Rachel Bremer on the Impact of Global Perspective

Mixing Board Studio Session

Mixing Board
19 min readMar 20, 2023

Rachel Bremer is the Chief Marketing and Communications Officer at Balderton Capital, one of the top European VCs that invests in technology companies from seed stage to IPO. Before that, she ran global communications at ASOS, a leading online fashion destination. Rachel’s remit included corporate communications, public affairs, consumer PR, influencer marketing, and overseeing the brand’s quarterly print magazine.

Before joining ASOS, Rachel spent four and half years at Twitter where she was hired by Mixing Board Founder, Sean Garrett, to join as the first communications team member outside the US. She started with a focus on the UK and eventually ran the EMEA and international communications teams, developing the strategy, hiring a team, and working with external stakeholders around the world to help deliver Twitter’s messages, and protect the brand.

Rachel started her career at Sparkpr, a PR agency based in San Francisco. After four years at Spark, Rachel moved to London to start the agency’s European operations, where she’s been ever since.

In this Studio Session, Rachel and Sean talk about the lessons from Twitter; the best way to expand into Europe; why European companies are so good at direct-to-consumer comms; and, how to consider making the leap from America to Europe as a practitioner.

SG: Tell me about all the things you’re doing at Balderton.

RB: I oversee comms and marketing, which includes events, our portfolio communities, PR, content, website, and brand. When I arrived and looked at how much was happening — it was a ton of activity. The team in place was strong and the output was really impressive. The shift that needed to happen, though, is the age-old story of moving from a reactive to a proactive approach. How do we focus on the few things that are really going to move the needle for us, and do them consistently enough that we can actually see an impact? We want to be the ones defining that, as the comms and marketing team, rather than it just being hoisted on us based on happenstance.

SG: You’re an American in London. How did you find your way there?

RB: I started my career in San Francisco in 2002, right as the first dot-com bubble had burst. I moved out there after college, had a family friend who was like, “I know this small PR agency. I could get you an internship.” Which was lucky because nobody was hiring — companies were going out of business left and right. It was not a great time to move to San Francisco. But I was lucky and was able to start with SparkPR, founded by two women who came out of Netscape, in the original internet era.

Because the team was so small, I was thrown in at the deep end and learned by doing. It was hard and intense, but a great way to learn things fast. We worked with clients like Skype and Nvidia and VC firms like Index Ventures. We also worked with a lot of reporters, who are still around to this day — Brad Stone, Kara Swisher, and Steven Levy. Fast forward 20 years, and it’s still a lot of the same people covering tech.

About five years into my time at Spark, I was getting a bit antsy and thinking about what might come next. Around that same time, Index was encouraging Spark to open an office in London. They saw a gap in the tech PR market and thought their portfolio companies would benefit from having someone on the ground who could act as a bridge for those wanting to expand into the US. When I was offered the opportunity to be Spark’s person on the ground, I immediately jumped at the chance. I had just gotten married the year before, and my husband and I packed up everything we had and moved.

I was a one-man band here for a long time. I had to figure out, what is Spark in London? What’s our offer? How are we different from the other firms here? What value can we provide and how do we build a network — of clients and reporters — from scratch? I spent five years with Spark in London, working with some of the best UK and European startups of that time, and grew a little team here. Ultimately, I think we were most well-known for our ability to understand technology and translate that into something that’s interesting for reporters.

And then, I got a call from Twitter.

SG: Some weirdo at Twitter.

RB: You probably know this part of the story better than I do! I think you guys had gotten my name from talking to reporters and asking, “Who do you like working with?” So I owe Tim Bradshaw and Murad Ahmed a lot for that. But I remember, it was not an easy decision at the time. Twitter was still pretty new.

SG: We were still pretty janky at the time.

RB: There was no team in London then. Actually, I don’t think there was anyone outside of the US at all, besides a JV in Japan. And financially, it was less money upfront, which had to be part of the consideration. It wasn’t clear that Twitter was going to be a huge hit then, or even survive at all. I used it tons and loved it, but it still felt like a small community where you almost knew everybody in it. It did feel risky, but I thought getting experience inside a company was important. I had been working for about 10 years at that point, but never been in-house. I made the leap, and it was terrifying at first.

