CFO World

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


For the longest time, people have used words like ‘plumbing’  to describe technology. Yet as digital becomes a critical aspect of every facet of business, it’s clear organisations and brands are being defined by the experiences technology enables.

That’s the view of Publicis Sapient global CEO, Nigel Vaz, who CMO had the opportunity to catch up with while on a trip this week to Sydney. The experienced agency, strategy and transformation executive, who is 100 days into his role as inaugural global CEO, is tasked with uniting the agency’s creativity, technology, human-centred design and engineering capabilities in order to better help clients derive value from transformation.

And it’s high time organisations did shake things up, Vaz says. While digital transformation has arguably been occurring for 30-odd years now, it’s only in the last five years digital truly shifted from “tangential to existential”, he says.

“Pre-five years ago, digital was nice to have and interesting to do; today, you may not survive or even exist let alone thrive if you don’t master what needs to be mastered around what it takes to make everything digital,” Vaz claims.

Yet stumbling blocks remain underfoot. For Vaz, the big one is realising technological change requires cultural change.

“A lot of people still don’t appreciate digital is affecting the business model, your interactions with customers, is helping you become more efficient and to take cost out of your business, and is ultimately about creating a better experience,” he says. “That combination of how I drive growth, take cost out of the business, become a better provider of experiences to customers – there are stumbling blocks in each of those areas.” 

What’s more, being digital is not having an IT department knowing more about technology than the next person’s IT department, Vaz says.

“Historically, you’d see people conflating these two things. IT actually has always been about risk and cost; digital to me is about technology, but also strategic differentiation and value,” he explains. 

“The reasons the digital brands we all love exist and are so successful is because of a few connected fundamentals. The first is the ability to envision a different future than the one existing today. The second is to design that. The third is to engineer it. Then of course the more successful ones are monetising it. But even if you haven’t worked out the monetisation path, if you have the first three, you will have millions using your products and services.”

Here, Vaz shares why he’s convinced there’s more opportunity than ever for digital to transform businesses, the CEO-CMO relationship, his views on the impact of customer centricity and the experience economy on brand building, plus how marketers better harness digital and data to drive even more creativity.

Through all your conversations with organisations about transformation, are you still seeing a disconnect between the CEO and the CMO?

Nigel Vaz: A CMO’s approach determines the role they play in the context of transformation. In organisations where CMOs are starting to represent the customer’s point of view, not marketing, the alignment between CMO and CEO is very strong. That’s because CEOs are fundamentally bothered about the future of their business. If in their CMO they have a partner representing the voice of the consumer in the organisation, that’s very different to someone who is functionally executing marketing – one subset of the voice of the customer.

Marketing, by its traditional definition, is about broadcasting what the company does. This is in contrast to the voice of the customer, which literally means representing a customer perspective within an organisation to shape everything the company is doing. The more transformative the CMO, the more they’re representing the voice of the customer in the business to transform everything – from product to service, experience and marketing. The more marketing-focused the CMO, the more those other aspects are being picked up by other people, and the more you see a CEO relying on other leaders to drive transformation.

We’ve had digital transformation in train for some time. More recently, the buzz phrase has been customer-led transformation. What’s the juxtaposition between the two?

I see one is a subset of the other, with digitally transforming your business being the superset. Why you are digitally transforming your business could be because you want to be customer-led. Many say it’s the right way to do it today, and I won’t disagree.

Having said that, it’s about having the trifecta of customer, efficiency and experience. If you’re leading a transformation that’s customer-led, that could mean an orientation around growth and creating new products and services. But it could also mean that while creating value for the customer, you’re helping the business be more efficient.

Looking at transformations more broadly: Some are driven by making the business more efficient, while others focus on growth. There’s no reason a cost-focused transformation couldn’t also recognise a better experience and be customer-led. Equally, there is transformative work where there is no ‘customer’ involved because it’s in the supply chain, or operations area. There, I’d replace the word ‘customer’ with ‘user’. At some point, there is always a human being involved, and there’s a need to focus on how you make that human being’s experience better.

