Tim Bell, the Tory public relations legend who was Margaret Thatcher’s favourite ad man, has died aged 77 after a long illness.
A controversial and colourful figure, he helped Mrs Thatcher win three general elections and claimed the credit for the iconic 1979 election poster “Labour isn’t working”.
In recent years he was a regular political pundit on Sky News, appearing on a veterans’ panel with the senior Lib Dem peer Lord Razzall and former Labour spin chief David Hill.
Knighted by his political heroine Mrs Thatcher in 1991 and awarded a peerage by Tony Blair in 1998, Lord Bell died at his home in Belgravia on Sunday, surrounded by members of his family.
A heavy smoker throughout his life, once reputed to be smoking 80 cigarettes a day, he had suffered from cancer and diabetes and had been seriously ill for some time. He had a triple heart bypass in 2001.
A flamboyant giant of the public relations industry, he was an ad man of the old school: renowned for long lunches, big expenses and staying in the best hotels. He admitted using cocaine in the ’70s and ’80s and was married three times.
“Tim was a pioneer in political communication, an amazing advertising executive and the most brilliant public relations strategist,” Piers Pottinger, his former business partner and close friend, told Sky News.
“He was a devoted family man and passionate supporter of the Conservative Party, most famously helping Margaret Thatcher win three general elections.
“He was my business partner for over thirty years, during which time Tim developed and led a company which became a major force in the marketing communications business internationally.
“He was an inspiration to everyone who worked with him. Most importantly to me, he was always a true and loyal friend. Nobody can replace him.”
Sky News editor at large Adam Boulton tweeted: “Tim Bell – colourful character – original mind – charmer (sometimes). I’m one of many who will miss him.”
Lord Bell was devoted to Margaret Thatcher and stayed close to her after she left Downing Street until she died in 2013.
“I loved her,” he wrote in his memoirs, published in 2014.
In her memoirs, she claimed that he had better political antennae than most politicians: “He could pick up quicker than anyone else a change in the national mood. And, unlike most advertising men, he understood that selling ideas is different from selling soap.”
He made his name in advertising working for Saatchi and Saatchi in the 1970s and in 1979 the firm won the Tory account for the 1979 election campaign and produced the famous poster showing a long and winding dole queue.
In 1985 he left Saatchi and Saatchi and founded his own agency, Lowe Howard-Spink and Bell, which became Bell Pottinger three years later and merged with Chime Communications in 1994.
His Bell Pottinger company represented many controversial right-wing clients, including the regime of the Chilean dictator General Pinochet, the wife of the Syrian dictator President Assad, the Sultan of Brunei and the Sri Lankan government during its war with the Tamils.
He also became the go-to ad man in crisis PR, representing David Mellor in a sex scandal, Guinness boss Ernest Saunders during his fraud trial, Rebekah Wade during phone hacking and former Tory MP Neil Hamilton in the cash-for-questions scandal.
The agency also lobbied on behalf of the Saudi Arabian government during the Serious Fraud Office’s investigation into bribery allegations over a major arms deal.
In 2012, together with Bell Pottinger colleague James Henderson, Lord Bell bought out Chime’s controlling interest in his company. But the pair split in 2016 and a year later Bell Pottinger, now run by Mr Henderson, collapsed.
The collapse was triggered by an embarrassing scandal over a campaign in South Africa in which the company was found to have breached business ethics and faced accusations of racism.
But Lord Bell will be remembered for having revolutionised British politics by introducing commercial advertising techniques into general election campaigns.
He was one of Margaret Thatcher’s closest friends and confidants – and biggest influences during her time as prime minister – and the best known and most controversial ad man of his generation.
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