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Interview with Sabine Vandenbroucke

Date: 
28 June 2017

 
Sabine Vandenbroucke

 
Sabine Vandenbroucke is currently COO/CFO operating at board level of the graphic design and branding agency Winkreative Ltd and the global news and lifestyle media brand Monocle. She is based in London.

 
Could you explain to our readers what your working life entails?

I handle the operational and financial aspects as well as human resources of both companies. Winkreative is a creative design agency that develops corporate identity, from naming, logos to advertising campaigns and all branding for clients such as Air Canada and Lexus. We do a diverse amount of work for global companies who come to us for the international outlook that Winkreative offers.

Just over ten years ago, we launched Monocle, a global publication between news, business and lifestyle. This was quite a unique concept when we started. Few publications have one global edition. We believe there is a market for a truly global reader who is looking for a neutral but optimistic world view. The obvious language choice is English and London is a good base.

 
What aspect of your job do you enjoy the most?

We’re a medium-sized company employing around 120 people here at Midori House with a wide range of nationalities. I count myself very lucky to work on a daily basis with a truly international creative team. My direct team consists of colleagues from Hong Kong, Italy, Korea and China.

 
You’ve diversified the business into retail, radio and hospitality. Could you expand on these achievements?

Media business has undergone a lot of change over the past few years. There remains a strong desire for the reader to connect with paper and consume media in a magazine format and that’s what we offer. The demand is there. We’ve noticed, however, that some distribution channels are losing faith in their own industry. The traditional newsagent I remember as a child growing up in Belgium no longer exists. Cigarette sales have plummeted (a good thing…) and dailies are more and more consumed digitally. People still want magazines but the newsagent prefers selling souvenirs, toys or sweets and doesn’t give magazines enough shelf space. We decided to take our future somewhat in our own hands by becoming a retailer ourselves, being out there with a physical presence with shops in London, Toronto, New York, Hong Kong, Singapore and Tokyo and of course also an e-commerce presence. Radio is another means to get our brand out there and so is hospitality. We have the Monocle Café in Chiltern Street where you can enjoy a good cup of coffee whilst listening to Monocle Radio and flicking through our latest issue. We create that environment and service to bring people to our brand.

 
Your previous professional activities involved recycling. How do you see the future development of recycling?

When I was in Germany some areas had 7 bins to collect different waste streams. In the UK, recycling facilities vary from borough to borough, but most are basic. Over time, I’m sure these will improve. What worries me though is the amount of waste produced at source which needs to be reduced combined with upcycling, re-using and producer responsibility – I’m talking particularly about excessive packaging both in the shops and as part of the modern e-delivery economy. I’ve not seen that much improvement. Personally, I would rather buy products with less packaging and generate less waste. The producer has a big responsibility to educate the consumer in this respect and when this is done well, it creates a powerful marketing tool. The producers who make the first move into creating more transparency around the resources and production process will have a competitive advantage.

 
What qualification did you obtain and where from?

I studied ‘handelsingenieur’ (commercial engineering) at the university in Leuven and enjoyed an Erasmus exchange to Kiel in the North of Germany. After having worked for a few years, I did an INSEAD MBA at Fontainebleau.

 
You’ve lived in multiple countries (Belgium, France, Germany and the UK). How do these compare as places to live and work?

In Germany, I was struck by the formal habit to refer to someone with ‘Frau’ and ‘Herr’ (and please don’t forget the additional qualifications says ‘Herr Dr’ or ‘Frau Professor’) which I felt created an unnecessary formality, even an artificial distance. I also found there to be less transparency between the different departments in the work place. Thinking back to my time in France, I remember the lunches; people took their time and eat well - Foie gras anyone? I do not know if that is still the case – perhaps M. Macron will have something to say about that. The UK is the most international place I’ve lived and worked in. I’ve experienced a more open culture than in the other countries.

 
Do you enjoy living in the UK?

Very much so, for the reason I just mentioned. What I also like is the connectibility. London in particular is a short hub to anywhere in Europe and the rest of the world.

 
How do you feel Belgium is perceived in this country?

I think Belgium is totally underestimated. I often recommend Belgium as a destination for a weekend trip to friends and colleagues and they usually come back positively surprised. We offer a lot of diversity, both culturally and culinary and with fascinating cities to visit for those who like history as well as modernity as well as the outdoors for cycling and hiking. There is a serious marketing and branding job to be done to sell ourselves better. A French friend once said ‘The Belgians deliver what the French promise’.

 
How do you expect Brexit to affect your professional and personal life?

At Winkreative and Monocle we are very international; Brexit is a big concern both from a recruitment point of view as well as from a business and sales perspective. The impression I am gaining is that in the UK we are becoming less, not more open to business, nor are we ‘strong and stable’ politically. We have to be very careful of the reputation we are creating.  English is very widely understood overseas, but the British tend not to be good at languages. The result is that it is as difficult for the British people to have a private debate about Europe amongst themselves as it is for them to know what is being discussed domestically in Europe. However you look at it, Europe is our closest trading partner and I thought that the UK has (or should I say ‘had’) the best possible deal. I hope I am wrong, but I think it’s likely to prove a big and costly mistake – at the very least in the short to medium term. It’s going to be a very long journey and personally I’m not positive about it at all. Even if it does benefit the UK in the long term, politicians have been very unclear that it may require years of hard times to get there – and several years of hard times can set back companies or economies or even a whole generation substantially. We recruit people from all over the world, we have a lot of Europeans working here and our people make our brand. Recruiting from outside the EU entails a heavy procedure, to get talent in and get the visa process going. It will be difficult if we suddenly have to go through this process for every single European we recruit. Only the advisors win, overall business won’t win and in the end our GDP will decline. The impact is already noticeable for us in spite of the many attempts of the government to find a positive spin on any stats. We’ve had a bit of an illusion over the past year that things were good and the economy was booming. But face it, on the procurement side companies hedged and thus the cheaper currency presented a temporary benefit as the pressure on import prices was effectively masked and they managed to export more. However, the hedging doesn’t last so the costs are now going up; the European nurses don’t want to work here anymore and clients don’t perceive us as being as international as they used to. And it’s a sad situation when the main reason for an increase in export is low prices. The future doesn’t look good.

 
Do you have contact with other Belgians in the UK?

Many indeed. There is the Vlaamse Club, Flanders House, the BLCC and the Anglo-Belgian Club who organise various events. Over the years, we’ve established a wide circle of Belgian friends.

 
Any professional contacts with Belgium?

Yes, Monocle now has a presence in Antwerp at Graanmarkt13. Maybe one day Monocle and Winkreative can help Belgium with a proper marketing campaign.

 
Do you visit Belgium regularly?

We go back regularly, sometimes even just for the weekend which is easy via the Eurotunnel. We like to spend time at the Belgian coast; we go in the summer and at Christmas. Belgium is still my home. I’m very pleased my son speaks Dutch, it’s allowed him to set up his own little circle of Belgian friends and in July, one of his friends is coming over to stay with us and learn and practice English.

 
What are your future aspirations?

I would love to support Belgian companies creating foothold in the UK one way or another and play a role in that. In time, I hope to take professional responsibilities on both sides of the channel.