Influence: The compelling end of an era


In a world where communication and marketing play an increasingly vital role in shaping society’s perceptions, the power of information and the dangers of lacking a moral compass is telling.

Several years ago, I wrote a review about the late Tim Bell’s memoir and it seems, in retrospect, a little too fawning.

Focused on the notorious, persuasive charm he developed as ‘the third Saatchi’, it predates the tawdry end to his political PR career, and the demise of the disgraced powerhouse firm he founded, Bell Pottinger. 

The company collapsed into administration in the UK in 2017 after implementing a racially charged communications campaign in South Africa. Fast forward a few years to 2020 and the release of the fascinating film ‘Influence’, which I found recently on TVNZ+, and finally managed to check out on the couch last weekend. 

For those who haven’t, it’s a must-watch documentary that’s part ‘The Great Hack’ crossed with elements of ‘Dirty Money’, which will appeal to PR practitioners and advertising folk in equal measure. That’s because as we head into the general election later this year, at least as I see it, the film presents a cautionary tale.

Labour has enlisted agencies Augusto and Hunch to help shape their narrative, whilst National is once again relying on digital strategists Topham Guerin – all of whom couldnot be more antithetical in approach or ethos to the dirty tricks displayed by Bell Pottinger. For that, we should feel fortunate. 

Local politics can be a tough business, but it hasn’t to the same degree featured the overtly unethical weaponisation of communications that Influence shines a spotlight on.

It’ll be fascinating to see how both the left and the right attempt to shape our views on the key electoral issues of the day over the next few months.

They include, but of course aren’t limited to, the cost-of-living, the state of our health and education sectors, law and order, tax reform and climate change. For example, will we see attack politics from National, akin to the famous Saatchi campaign Bell sold to Thatcher’s Conservative party in 1978? 

The (ad) poster’s design was a picture of a winding dole queue outside an unemployment office, and featured the famous copy line “Labour isn’t working”. TheInfluence documentary touches on this briefly – courtesy of a typically cool cameo from Sir John Hegarty – and it embodies the line from Bell that I referred to in my 2016 review: “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.”

Will we get something more constructive from National? How will Labour sell us Chippy? Time will tell. 

For those unacquainted with South African history, and the dealings of Bell’s firm with the infamous Gupta brothers, suffice it to say it was one insalubrious client too many. 

The ‘economic emancipation’ campaign they devised and delivered ended in disgrace, after the firm had enjoyed nearly 30-years at the top of Britain’s influence game. It also prompted them to be expelled by our PRINZ equivalent, the Public Relations and Communications Association.

Some might go so far as to suggest Bell spearheaded contemporary lobbying in the UK, and the popular view of shadowy (although occasionally public) figures stalking the halls of power. Again, the film has relevance for Kiwi viewers, given recent discussions and media debate calling for change to ensure greater transparency about who’s influencing our decision-makers. 

At just under two hours and filled to the brim with comms industry issues, it’s a riveting ride with the disreputable, chain-smoking Bell at its (ailing) heart. It’s a film I’d encourage all my peers to watch. Our industry is a small one, and largely self-policing – Influence provides a timely reminder of the all-too-real consequences of communications without a moral compass. 

By KELLY BENNETT, July 5, 2023. Article published by StopPress.

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