Kevin Bell interview: The man who doesn’t 'do cheap'

Written by David Singleton on 9 December 2015 in Features

Burson-Marsteller’s global public affairs chair still likes Bollinger and says too many lobbyists are stuck at their desks.

For one of the heavyweights of the lobbying agency world, Kevin Bell has a surprisingly lightweight entourage these days.

The well-known Conservative-supporting lobbyist has spent more than 25 years at the heart of the industry and is now clocking up the air miles as global chair of public affairs at Burson-Marsteller.

But that doesn't mean that he's responsible for the firm's numerous lobbyists around the globe. On the contrary, he says.

“The great thing about the Burson network is in my wonderful global role nobody reports to me apart from my chief of staff and my two secretaries.”

We are chatting over coffee at the agency’s London HQ, having strolled around the corner after lunch at one of Bell’s long-time favourite restaurants, The Ivy.

Bell is a former Tory adviser under Margaret Thatcher who remembers Cameron and Osborne “when they were little brats in the Research Department”.

He went on to be a founding director of legendary lobbying shop Westminster Strategy and then to ply his trade at Fleishman Hillard and Maitland Political, before moving to Burson in early 2014.

So what has he been getting up to over the last two years? “Essentially I’m solving problems, helping develop business round the world,” he says.

In the UK, Burson’s lobbying arm is headed up by Stephen Day, the former Tory councillor and Portcullis lobbyist.

“The UK has grown, certainly for Burson-Marsteller, thanks to Stephen,” says Bell. “He’s done a very good job by actually standing out in the marketplace. What I mean by that is everything’s become cheap and inexpensive.

“If you go to Starbucks or Café Nero, coffee's going to be £2.25 or whatever. But occasionally you want to go and have a £6 coffee. Stephen’s quite good at selling what I call the £6 coffee.”

Bell appears to be revelling in his role as Burson’s global barista-in-chief, with limited line management responsibilities. “All I have to do is to entertain, enthuse and make sure business is passed around,” he says.

Asked which clients take up most of his time, Bell offers the International Olympic Committee. He also refers to “a number of different governments and political parties around the world” but only offers one name. Bell says that Burson is “on record” as working with Tunisia's Ennahda Party. As for the others, he “may be able to go in to in more detail later”.

Bell started out as a lobbyist back in in 1979. How has public affairs changed since then? He returns to a favourite theme.

“It’s become too commoditised, it’s become too cheap. We don’t do cheap. I like Bollinger. Anybody who comes to my flat knows I like Bollinger.”

Do clients appreciate that? He shoots back sharply: “The amount they consume, they seem to.”

Having attended Bell’s annual summer party on the terrace of his riverside flat on more than one occasion, I can vouch for the truth of this statement - although at the end of the evening it tends to be Conservative MPs rather than clients knocking back the champagne in the greatest quantities.

The various Tory backbenchers present at Bell’s summer soirees suggest that at least some parliamentarians remain happy to hang out with public affairs consultants – despite the so-called lobbying scandals of recent years.

Bell is adamant that negative stories about MPs colluding with bogus lobbyists have not had an impact on any of his relations. He insists: “I’ve been talking to MPs and candidates since I was at university in 1976 and I’ve never had anyone refuse to talk to me, to be honest.”

Whether a Corbynite might like to talk to Bell – or any other corporate lobbyist for that matter – is a moot point. With Jeremy Corbyn at the helm of the Labour party, does Burson now need an injection of left-wing radicalism?

“No. As long as you’ve got people who actually understand politics and comms and what’s going in the country it’s not a problem at all.”

I press on to see how far Bell can be pushed. Shouldn’t Burson have a finger in all pies? Even Corbynite ones?

“That’s like saying you should hire a Blairite or a Cameroon. You don’t need that… No Corbynista is going to want to sell his soul to a public affairs agency at the moment.”

He adds with a sly smile: “Perhaps they should. I’m quite happy to employ a Corbynista and employ Corbyn economics which means I don’t have to pay them at all. That’s fine by me.”

Over the years, Bell has worked closely with a number of senior industry figures such as Peter Bingle and Michel Burrell. I wonder whether he sees much of his old lobbying colleagues these days.

“Most of them have gone off and are spending more time with their families and their houses…. Perhaps they’ve got it right and I’ve got it wrong,” he muses.

As for the younger generation, Bell is clearly proud of the various lobbyists he’s mentored over the years. He points to Day at Burson, Oliver Pauley at Portland, Gavin Megaw at Hanover and Scott Colvin at Finsbury.

“I’ve got wonderful people who I’ve worked with… it’s great to see these young people I used to manage and train, who were wet behind the ears, are now doing a fantastic job and to  a certain degree doing better than I was at their age.”

So what advice would he have for someone starting out in lobbying today?

“If I was to talk to a youngster: For God’s sake, make sure you read and you write. Read the papers, read up on the client you’re working on, be able to string a sentence together, particularly after lunch, and be able to write. Because your client will expect you to articulate and interpret for them in a way that sometimes they can’t because they’re too busy.

“So many people think they’re busy, they’re doing work, when they’re sat at their desk all day typing. I get terrified when I see people sat at computers typing all day long. They should be out and about talking to people. I think the art of talking to people, exchanging information, is very important.

“We rely too much on the phones in our pockets. Clients need that face-to-face value.”

 

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