Up until that point, my whole job had been selling startups to press and trying my hardest to get them to write about my clients. All of a sudden, I was in the opposite position — turning down most requests with a “No comment,” or no response at all. Or our favorite, which I think you came up with, “We don’t comment on individual accounts.” That was really difficult, it went against every bone in my body. I had never been in the position where there was more interest than we wanted and it took some getting used to.

SG: It’s one thing to be in London and to work for a company that’s based in the US. But it’s another thing to work for Twitter, which is on this insane, 24-hour, minute-by-minute news cycle, where you’re also trying to coordinate with people in California. If you look back 12 years, nobody was using Zoom or Slack, we didn’t have that. It was email and phone calls. And you’re dealing with Twitter, which was insane and always on. The questions you were getting were very UK specific and there were all of these UK specific issues that were happening — policy issues and legal issues that were popping up left and right.

RB: The London Riots, remember that? Another one was Ryan Giggs’ super-injunction, he was a famous footballer. And if there’s a super-injunction, no one is allowed to report on what’s happening in the case, or even who the case is about. But this was the first instance where that information was available on Twitter, but reporters couldn’t technically write about it. It was this huge existential question of, is this okay? It was the first time that the press were grappling with, what does content on Twitter mean? How do we use it? Is it credible? What rules apply to them? Why are they not the same rules that apply to us? And that was week one. Your team was also still really small. You guys were at the end of a fire hose every single day.

SG: And you’re expected to be an expert on super-injunctions immediately, right? I remember someone explaining to me what a super-injunction even was, it may have been you. Then I quickly had to explain to executives how we’re going to communicate about this, when literally that morning when I woke up, I didn’t even know what a super-injunction was.

What was it like working in the UK and reporting into a US, California-based startup? What advice would you give to companies that have international teams to better interoperate with the folks in their different regions?

RB: The absolute hardest thing is knowing where to go to find information. Especially when you’re new. You don’t even really know what the right question to ask is, much less who you should be asking, and how they like to communicate. Even knowing where to start when a reporter was coming to me or I was trying to track down information — it felt like a black hole for a long time.

There’s not an easy solution to that, but as much time that you can invest into understanding, who are my resources? Who are the people that I can build relationships with that can help point me in the right direction? Who is going to help me find the information I need when stuff is happening? Whether that’s the product team, the trust and safety team, or the legal team. You need to have a person in different parts of the organization that you can build a relationship with. When something is happening, half of our job is trying to figure out what the real story is before we can advise on how to respond. If you don’t know who to ask or where to start, the clock is ticking, some reporter is waiting for your response — having those relationships that you can use as a resource, or at least as a jumping off point, to find out what you need to find out quickly is important.

You also have to find the balance between the things that really do require sign-off and need to be directed from the US and from headquarters, versus where can you operate a bit on your own. You know enough, you have the basic structure, and you can make the decisions in real-time in your time zone. You’re not always going to get it right, there will be times where you move on something and you should’ve waited, or vice versa. But having the support of the team in the US that gives you a bit of runway and understands that you’re constantly facing decisions that can feel like there’s no right answer. But you’re doing your best to balance the tension between urgency and demands, versus the need to sync up with the HQ.

One piece of advice I would give to people considering roles at European companies that are headquartered in the US, is to ask a lot about this dynamic before taking the job. I was lucky at Twitter and with you and the team, where I had a good amount of autonomy. But if it’s the opposite — where you have to get approval on every single email — it can be really painful.

SG: How did it feel to go from being the first person on the ground, to evolving this function into something much bigger? What did you learn from that process?

RB: The fun part about the early days was that the team was so small. It was still the glory days for Twitter, everybody loved it. Of course there were those moments that had some conflict or tension, but for the most part, it was very well-loved. And no one had ever been physically on the ground in London, or Europe, for Twitter before. It was a really fun time to be there because we were doing everything together, we were making it up as we went along.

