CHANGE OF PACE
Rebecca Sinclair has thrived personally and professionally amid vast amounts of change. How has her ability to adapt informed her work for Penguin, Pearson and other publishing brands? Brittany Golob reports
Photographs by Jeff Leyshon
Since the launch of the Amazon Kindle in 2007, the publishing industry has been undergoing a process of redefining its proposition, repositioning its place in the world and creating more flexible brands to accommodate these changes. For Rebecca Sinclair, now the VP of brand at learning company and FTSE 100 brand Pearson, overseeing communications amid a background of change has come naturally.
For most of the companies that have survived the shift, flexibility and open-mindedness have been key assets, as has a healthy dose of creative communications. Sinclair is no stranger to these characteristics. One of three children in an Army family, she and her siblings attended boarding school in the UK while their parents moved multiple times. Spending holidays with their family and term times at school in England, the siblings grew up as adaptable from a young age.
Throughout her career, Sinclair would face similar challenges to those she handled in her childhood. But the early steps she made in her working life also took place at a time of massive change as the world entered the digital era.
Now, she oversees brand for Pearson, but she took an early interest in history, politics, religious studies and sport. “I’m definitely an arts person; I am not that keen on mathematics,” Sinclair says. “Now that I have children, I have to divide and conquer on the homework with my husband.” The self-avowed bookworm attributes the course her education took to a great teacher she had in english, history and religious studies. The latter eventually became the subject she studied at Oxford.
Sinclair also took to athletics, hockey and a host of other sports before taking up rowing at university. But her love for the arts expressed itself through her chosen course of study and through choral singing. “Slightly strangely, I spent a lot of time singing in churches and studying religion and I’m not particularly religious. It ended up being a very formative part of my life,” Sinclair says.
Focusing on religious studies offered Sinclair a choice from among the best universities in the UK. She decided to forgo the comparative religions approach offered by the likes of Bristol and Exeter for the more traditional course at Oxford. “I felt I couldn’t give up the chance to go to Oxford,” she says.
It was a good fit for Sinclair and offered her the opportunity to study, play sport and sing. Sinclair chose Keble College, a relatively young college; it was founded in 1870 with a view to making Oxford more accessible to students from a broad range of backgrounds. But its red-brick Victorian towers also host a number of sports teams, which initially drew Sinclair’s attention. And she was able to sing in the mixed choir at the Keble College chapel. The college has played host to a number of prominent personalities including Ed Balls, Imran Khan and Olympic gold medallist rower Ed Coode.
But graduating with a theology degree and a vague interest in media didn’t leave Sinclair with any clear-cut options on the job market. The standard options offered at the time – accountancy or law conversions, graduate schemes at corporations – didn’t appeal. “I was interested in media as an industry. But I hadn’t really done much to set myself up for that,” she says. “I must have sent out hundreds of CVs, but not in a very targeted way.”
Luckily, Sinclair was able to find a role soon after graduation at a financial services firm called the St James Partnership. The then six-man band that advised media companies through mergers and acquisitions, primarily magazine publishers. Though finance was not a natural home for the arts-focused Sinclair, she was able to spend two years learning about the media industry and taking on responsibility in the small business.
She then took a job with Cassell, then an independent book publisher, now part of the Weidenfeld & Nicolson brand under the Orion Publishing Group. As international sales manager, Sinclair was able to put to use her knowledge of the industry and love of travel. Heading to far-flung locations around the world every six to eight weeks, Sinclair oversaw academic book sales to audiences outside North America. With books focusing on business, catholicism and protestantism, Sinclair was right at home. She also represented a liberal, gay imprint Cassell owned. “I’d go to places like Rome and the Vatican and I’d sell the Catholic catechisms to bookshops and then I’d go down the road and sell these quite graphic gay books to the gay bookstore. I’d have to be quite careful that I didn’t get the wrong book out of my bag!” Sinclair says. It was also the end of an era in print publishing. Soon Sinclair’s carry case of book jackets and fax orders would be replaced with an automated system.
She wound up spending almost three years with the publisher, but found sales less enticing than the draw of communications. Thus, in 1998, Sinclair took on her first true comms role as an account executive on Burson-Marsteller’s corporate communications team. At the time, the agency had offices in 28 countries, a world-leading annual turnover and was one of Britain’s top firms. Yet change was not far behind Sinclair’s arrival.
Curriculum vitae: Rebecca Sinclair
2015 - present VP, brand, Pearson
In 2000, Burson-Marsteller was acquired by WPP, ushering in internal changes throughout the agency. However, for Sinclair on the corporate team, it was also a time of change in terms of the work the team was taking on. 1998 was the height of the dotcom boom and new businesses were sprouting up across London and approaching Burson-Marsteller for PR support. Sinclair worked on corporate accounts like Unilever and Accenture but also on startups doing a variety of work from speechwriting to crisis management.
