MSc in Marketing '14
As Strategic Director of PR company ClearStory International, Rebecca Lee has found the ideal way to channel her armoury of education, skills, experience and media contacts.
About Rebecca Lee
Tell us about your education and early career
I’ve always been a lifelong learner. Before starting at UCD Smurfit Business School I studied marketing and event management on a part-time basis at DBS. Before that I studied journalism, also part-time, at Independent Colleges. And prior to that I went to DIT where I studied radio broadcasting.
In terms of my career, I knew from an early age I wanted to work in radio. I was on air, presenting for about 12 years at FM104 and Q102 and then decided I wanted to take a different direction with my career.
That’s when I went to UCD to do an MSc in Marketing. I was presenting the breakfast show on Q102 at the same time. So I’d be in work from 5am until 9am and then in class in Smurfit from 10am until 2pm, and sometimes 4pm. It was a very busy time.
About a year after completing the course in Smurfit, Q102 was offering redundancies. Because I was set on changing direction anyway, I took it.
I started looking for jobs in marketing, but given my extensive experience working in media – I also wrote for a lot of publications like the Business Post, the Irish Independent, Mail on Sunday and Sunday World on a freelance basis and still contribute on the side – I wanted to use my contacts, as well as my skills and education. I thought my best option was probably to enter public relations.
As part of my redundancy, I was offered a career coach who I met twice a month over the course of two months. When she reviewed my CV she identified my lack of hands-on experience in the PR industry as my biggest barrier to getting a senior role straight away.
I ended up doing an internship with PSG Communications – now Teneo – for about six months and that gave me a very good grounding. When I was looking for a job after that I was offered three roles. With the third one – the job I ended up taking with ClearStory International – I wasn’t even sure about going to the interview.
I’d seen an ad online for a PR agency that was just starting up – this was four years ago – and they were looking for an account executive. The company sounded really interesting so I went along to meet the founder and to tell him to keep me in mind when they were looking for someone more senior in two years’ time. That was a Friday and on the Monday he phoned to say he wanted me to join him in setting up the company. Three days into the job, he said he wanted to make me a director.
What is your role and what do you?
I’m Strategic Director at ClearStory International, which is a global PR agency. I get clients interviews in some of the world’s biggest media outlets from, Forbes to CNN and CNBC to Sky. We’ve worked with over 50 clients in 15 different countries and we’re focused specifically on the needs of companies that are early-stage and scaling up. My role is managing the team and the company, alongside my boss, and also managing clients and making sure their expectations are met and educating them on PR and media and how they work.
We’ve grown rapidly over the last four years and I’ve been very much a part of helping to develop the company and the processes. The plan from the beginning was to increase to 15 staff over the course of three years. We had five people by the end of year one, three more by the end of the second year, and 15 by year three. We are now at 17!
How would you describe your leadership style?
I am very aspirational. We work with a lot of younger account executives, interns and more experienced executives and I manage all of them. I’m always encouraging the team to think outside the box. I’m also very into letting people work autonomously. I trust them to do their jobs and to achieve what they set out to do. They only approach me if they’re stuck or they need to develop a more hard-hitting news angle or new stories around clients.
I also hope that through telling my teams about my journey and everything I’ve learnt along the way that I’m helping motivate them in terms of what can be achieved if you put your head down and stick at it.
What motivates you?
I’m motivated by challenging myself every day, doing the best job I possibly can and pushing myself out of my comfort zone.
My dad, who’s actually a Lecturer in Accountancy in UCD Business School, has always been my biggest critic and that has really helped me. Even if I disagree with him at times it’s made me think that maybe I need to do things differently, to work harder, and that there’s a better way of doing things. He’s constantly pushing me.
Who or what inspires you?
My dad – and mum! – would definitely be among my inspirations in terms of personal style and my goals in life.