There was a ton of interest and open doors for us to walk through. We were making the decision as we grew about how to scale into other markets, where to put resources, do we hire, do we hire agencies? What’s the best approach? Where we ended up, which worked pretty well, was we worked in partnership with the media team. We were almost like an advance unit that would go into a new country, like Germany or France, and scope it out, do our due diligence, introduce ourselves, build relationships, and then determine what the approach should be for that market.

In most cases, we put an agency in place first, because it’s lower risk. You’re not tied into employment contracts, which in Europe can be very onerous and difficult to get out of. We’d find an agency in each market, normally an independent boutique agency, rather than one big network. We would spend as much time there as we could, and use the assets we had, which at the time was mostly Jack coming into town. We’d set up these mini tours in each market for him to meet press, meet partners, and try to establish a footprint for Twitter. That was the foundation we put in place.

Once we had our core markets established, we spent a lot of time thinking about our proactive strategy. But when you’re very small, you’re at the mercy of what’s coming through the door.

SG: And what’s coming through the Tweets.

RB: Exactly. Every reporter is on Twitter 24-hours-a-day, so there’s no getting around it. Once we had the beginnings of a structure in place, it gave us the head space to pause, take a step back, and think — yes, there’s all the reactive stuff we have to deal with, but that’s more damage control than it is having any positive, forward impact for the brand. What are the stories that we want to tell? What are the stories that we think will actually help people understand what Twitter is? Which was the biggest challenge back then.

It’s hard with Twitter because for every individual that uses it, it’s different. My Twitter is different than yours, which is different from the next person — the spectrum of use cases is infinite. How do we narrow down and pick the few things that we actually want to be telling proactive stories about? Things that we think are going to appeal to a broad enough group of people, that we can start bringing them in the door and give them a reason to use Twitter in a way that’s really understandable? And we didn’t have big comms and marketing budgets back then. We could pay for agencies and that was it.

I was fortunate to be able to build an incredible team of all-star comms people, and with the support of our agency partners, we were able to do some great work that really did have an impact. Museum Week was one of the big projects that we did for several years in a row, focused on arts and culture. We did Tweets of the Year, which was super painful, but it drove incredible amounts of coverage and showed that all the big things that happen in the world, happen on Twitter. That was the very beginning of our data comms efforts. That allowed us to balance the incoming, which you have to handle but isn’t really going to move the needle, with the really positive, proactive stuff, which can help balance it out.

SG: You did some things between Twitter and Balderton. Tell us about that.

RB: I left Twitter after about five years and joined a company called ASOS, an e-commerce fashion retailer primarily for 20-somethings. I was excited about that because I had been working for about 15 years, 10 in London, but always for American companies. There was always that tiny bit of frustration that I’m not in the room with the execs. Instead I’m seeing them once every quarter when they make a trip to Europe. I’m not there with the VP of Comms, where everything is happening. ASOS is headquartered in London and I’d be reporting directly into the CEO. I was interested in what that would be like.

I also thought it was a fun combination of fashion and retail, which was new to me. But still with a tech focus because they were entirely e-commerce. One of their goals was to build an interesting tech component to their brand. I looked after all of comms, consumer, corporate, influencer relations, and also got to edit the customer magazine for a little while.

They had a really great consumer fashion PR team already in place. A lot of my focus was on building up the corporate structure, not dissimilar to Twitter. There were lots of things that we were already reacting to, but what are the core pillars of our proactive messaging that we really want to be getting out there to our key audiences? How do we define what those are, what do we want to be known for? Then, what are the things that we’re doing to support each of those messages? And building out a team to do that. You’ll notice a theme emerging!

ASOS was also very early in figuring out how to work with influencers, but it wasn’t being done in any structured, strategic way. How can we just be smarter about the work we’re doing with this kind of emerging concept of influencer relations?

SG: And then from there, you went to Milltown?

