Nichola Sharpe - Riding the dotcom wave

Lastminute.com's external comms director is relishing her new pan-European role, finds Nikki Wicks.

Nicola Sharpe: lastminute.com external comms director
Nicola Sharpe: lastminute.com external comms director

Two years ago, Nichola Sharpe was in a hotel lobby in Hawaii in her pyjamas at 5am, about to be interviewed by conference call for a head of PR role at one of the UK's most famous online success stories.

She must have impressed bosses at lastminute.com, because not only did she get the job, but she was also recently promoted to the newly created role of director of external comms and brand across Europe.

This week, she is rolling out the brand's first ever pan-European campaign. The campaign's strap line, 'Stories Start Here', is aimed at inspiring people in all of the brand's European markets to make the most of their free time, an outlook Sharpe has certainly adopted in her own life.

As former colleague Victoria Biggs, who worked with Sharpe at both Freud Communications and eBay, and is now consumer MD at MSL, notes: 'She is the last to leave a party and the first to arrive, fresh faced, in the office the next day.'

Dressed in a stripy frock, Sharpe, 35, smiles and admits to a slight unease at the thought of being the story. She has moved through the agency ranks quickly, including two years managing the corporate and crisis division at Freuds, and seems far more at ease working out of the spotlight.

She reflects on how her own lastminute.com story started back in Hawaii. 'It felt quite appropriate applying for a travel brand while I was on holiday,' she jokes.

At the time, she was preparing to return to London after a two-year period in California, where she had worked as senior PR manager for another internet phenomenon, eBay. Based at eBay's Silicon Valley HQ, Sharpe worked as corporate media spokesperson and led the brand's crisis management.

Biggs, who gave Sharpe the eBay job, says: 'She's committed and thorough in her approach. I absolutely trusted her to deliver on the projects that she was tasked with.'

Lastminute.com is one of the few survivors of the original dotcom boom and subsequent spectacular bust.

In March 2000, two years after its initial launch, co-founder Brent Hoberman floated the site on the London Stock Exchange. The flotation marked the peak of the dotcom bubble and after its share price jumped 40 per cent the day it floated, the site lost nearly half of its value within three weeks.

But the brand outlasted many of its contemporaries and grew into a worldwide business employing more than 1,980 staff.

In May 2005, it was purchased by US firm Travelocity, part of the Sabre family of travel companies, for £577m.

'Like eBay, one of the things that attracted me to lastminute.com was that it was an iconic online brand that had survived the dotcom period, and it was British,' says Sharpe.

She continues: 'At eBay I did a lot of crisis management and protecting the brand. I think with lastminute.com, people know who we are and trust the brand already; it's more a matter of reminding them of the things they can buy from us.'

Nevertheless, lastminute.com is not immune from potential crisis and since Sharpe joined the company in 2009, she has been put on the PR offensive by ash clouds, airline strikes and even Michael Jackson.

'We had sold thousands of tickets across Europe for Jackson's planned shows at the O2,' she explains. 'When his death was announced, we had to keep our customers informed of the developments.'

When the brand is affected by potentially calamitous industry events, the firm looks to push its other lifestyle elements, such as spas, restaurants and theatre tickets.

'I've often worked with brands that need protecting, but I think it's possible to protect a brand and still put out positive stories at the same time,' she says.

As much as Sharpe enjoys opening the paper and finding a good piece of coverage, her approach to media relations harks back to the old-school. 'The best crisis management is when you don't see the story,' she explains.

In the new role at lastminute.com, Sharpe is relishing the opportunity to coordinate brand and PR campaigns across Europe and confesses to taking a 'humble approach' to the wider role. 'I'm a PR person going into a wider brand role, it's a big challenge for me and I'm not scared to admit that,' she says.

'She's not afraid to take a risk,' concludes Biggs, perhaps reflecting both Sharpe's career path and her rather unique approach to job interviews.

CV

2011 Director of external comms & brand, lastminute.com, Europe

2009 Head of UK PR, lastminute.com

2007 Senior PR manager, eBay.com, US

2004 Senior PR manager, eBay.co.uk

2002 Senior account director, Freud Communications

2001 Senior account manager, Colette Hill Associates

1999 Account manager, Hill & Knowlton

1999 Account manager, Euro RSCG Ad Agency, Australia

1997 Account executive, Biss Lancaster

NICHOLA SHARPE'S TURNING POINTS

What was your biggest career break?

When I was working in-house for eBay in London, I was given the opportunity to be transferred to America for two years to work in the California office. I didn't have a lot of experience with the American media but it was the best two years of my life.

Have you had a notable mentor?

I have had a few. Victoria Biggs, whom I worked with at Freuds, then again at eBay. Victoria taught me everything I needed to know agency-side, about client management skills and how to pitch and win new business. Also, Shannon Brayton, vice-president, corporate comms at LinkedIn, whom I worked with at eBay. Shannon taught me to take a risk. It's because of her I upped sticks from London and went to California for two years.

What advice would you give someone climbing the career ladder?

Take any opportunity that you're given. Don't be afraid to go outside of your comfort zone. When you are agency side, I think it's important to ask to work on different clients; it's healthy to get a mixture of as many clients and industries as possible.

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