In terms of my business inspiration, it would have to be Richard Branson. He started small and worked his way up to run a massive global entity and still remain very well rounded. When I worked in radio I got to meet him at the launch of Virgin Media in Ireland. I remember seeing him coming in on this truck and his teeth were so white! Everyone wanted to meet him because he had such a good story to tell and he just came across as so personable, speaking to everyone. People who achieve that level of success and who are genuinely grounded are people I would like to be like. A key learning is to never forget where you came from.
What are your biggest achievements to date?
In terms of business, it is helping to establishing a global PR agency from the ground up alongside my boss.
Personally, it was climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in March 2017 and then doing Everest Base Camp six months later. I trained for six months for Kilimanjaro and I’m so glad I did because it meant I enjoyed the experience. And that’s why I did Base Camp – I was so fit after Kilimanjaro. I developed an ‘I can conquer the world’ attitude.
Doing something like that makes you think of things differently. When you take time out from the world and have nothing else going on, you start to reassess what’s really important and you start to think about where you want to go next in all areas of your life. It was amazing.
Any notable failures?
At the end of my time in Q102 the company had just established UTV television and I really wanted to work there. I applied for eight jobs in TV and six further positions in radio and much to my disappointment, didn’t get any of them, despite being in the company. I arranged to meet the CEO of the television station to get some feedback as to where I was going wrong and what I could improve on to get me in the door. That was probably one of my biggest business failures – he gave me feedback but I still didn’t get any of the jobs! I ended up co-ordinating the interviews for other people for all 14 roles. It was very hard to take at the time.
In my personal life, I failed the driving test the first time. Everyone else in my family passed the first!
What advice would you give people starting out?
My general advice for everyone is to never take no as an answer in business. If someone rejects you once, it’s not to say they’ll reject you the next time. If you’re passionate enough about developing a career within a certain sector, you should keep on trying and not give up.
I also think you need to find a job that best fits your education, your skills and your life experience, which is just as important as education.
If you’re out of work and looking and maybe going in a different direction and slightly older, I’d highly recommend seeing a professional and getting them to talk you through your CV. You’ll be surprised at what they can identify as opposed to what people who know you can identify. I had a lot of skills I didn’t know I had accumulated over the years. The career coach really brought that out for me and coloured my CV with all the things I was missing previously.
Any plans down the line?
I’d love to be the CEO of a communications company. I don’t think there are enough female CEOs out there and I think all of my skills, work experience and education have provided me with a clear way to get there. Everything I’ve done so far is really standing to me and the only way is up from here. I know – I’m one of those annoying positive people!
How has your degree benefited you?
It has shaped me into the person I am today. I learned how to work with live clients in Smurfit, something I am eternally grateful for.
What is your fondest memory from your time in UCD Smurfit School?
I remember working on a marketing project for Orpens Cider and designing a cider cooking book. When presenting I handed cider muffins out to all my classmates and the client. Needless to say I along with my team mates got an A for that one!
How important is your UCD alumni network to you?
Extremely important. I believe this life is all about who you know and that you can learn a great deal from other people. I think my inherent curiosity is what drives my passion for journalism and working in communications.
What are your main interests outside work?
I love sailing and badminton. It is my goal to get a powerboat licence and later this year I will be playing badminton league.
Tell us something most people don’t know about you?
I used to want to be Oprah Winfrey. Still haven’t given up on the dream!
What piece of technology can you not live without?
My iPhone, I have around 3,000 contacts for people I have met over the years. It is my bible.
What is your pet hate?
I can’t stand people who are negative. We all have bad days, but the next one could be different. I truly think everyone needs to visit a developing country at some stage in their lives. I was in India years ago and it was an eye opener.
Where is home and why?
Home for me is Bray, Co Wicklow. I just bought my first-ever house and I’ve never felt so content. Also, I think Wicklow offers the best of both worlds: one minute it feels like you’re in Dublin, the next, the countryside.
What charities or causes are closest to your heart?
The Alzheimer Society of Ireland. My grandfather who I was very close to died from dementia. It was devastating to watch someone you love deteriorate before your very eyes and they don’t receive much funding for care at all. I feel very strongly about it.