“That was my real training in comms,” she says. “The variety was amazing. You have the opportunity to work across a huge range of clients and accounts. For me that was really interesting. Also, the dotcom explosion meant we were seeing the start of loads of businesses. It was a really interesting time to be working in an agency because it was very fast-paced and there was a lot going on.”
Sinclair, advanced to account manager and was approached by head hunters for various roles. Instead, she focused on her newfound interest in Pearson. “I’d always been interested in the landscape of the media industry and I’d started following Pearson particularly because I was inspired by Marjorie Scardino. I was very captivated and inspired by her,” Sinclair says. Scardino was the first woman to become CEO of a FTSE 100 company and herself has a media background.
Sinclair told the headhunters to alert her if a job at Pearson became available. “I didn’t really want to work in an agency long- term,” she adds. “I wanted to go in-house. I definitely think that you’re either an agency person at heart or an in-house person at heart. I wanted to be in the business rather than on the periphery. I wanted to be aligned with a company’s purpose and values.”
In 2001, Taylor Bennett called with a job on Pearson’s corporate communications team, located in its London headquarters.
“I loved it from the minute I walked in the door,” Sinclair says. “Pearson has always been run by people who are natural communicators. At some companies you have to fight to get a seat at the table, [here] communications has always been at the heart of everything.” Sinclair worked on employee communications, financial communications and the annual report. She had the first of two daughters in 2005 and returned to work the following summer on a four-day-a-week basis. Finally in 2007, an opportunity arose at Pearson subsidiary Penguin in the newly-created role of corporate communications director.
Again, Sinclair took on the role in a time of great change. Penguin was one of the world’s biggest publishers, but it had no defined corporate communications or brand strategy. The year 2007 also marked the beginning of the ebook era and publishers were scrambling to compete with the growing industry.
“The six-and-a-half years I spent at Penguin were absolutely the rise of digital,” Sinclair says. “It was the moment that publishers were having to really navigate the digital transition. That meant we were having to think about the proposition of the publisher slightly differently.” But for Sinclair, a lifetime of adaptability became a major strength to Penguin as she led the business through a repositioning, a shift in the external brand merchandising and the ability to compete in a changing industry.
Then it was announced in October 2012 that Random House, owned by Bertelsmann, and Penguin would merge to form the world’s biggest publishing company. Sinclair oversaw Penguin’s communications throughout the merger and helped the company clear competitions commissions around the world. She then helped to craft the new company’s communications plan and positioning. “That’s how I spent my last months with Penguin, working on setting up for the moment at which the deal closed and it was then Penguin Random House,” she says.
The merger was complete in July 2013 and two weeks later her husband’s role at McKinsey offered the opportunity to relocate to Singapore. With a position as corporate affairs director at Pearson Singapore, Sinclair and family made the move. “It was really hard, actually. I think we underestimated what a huge deal it is to move a family around the world,” Sinclair says. Though she wouldn’t trade her experience in Asia – particularly for the travel opportunities it afforded the family – professionally and personally, Singapore presented new challenges for Sinclair to overcome.
Having worked in the corporate headquarters within a communications-focused company, operating with an eight hour time difference and a 10,841 km distance, Sinclair felt removed from the centre of operations. “I learned that I took things for granted. I learned what it was like to not be at the centre of the business and to be out in a market where you’re much more removed,” she says. But some challenges became invaluable lessons. “Particularly when you work on internal communications, the way you write something when you’re at the centre and how it’s interpreted in a market where people are farther away, things don’t land how you think they’re going to land.”
By the end of 2014, a conversation between Sinclair and Pearson’s head of corporate affairs and global marketing, Kate James, resulted in Sinclair taking on the role of VP of brand to oversee Pearson’s rebrand, prompting the family to return to the UK.
“It’s a pretty involved process. We weren’t a startup launching a new brand, we were a very large company that’s been around since the 1800s and that’s a big responsibility,” Sinclair says of the rebrand. It was important to ensure that all of Pearson’s 35,000 employees – many of whom had been taken on through acquisitions – were able to speak in the same way about Pearson. The visual identity was designed to be flexible enough to work across Pearson’s broad and complex brand portfolio, but to also reflect both the company’s history and its modern objective of becoming a digital- first education company.
The brand was launched in January 2016 and is followed by a two-year roll out process. Her team has managed the complex process of launching and implementing the rebrand. “If you get brand right there will be a financial value to it, that’s incredibly important. But then I also think the brand is the DNA that runs through your company. It is what shapes your culture and your values. It is what aligns everyone around the same North Star,” Sinclair says.
The rollout is still ongoing and Sinclair is responsible for that process. Though she says her early career was not the product of an intentional aim to work in the communications industry, her adaptability and the ways in which she has learned from her positions have informed her ultimate ability to oversee a global rebrand for a FTSE 100 company.
Now, Sinclair says, young graduates are encouraged to explore their options and try out a variety of roles. To young people entering the job market she says, “No job is forever. If something doesn’t work out, you put it down to experience and move on,” she says. In short, be flexible, be adaptable and “definitely don’t panic.”