Is that why we’re seeing so much emphasis placed on human-centred design as part of modern transformation programs?

I think there’s always been an appreciation transformation and technology need to bring in more humanistic thought. We helped pioneer human-centred design 20-odd years ago – John Maeda, our chief experience officer, has written 3-4 books on the subject – so it’s been there for some time. What I think people lacked is appreciation for the ‘unlock’ such thinking can create.

Think about how technology used to be introduced, from your car to your home: Someone had a vision, created this thing, then you were given it and had to change your behaviour around it. More and more, people are seeing the benefits of going the other way and asking the question: What if we change the thing to suit the people? And thereby enabled people to be more efficient and better?

This idea of human-centred design, or customer-centric thinking, gets back to this notion the unlock is in changing the thing to fit the people, as that in turn creates more loyalty, connection, efficiency and productivity from a person.

Just think about how many times you see people in call centres, hotels or airports using tools not fit-for purpose. I was speaking to the CEO of a hotel group who has one full-time person in the front desk staff just to help manage the four systems it takes to check someone in. Imagine if it was just one system.

Digital and data maturity has triggered much more rational thinking around marketing and measurement. Some argue this has had a detrimental impact on marketing through short-termism and lack of investment in the bigger brand picture. What’s your take on digital and data-driven thinking versus creative, brand building?

I don’t think it is digital and data driving more short-term behaviour; if you’re a company living quarter by quarter, you think quarter by quarter – the data might just give you some ammunition to do that more. If you’re a company existing to serve a higher purpose and the experience the customers get is paramount over the long term, that’s what you choose to focus on. That’s the culture of the organisation.

So I think a lot the conversations around digital and data is making us more short term is a cop out. There’s nothing that says just because you have more real-time insights, you can’t be more strategic. In fact, I’d argue if you were a more strategic business, such insights might be giving you a lead on things you should do 10 years from now. What a lot of transformation work is doing is driving self-examination of these kinds of cultures existing in our organisations.

The other thing we do as an industry is talk about creativity and data as mutually exclusive. We have this belief creativity used to be this lone marketing genius sitting in a room who was suddenly hit by amazing inspiration and voila, brilliant things happened. In reality, that person is nothing but the sum of all their experiences. Just look at any big movement in history, such as the Renaissance: It’s been proven Da Vinci was as much a mathematician as an artist and engineer. The disciplines are interconnected.

The modern marketing and advertising industry was fundamentally built on technology. Television is nothing but a tech platform on which your creativity exists. For the last 30-odd years, we have narrowly judged marketing’s creativity by advertising executions across that platform. That advertising wouldn’t have existed without the innovation of TV. Had TV not been built, those marketers would have been painting posters, which is what their predecessors did. You could go further back and suggest if Gutenberg didn’t invent the printing press, we wouldn’t have had those executives doing posters either.

There is a symbiotic relationship between technology and creativity; technology in the context of creativity is at its service. As is data. If you are a creative person, you should be leveraging every tool and stimulus you can get.  

Would you argue artificial intelligence (AI) also fits into this perspective as a creative enabler then?

Absolutely. Everything has been augmenting us to some degree. Twenty years ago, technology was augmenting our ability to talk to 1 million people. One hundred years before that, it was augmenting our power to physically draw and paint because we could print.

AI seems like the final frontier, just because it’s the current frontier. AI, just like everything else, will augment us in many tasks we don’t necessarily want to do, or ought not to be doing. And there will be other pursuits that will continue to evolve. You can see it in many more creative fields than advertising.

James Cameron, for example, talks about how he had to invent the camera to film Avatar before the movie could be made. That’s an incredible example of one of the most creative filmmakers of our generation being unable to do the thing he had in his head without technology. Similarly, I look at AI, ML and data as platforms allowing us to make the next set of creative leaps.

Up next: What Publicis Sapient is doing to stay relevant, plus Vaz's take on the competitive landscape for holding companies

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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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