Profile: Nick Sharples, European comms chief, Sony

Sony's European comms chief is leading the efforts to revitalise the tech brand, says Arun Sudhaman.

Nick Sharples
Nick Sharples

There is something a little forbidding about Sony's UK HQ in Weybridge, Surrey. A fortress-like facade gives way to an interior that fuses minimal white design, studded with banks of plasma screens, with some curiously humdrum office space. It manages to look both futuristic and dated at the same time - a charge many might make of the Sony brand itself.

For its European comms chief Nick Sharples, the challenge is clear: 'We have to re-establish the brand as the world's leading tech and entertainment company.'

Sharples has been in the post almost a year, following six years with Sony PlayStation. The ex-Army veteran is polite but unmistakeably determined to achieve his goal, despite the considerable obstacles in his way. Sony has certainly attracted its fair share of column inches in recent years, covering everything from executive upheaval to the brand's strangely sluggish embrace of the digital revolution.

Sharples, however, believes a new era has dawned at the Japanese giant. He credits the ascension of charismatic Welsh chairman, CEO and president Howard Stringer, who recently embarked on an ambitious management overhaul at the company.

'The coverage we have had is generally a reflection of what has happened since the change in leadership,' says Sharples. 'Howard's challenge was to drag Sony into the digital era. As a Western guy going into a Japanese company, he couldn't go in with all guns blazing - if there was a criticism of the slowness, it was because of the approach he had to take.'

It is hard to imagine Sharples sharing his boss' patience. Since taking up his position, the 50-year-old has moved quickly to try to address the company's image. 'Apple has stolen a march on us in terms of style,' he concedes. 'And we would be the first to admit we have been a little slow to get going on the digital side of things.'

The recent launch of the Sony Rolly - an egg-shaped dancing MP3 player - showcases Sharples' new approach: 'When it came to the UK, the business group was wary about how it would sell. Rather than advertising, it gave it to the PR team.'

Sharples' solution was to approach the 'slash/slash generation' - the teens and 20-somethings who create personal brands by undertaking multiple digital careers - to create hundreds of YouTube videos, sparking major mainstream coverage and exceeding the product's target budget.

It is part of an overall theme that Sharples calls 'smarter media'. He explains: 'We found we were engaging less than five per cent of our target audience via press releases. We think the new strategy will reach 20 per cent. We create a wave through a 12-week period, which includes leaks that, to a PR professional, are anathema. In the right way, it can be a tease.'

The smarter media concept has now been adopted throughout Sony Europe. Sharples says this is emblematic of a style honed during his stint at the freewheeling PlayStation brand: 'If I've brought anything from PlayStation, it's a sense of urgency of tempo, where you could get ideas executed pretty quickly.'

Sharples admits 'things take a little longer' at Sony Corporation. Rather than being frustrated by this, he says he finds the process of working through Sony's complexity 'exciting' - as perhaps befits a man who spent two decades in the Army.

'It's a very clinical approach,' he points out. 'That gives me a buzz, and taking people along with me on that route is also exciting. You look around at other people who have served in the military; they tend to have a rather more committed approach.'

According to Piers Marlow Thomas, senior partner at comms consultancy h2glenfern, Sharples' meticulous attention to detail sets him apart from his peers. 'He's pretty unflappable,' he says. 'He is able to bring impact to what he does - his clarity of vision enables him to do that.'

These qualities, adds Marlow Thomas, have enabled Sharples to handle what is often a tough task for an in-house comms chief: 'He is very good at inspiring the top-end at Sony. He's outstanding at applying techniques to guide senior executives.'

Given that one of those senior executives is Stringer himself, this cannot be an easy job. Yet, despite the occasional challenge that can arise from the Welshman's propensity to 'say what he thinks from time to time', Sharples believes Stringer's style actually makes his job easier. 'He doesn't squander that rock-star CEO approach,' he says.

For anyone charged with communicating Sony's rebirth, much will depend on Stringer's ability to maintain this positive momentum.

CV
2008: Director of corporate comms, Sony Europe
2001: Director of corporate comms, Sony Computer Entertainment Europe
2000: Head of group PR, Energis
1998: Corporate affairs and PR manager, One 2 One
1995: Deputy director of Army PR, Ministry of Defence
1993: Company commander, 2nd Battalion, The Princess of Wales' Royal
Regiment
1991: Chief executive, area HQ, Northern Ireland

NICK SHARPLES' TURNING POINTS

What was your biggest career break? Being recruited by (former mobile phone operator) One 2 One at a time when health concerns about the network rollout provided opportunities to practise the crisis management and relation-building skills I learned in the Army.

Have you had a notable mentor? Several. Anna Cloke at One 2 One kindly smoothed off my rough edges and introduced me to the harsh realities of the private sector. And David Reeves, president of Sony PlayStation, used to challenge the advice I gave him in the nicest possible way, and occasionally even followed it.

What advice would you give to anyone climbing the career ladder? Maintain your integrity and be authentic. Hard work and dedication are key, but emotional intelligence - understanding the perspective and behaviour of others - is also useful.

What qualities do you prize in new recruits? Initiative, commitment, a sense of humour and the ability to hit the ground running. And a recognition that it's OK to make mistakes when you're starting off - but only once.

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