Publicis Sapient global CEO: Brands are being defined by the experiences tech enables

Consultancy's global chief executive, Nigel Vaz, shares why he’s convinced there’s more opportunity than ever for digital to transform businesses, the CEO-CMO relationship, plus how marketers better harness digital and data to drive even more creativity

Nigel Vaz
Nigel Vaz

You have been appointed CEO of Publicis Sapient at what is a transformative time for the business. As you strive to unify the brand, what are doing to do to bring all those pieces together?

I’ve been in transition to this role for a long time, so I’ve spent 20 years helping build the company. What’s really important for me now is we recognise the strategic positioning digital occupies in the world of our clients. And that we’re positioned to capitalise on that to deliver them value.

The way we’re trying to deliver that is by fusing these different cultures we have nurtured over the years – design and experience, strategy and consulting, product management and development, and engineering.

What digital businesses do particularly well is be very clear about the problems they are put on the planet to solve. They’re very focused on their users, experiences they’re designing, and they’re very adept at engineering those. And they’re using the learnings from data to constantly refine. So to help our clients to complete on those dimensions, we need to weave together a breadth of skills, too.

Publicis, which has been around for 90 years, is there helping brands build relationships with consumers with a powerful value proposition. That story is still great, but it’s one half of the picture. Firstly, the brand has to build a relationship with the consumer, by essentially getting its message to the right person at the right time and to the right channel. For us at Sapient, it’s then how we help that consumer experience a brand, product or service in a way that ensure the brand delivers on that promise.

Looking at Publicis’ competitive landscape, you’re clearly facing a situation where there’s an incredible amount of overlap and change – just look at the consulting houses buying creative, digital and media agencies. How do you respond to that?

For all the talk, I don’t think the consulting businesses and agency holding companies are competitors; they overlap in a very narrow way. So I personally believe this talk of consulting businesses eating the lunch of holding companies is a little premature.

The reality is there are very few global CMOs awarding global campaigns or advertising contracts globally to consulting groups. Most of the challenges holding companies face are around how they restructure and transform in order to be more relevant to their core audience of the CMO.

Yes, in specific instances, Publicis is seeing competition from new players. But I’d argue that’s largely because Publicis bought someone like us, which now puts the group squarely in competition with people we at Publicis Sapient always competed with.

My analogy for the marketing and advertising space is from Game of Thrones. There was a construct introduced in the show in season one of ‘white walkers’; the undead things that were going to come back and kill everybody. That’s where we are in the marketing and advertising space right now: We are in Game of Thrones season one and the white walkers are coming. By season seven, the white walkers get destroyed in a single episode, because everyone else in the show gets their shit together.

For us as an industry, we have six seasons to figure out what we do to determine a positive outcome from that forthcoming battle. Of course, if we haven’t gotten it together by season seven, we could face an existential threat. But between now and then, we have some runway.

There’s not to say any constituency has it all figured out right now. If anyone had figured out the answer, all these companies would have transformed already. But I also don’t think transformation is something you can do, or for, a client. You have to do it with them. It essentially means they need to change too.

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