RB: I took a break after ASOS for six months, which was absolutely incredible. After ASOS, I was a little burnt out on the big company politics, and I didn’t have the appetite to do another Comms Director or Comms VP role at a big company. The gas tank was empty on that front.

So I went to Milltown, a small-ish agency, about 100 people. What was really appealing to me about Milltown is that everyone there is nice and smart. The longer you go in your career, the more you realize working with nice people cannot be overestimated. I liked the small agency, more intimate feel, but still working with big brands; Facebook, Uber, Stripe, WhatsApp — the biggest tech brands, but advising from the outside rather than being there inside dealing with it every single day. It was a really caring, wonderful place to work, and it was exactly what I needed after ASOS.

SG: You sit between two worlds, you have companies coming from Europe into the US, and vice versa. The age-old issue for companies that are looking to communicate into Europe and the UK is similar to what you were dealing with at Twitter, which is, how do you go about doing that? Do you hire agencies, consultants? If you do agencies, do you need to have 10 different agencies? Can you have one big one? I’ve yet to hear a straightforward approach or solution. Why is it so hard and is it improving? What do you generally recommend to companies as a template on how to take that first step?

RB: In comms and marketing, you’re driven by the business and the business priorities. In a perfect world, the business would be very clear about, “In Europe, our priority markets are France and Germany.” But in reality, that’s not how it works. You have the guy who’s running the Nordics who really wants a lot of support in the Nordics, and then you’ve got someone in charge of Southern Spain who thinks their territory is the most important. The very initial, and probably most difficult, question is prioritization because you cannot do Europe as a blanket thing. It is very, very market-specific. On the plus side, there are more options in the markets now than there used to be, and there are more smaller agency partners to choose from.

I still don’t think that one agency network is the right approach in most cases. Because the problem is consistency. They might have a great team in France, but their team in Germany is subpar. Agencies are about the people that are going to work on your account. It’s not even the agency; it’s, who are the people on your team at that agency? It’s very hard to get a consistently high level of quality if you’re just picking one big network.

The other challenge was that agencies can easily be conflicted out. If you’re looking at an agency network, and at ASOS, we were an e-commerce company, they might be able to work with us in France, but they work with our competitor in Germany and therefore, we have to cross them off the list altogether. Depending on your company, it’s hard to find someone who doesn’t have any conflicts in any of the territories you’re trying to cover. Which then leads you down to picking best-in-class partners per market, but knowing you have to manage them well. Someone needs to have the capacity to do that, which kind of brings it back to prioritization.

The more that you can narrow the list down — choose one or two markets to start with, get those up and running, figure out what’s working, how much time it’s taking, and then slowly build on top of that over time. That’s a better approach than trying to pick eight countries in Europe and have them all kick off at the same time.

SG: Do you really need someone full-time who owns that? You can’t just be the VP of Comms and say, “We’re going to go into Europe, and I’m going to handle that in addition to all my other work,” right?

RB: It depends on your expectations, what you’re trying to do, and how busy your workflow is. If you’re a really small company, there aren’t many news announcements, and it’s just some light reporter engagement, you could probably do it as a subset of a Comms VP job. But as soon as there’s any steady activity in any of those markets, you need someone who’s dedicated to it. The agencies are only as good as the time you invest in them. You can’t expect great output if you’re not putting the time in to give them what they need and direct them constructively.

SG: What are the opportunities in Europe that are different than maybe just the US? One thing I always think is cool, is that the media markets are so tiny. In some countries, you can have a really big impact on reaching the entire populace of a country, through not a lot of effort. What are things you can do in Europe that are more creative or thoughtful, that you couldn’t do in a vast media landscape like the US?

RB: You can be a bigger fish in a smaller pond. You’re also not constantly competing with the big US tech giants. If you’re a homegrown German company talking to the German press, they like those stories, they’re looking for more technology that’s being developed in-market to write about. The flip side is that there aren’t that many reporters covering tech in all of these markets. In the US, you’ve got 100 people just writing about crypto. There are tons of potential targets. In Europe, you don’t have a crypto reporter. You have one reporter covering all of technology, if that. The list is shorter.

