Mark Sebba – who died suddenly and far too soon on Monday evening – was a fine Trustee of the V&A. We joined the museum in the same week, back in August 2013, he as Chair of V&A Enterprises, me as Deputy Director. Meeting him for the first time, at the much missed Brompton Bar & Grill was a daunting and thrilling prospect, with his extraordinary reputation as CEO of Net-a-Porter a real statement of intent about the V&A’s ambitions commercially and digitally.
It quickly became apparent that the stereotype of an e-commerce trailblazer – slick, impatient and inflexible – was not going to apply. I can’t remember meeting anyone who so instinctively understood the role of a trustee as a critical friend, a partner and sage advisor. From the beginning the qualities that stood out were his ability to listen, to reflect and consider, to understand his new colleagues on a very human level – allied of course to a sharp and forensic mind, and an almost schoolboy excitement for the possibilities and opportunities that lay ahead.
We worked very closely together over those first 12 months, hatching a plan to draw the V&A’s commercial activities and future aspirations – particularly with the V&A’s foundations so closely linked to national economic ambitions – into the centre ground of museum life, thinking and strategy. He was endlessly patient, imaginative and, crucially, available. This is not the time to measure his contribution in statistics, but the evidence is there for all to see 5 years on.
Mark’s championing of key infrastructural investments in the digital estate and Customer Relationship Management, of course hit his sweet spot, representing the leitmotif of his tenure as a trustee, drawing from his wealth of experience at Net-a-Porter, and from his personal network of talent and creative thinking with great enthusiasm, but very little insistence, to accelerate our digital ambitions.
I, and many colleagues from across the V&A will fondly remember, and greatly miss, his relentless generosity with his time – regularly pitching up unannounced to one of the digital media team’s staff showcases, diving into the finer points of software development, even more or less proof-reading the annual report and accounts – often well below the radar. He did it because he enjoyed it, because he liked to be part of the team, to make a contribution, but above all because he was at his best working closely with people, mentoring, coaching and supporting, but with the lightest possible touch.
I lost count of the number of times that Mark said “You really must say if I’m getting in the way, or getting to to involved in the detail”. There is no such thing as the perfect trustee, but we will remember Mark Sebba as someone who came pretty close.