Headlines daily speak to shifts in the agency world, as consultancies further encroach on traditional ad-agency territory (think Accenture Interactive’s acquisition of Droga5, announced last week). Many shops have been building out their tech- and digital-transformation chops in an effort to woo clients whose priorities are increasingly in developing tech-driven brand experiences and personalization rooted in sophisticated data and digital capabilities.
Publicis Sapient is advertising, marketing and media holding company Publicis Groupe’s digital-business division and answer to that new reality among CMOs, and under that umbrella it now houses all digital-transformation capabilities. Earlier this year it named as global CEO Nigel Vaz, a leader with roots in technology as well as business strategy. Vaz spent many years at Sapient, born at the time of the original “interactive shops” of decades before but that was set apart from the rest in its technological prowess as an “internet solutions” company. Publicis Groupe acquired Sapient in 2015. Previously Vaz led Publicis Sapient’s European business as CEO in EMEA and APAC, and also played a key role in the integration of Razorfish to create SapientRazorfish as a component of Publicis Sapient.
“I have always divided my time between consulting and advising clients on transformation initiatives that accelerate their businesses; on evolving our strategy and brand positioning; and on championing our people, culture and values,” he said. Now as CEO he oversees services for clients such as Lloyds Banking Group, BNP Paribas, Carrefour, M&S and Unilever.
I caught up with him recently to learn more about where Publicis Sapient sits in the competitive set and also the trends he’s seeing regarding CMO expectations and agencies’ evolving role. Our edited interview follows.
Jenny Rooney: Talk a little bit about the history of Sapient and where it exists in the competitive landscape today.
Nigel Vaz: Sapient has been helping to build digital businesses for almost 30 years by reimagining the future of not just their own business but their industry. Partnering with clients across industries, we have helped organizations stay relevant in the digital age—launching some of the first online banks, stock trading platforms and some of the largest retail commerce platforms. We have also helped to create services for our clients, such as: the ability to withdraw money from ATMs using a mobile device; to manage and share energy bills across a multi-occupancy household; and, some years ago, the ability to pick your own airline seats online for the first time – with seat selection going on to become most airlines’ biggest revenue generator after airfares.We are able to differentiate ourselves in the competitive landscape by combining the strengths of consultancies and agencies—having brought together deep industry expertise and innovation capabilities. We have expertise across the enterprise: strategy and consulting, engineering, data and AI, design and innovation. Our core strength lies in our ability to provide a unique view of both the client and their customers customer at the same time—bringing an outside-in customer perspective together with a deep inside-out understanding of the client’s business. This allows us to drive customer-centric digital transformation to help clients drive growth and efficiency and to evolve the ways in which they work. By helping organizations become digital at the core, we help brands to adopt a consumer-first strategy by breaking silos between their marketing, operations and IT departments.
Rooney: What trends have you been witnessing vis-à-vis CMOs’ needs in terms of digital marketing, digital transformation?
Vaz: Client CMOs have typically been more focused on experience-led initiatives but are increasingly partnering with others in the C-suite to connect broader change initiatives and inject innovative thinking and processes permeating other aspects of the organization. Driven by changing consumer behaviors and rapidly, constantly evolving technologies, CMOs are adopting new ways of reaching consumers as their organizations adopt new ways of doing business. They are advancing value to customers through better-connected experiences, while exploring the ways in which digitization of the whole business can drive growth and maximize efficiencies. CMOs’ needs differ: Some are focused on customers and design; some are technology-driven; and others require taking a holistic approach to revamping the business. Even one, seemingly small improvement in customer experience can require changes across multiple levels of an enterprise. Consider the digital enablement of a typical drive-through restaurant. The benefits are evident: A mobile platform would reduce costs, increase revenue and benefit visitors’ overall experience. It would make “fast” food even faster. In order to deliver that improved experience, however, the business needs to look deep and wide at the other aspects of its operations—not just marketing. In the fast food example, the organization would need to be aware of exactly which car each customer was arriving in (something that can always change) and when, not to mention the amount of in-kitchen and parking processes that need altering and adopting. By widening the paradigm of transformation to include multiple facets of the business, smart CMOs are identifying a point of untapped expectation within the customer journey (as pioneering airline brands did with the introduction of seat selection) and use it to illuminate a path of reimagination across the whole enterprise.
Rooney: How do you regard the talent challenge facing the marketing industry—and agencies in particular?
Vaz: For the complex problems we’re helping to solve for our clients, the traditional agency model is challenged. For us, the focus is about the right kind of talent for our clients: Where we partner with the CMO in a client company, we will look to hire designers and UX people, but equally for CIO-oriented requirements we recruit engineers and technologists. Across the Publicis Sapient business we want minds that can think on a more holistic level about customer journeys and the experiences that are required to craft elegant, innovative solutions. We value design thinking, agile process and people who want to work without silos.
Rooney: What do you make of the trend of CMOs developing in-house capabilities—digital, creative, etc.? What impact is that having on your relationships with clients?
Vaz: We would argue that this isn’t a trend—it’s a change that’s been under way for a while now both in the agency world and in the consulting or technology world, and it’s great for our business. Largely because our orientation is transformation, it’s something that has to be done with our clients not to or for them. What’s going on here is smart CMOs realize that being digital is a fundamental part of their business, not just their brand. But to fully realize this, they need to value and build capabilities like design, and by being fluent in design-thinking as an innovative, agile and collaborative process. Learning how to do this really, really well is one of the main reasons clients love working with Publicis Sapient. In most cases, our design and technology teams are made up of members of our team and the client’s team working together as one. The skills and process clients pick up working so closely with us often becomes the approach their own internal teams take on any design project they tackle in the future. Now, one could argue that by teaching clients our approach, we’re architecting our own obsolescence. Perhaps. But what we see is that the demand for teams that know how to work incredibly collaboratively with clients is far larger than the supply. So we do the right thing, and we both grow together. It’s working great.