Companies in Europe understand that they can’t just rely on media as their growth and acquisition channels. The brands that come out of Europe are great at direct-to-consumer communications. They think very carefully about the product, how it’s designed, the UX and what that can do to communicate and grow the user base through the product itself, not just through external channels. You have to hustle more, make it up as you go along, and just figure out ways to reach people directly.

SG: If they get successful enough and extend into other markets, that may include the US, how are you counseling European startups to make that transition?

RB: The benefit for startups that have begun here, is most of them know that their goal is to be global, or at least multi-market. You can start a company in the US, and if you get big in the US, that’s enough. For some companies, being big in Germany is enough for them. But a lot of them know that their roadmap eventually has to include, at the minimum, other countries in Europe, but ideally, the US as well.

Other countries in Europe, those are very, very different places. This is stating the obvious, but you have to approach France differently than Spain, which is different from the Nordics and so on. Having that muscle built in from the very beginning is really useful and it gives European companies an advantage when it comes to global expansion. Because everything that you have to adapt — from payment processing, to languages, to customer service, to comms, to partnerships — you’ve already figured out how to do that. So you can then take the framework and apply it to whatever the next market is that you’re trying to enter.

The challenge, when it comes to the US, is it’s just so big and the competitive landscape is so much different than it would be if you’re a French company entering Spain. And the amount of money that US companies have and spend on comms and marketing is significant.

SG: If you sit down with a French company that’s been really successful in France, they’ve also made inroads into Spain and Germany, and now want to launch in the US. What are you telling them?

RB: It depends a lot on the kind of company and who their customers are. ASOS was an interesting example, we worked really hard on cracking the US. It took the company a long time to realize that the US is actually not just one place, either. New York is very different than Texas, which is very different than California. And ultimately, where they got to was a much more localized strategy. We weren’t trying to reach all of the US — we zoomed in on specific parts of Manhattan where we had decent engagement and could see the potential to grow further.

It’s not dissimilar to Europe really — prioritizing where you want to start and building a base to grow from, rather than thinking you’re going to cover all of the US in one swoop.

The other mistake that European companies can make is not having enough expertise from actual Americans as they are building out teams. Just like if you’re an American coming over to Europe, you’re not going to have the same cultural background that someone who grew up here does. Make sure that you have the in-house expertise to understand the market that you’re entering.

SG: Is there a market right now in Europe that you think is under the radar that companies should explore? And if you are successful there, it could actually be an interesting place to dig in?

RB: I don’t know that there is anymore. It used to be Poland. Back in the Twitter days, Poland was this untapped opportunity. They were very open to new technologies, it wasn’t impossible to communicate there. With not a huge budget, you could have quite a big impact. I don’t know that that exists anymore.

There is a lot of excitement around Portugal right now. People are moving there and companies are being started there — a lot more than in the past. I would imagine that probably has a trickle-down impact on early adopter tech awareness, and the whole ecosystem that gets built around startups when there are more and more popping up. That would probably be one to watch.

SG: If you’re a young person thinking it’d be so cool to move to London or move to Europe and do comms in Europe or the UK, and be like Rachel. What recommendations would you give to someone before they make that leap?

RB: Don’t overthink it. If I thought about it for too long, I probably wouldn’t have gone. Yes, everyone speaks English in London, but it’s a different country and it’s far away. You’re rebuilding your networks, your friendships, starting all of that from scratch, which can feel scary and overwhelming. So don’t think about it too much, just do it, because it’s such an incredible experience, whether you’re here for two years or fifteen. I’ve been here 16 years now and have two kids who were born in London, which is crazy. Taking a step outside of the US gives you a different perspective on the world that’s hugely valuable, even if it’s just for a short period of time.

It can have a really positive impact on how you think in general, once you see that not everything in the world revolves around the US. And there are really important points of view from other countries that value things differently and have different priorities. The more that we can have people understand that global perspective, the healthier the whole debate will be.


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