the advertising world, it is Sir Tim Bell, once called "the third Saatchi," who is the public relations expert.

When Maurice Saatchi last September learned that news of an insider trading investigation was being leaked, it was Sir Tim who drafted the scathing news release that hijacked the headlines by accusing Cordiant of breaking a "peace agreement" with Mr. Saatchi.

Cordiant, who ousted Mr. Saatchi as chairman last December, was left denyning the leak.

As usual, Mr. Saatchi and Sir Tim had set the agenda. Formerly close colleagues and briefly enemies, the two men have plotted a high-profile public relations strategy for the brothers' M&C Saatchi Agency since it was formed in January.

"The media chose to support Maurice," Sir Tim says innocently. "I didn't make them do that."

Sir Tim, one of original staffers at Saatchi & Saatchi Co., called Maurice in January to see if he needed some help. He proceeded to orchestrate a barrage of carefully timed breaking news about Cordiant's clients defecting, key staff quitting and lawsuits brewing. As a dazed Cordiant scrambled to field a credible spokesman, Sir Tim was the voice of Maurice. All calls went directly to him. All statements came from his office. At his direction, TV camera crews captured Maurice strolling insouciantly through airports with his Louis Vuitton luggage.

"Once you've got something working, you've got to feed it," he said, "or journalists get bored and move on to something else. Given that Maurice was setting up a company, it wasn't that difficult. The other side just got it completely wrong."

A decade ago as plain Mr. Bell, he embarked on a second career in public relations after 15 years with Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising. He set up a PR business, Lowe Howard-Spink & Bell, within Frank Lowe's Lowe Group, then did an $11 million management buyout in 1989. Since then, he has built up the U.K.'s second-largest public relations group, Lowe Bell Communications, and went public last year under the holding company name Chime Communications. He is chairman of both companies.

Chime reported an operating profit of $2.3 million from operating income of $17 million last year. The holding company consists of seven businesses Sir Tim has started or acquired covering financial, political and consumer public relations and a design company. Lowe Bell has more than 400 clients, from Coca-Cola Co. to merchant banks, and 49% of its income comes from 35 clients who generate fees of more than $150,000 a year each, according to a recent report from U.K. stockbroker Panmure Gordon & Co., London.

Sir Tim's own profile is probably higher than any of his clients', except Mr. Saatchi. His name is a household word in the U.K. through a network of contacts among top business and political leaders.

A famous picture in his office of Margaret Thatcher, the former prime minister who knighted him in 1990 signed, "With love, Maggie," has been swapped for one of current Prime Minister John Major.

During a political crisis in July, when Mr. Major's leadership was challenged, Sir Tim's phones rang incessantly during the tense week leading up to a vote by Members of Parliament on whether to retain Mr. Major as leader of the Conservative Party. Sir Tim doled out shrewd political analysis and an up-to-the-minute tally of how many votes Mr. Major and his rivals could count on.

"I had lunch with the Home Secretary and I'm having drinks tonight with two Cabinet ministers," he said.

Working several phones on the huge table that serves as his desk, he counsels and cajoles, confides and occasionally berates.

"This whole [political] debate is taking place in the media, and none of you have any votes," he scolds one political journalist over the phone. He pauses a beat before adding, silkily, "I don't mean you personally."

All 11 of London's daily papers from the Financial Times to the tabloid Sun are lined up on a stand in his office and a TV set is tuned to the news. Several plastic swords sit in a corner, and there are half a dozen pictures of his two children, Daisy, 6, and 4-year-old Harry, with wife Virginia.

His political expertise pulls in international accounts from F.W. de Klerk's election campaign in South Africa to Sweden's referendum in favor of joining the European Union, but his business remains firmly U.K.-based.

"If I went to America, I wouldn't know who to ring," he says simply.

However, he has hired Alan Capper, a former chairman of Cordiant's Rowland PR network, to assess opportunities for joint-ventures or affiliations in the U.S. "I don't believed in international networks," he says. "I think they're irrelevant."

Sir Tim, now 54, entered advertising almost by accident. He really wanted to be a jazz musician. Skipping college, he took a job at ABC Television in London at 19, then worked his way up in the media departments of three now-defunct London agencies.

He was hired as media director when Saatchi & Saatchi opened its doors in 1970. He soon gained his enduring reputation as a legendary presenter who could charm and persuade almost anyone of anything.

"Tim was the guy who made it all work at Saatchi," said Roger Edwards, chairman-CEO of Grey London. "He made every client who walked through the door believe he had Tim Bell as his account executive. And he was one of 10 people who had Christmas lunch with Mrs. Thatcher. That's what I call influence."

Mr. Edwards vividly recalls presenting against Tim Bell in the late 1970's to Sir Michael Edwardes, a leading industrialist who was CEO of U.K. car maker British Leyland. Aware of his adversary's awesome reputation, Mr. Edwards says he spent days preparing.

"I was immensely confident," Mr. Edwards said. "I knew he couldn't beat me. Then when Tim walked in, he went over and said `Hello Michael, Maggie sends you her best.' I was completely floored."

But Sir Tim found himself further and further from the center of power as the Saatchi brothers increasingly focused on the holding company and international expansion. Ironically, he initially didn't want the agency to take on the Conservative Party account in 1978 or the British Airways business several years later. And he never bought into Maurice and Charles' acquisitions binge.

"It was an argument I had with the brothers Saatchi," he says. "I believe ad agencies shouldn't get to the size they do."

The brothers would never give him the ultimate sign of acceptance by putting him on the holding company's board of directors, and so he left in 1985.

Relations with the Saatchis worsened when Saatchi & Saatchi tried to keep him out of the 1987 election campaign.

"They'd rather I went away and crawled under a stone," he recalled. "Mrs. T asked Maurice where I was. I had left [Saatchi], but I had a consultancy contract."

Both Sir Tim and Saatchi & Saatchi worked on Mrs. Thatcher's last successful re-election campaign, but it ended in a very public squabble about who was responsible for a key ad theme.

"There was a period when we didn't speak to each other, then we started talking," he said. "There are only three people who really know what happened--them and me."

Sir Tim said Maurice approached him in 1989, before hiring Robert Louis-Dreyfus as the company's first chief executive. And a Cordiant board member relates that Maurice last year tried unsuccessfully to persuade the board to replace Charles Scott as chief executive with Sir Tim.

"Having a title is lovely," he says. "If anyone tells you it isn't, they're lying. You get nice seats in planes and restaurants, and people are deferential."

In fact, it's hard to think of anything bad. He finally comes up with: "Americans do have the irritating habit of calling you Sir Bell."

Copyright November 1995 Crain Communications Inc.

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