Nigel Vaz, Global CEO of Publicis Sapient serves as Publicis Groupe’s Global Lead of Digital Business Transformation. Having held a variety of leadership positions with Sapient prior to its acquisition by Publicis Groupe, he now serves as a member of its Executive Committee, charged with identifying opportunities to help clients drive growth and efficiency and evolve the ways they work in a world where consumer behavior and technology are catalyzing social and commercial change at an unprecedented pace.
In his current role leading a business with expertise spanning technology & engineering, consulting and experience, Nigel acts as a strategic advisor on complex transformation initiatives that accelerate the businesses of clients. Prior to Sapient, he was a successful entrepreneur – co-founding a public company with interests in telecoms, consulting and connectivity solutions. He has also been a key advisor for a number of companies including AT&T/Cingular, McKinsey and Company, Orange, Siemens, Telkom SA, Verizon Wireless and Vodafone.
In a candid conversation with People Matters, Nigel shares his journey with Publicis Sapient, sheds light on how the organization has stayed true to its core purpose of creating an impact on the world through multiple transformations and talks about how he is leading a startup club for a couple of nine-year-olds in London.
You began your journey with Sapient in 2002. How's your journey been so far, and what would you describe as the highlight of your journey here?
I think what's incredible about Sapient is that when I met our founders before I started at the company, I had some long conversations with them about clients and opportunities. For me, what was really interesting is that the company was designed very thoughtfully to have a culture that was about constant learning and evolving and was built around a purpose to create a bigger impact in the world.
If I look at what stayed constant through my journey it's our purpose and values and how people work with each other. I feel like I've had five jobs in that time period in different companies because while we've kept the core of who we are, the markets that we choose to work in, the focus that we've had has evolved pretty dramatically.
We were, back in the nineties, in the internet and dotcom business and then we moved from there to building a new kind of consulting model and then to disrupting the agency space, to now being a transformation partner. So, I describe it as having the opportunity to work in many different startups with the same parent company.
Who has been the most influential leader in your life? What were some of the learnings you took from them that you could implement in your career?
It's very hard to pick one. I would say, there have been a few over the course of my career. You need to take the perspective of a person that you admire in a particular context. Like Jerry Greenberg, the Co-founder of Sapient used to say, "you got nothing more important to say when a client's talking." And I think that's just a fascinating piece of advice. You've got two ears and one mouth in that ratio for a reason, you're listening more than you're speaking, you're asking questions, and you're trying to learn. And in the context of people, Sapient’s other founder Stuart Moore, was very much the architect of a lot of our cultural frameworks. He always talked about the fact that ultimately we are a people business.
Our people are our only assets, so people can never be resources. That's why our people teams have never been called human resources. Instead, they are addressed as People Success because their job is to make the rest of our people successful.
As I look back at the situations I’ve found myself in, I've always been very fortunate to be able to draw from leaders that were really fantastic in all of these different aspects. Thus I wouldn't say there was one particular leader, but certainly in the context of my professional career, Jerry and Stu, Sapient’s co-founders were really pivotal influences.
Sapient has been in the business of digital transformation and has itself gone through several transformations from SapientNitro to SapientRazorfish and now Publicis Sapient. What is the one thing that has remained constant within the organization through all these changes?
I think when Sapient was founded, the purpose of the company was articulated in many different ways. However the articulation, the purpose of the company has always been to have a really transformative impact on the world. And that was the raison d'être, the genesis of Sapient. What's been fascinating as I've had the opportunity to spend time with Maurice Levy, who's the chairman of Publicis Groupe and Arthur Sadoun, the CEO of the Groupe. Their focus on having an impact on an industry that has been around for so many years is equally powerful. Today the stage that we're playing on is so much bigger because we're part of a much bigger entity. And these leaders, from a Publicis perspective, share that same passion that was always true of the Sapient DNA, which is how are we going to make a difference in the world. How are we not only going to change our company, but potentially change the industry and create a new model for people to follow.
What lens do you apply when you are contemplating enforcing a large scale change in the organization?
I think the first thing is that change becomes extraordinarily hard when people don't have two things. One, a very clear vision of where you're going. And second, why are you going where you're going? To implement change you need to first lay out the context. Then explain to people all of the choices that they need to make, and the changes required as an organization in the context of the first. The last step is to constantly measure everything you execute.
Basically, when I think about change management, it is about - context, choices, execution. Those are the three buckets.
How different are the risks for well-established organizations vs relatively newer organizations or startups?
I think there are individual advantages and disadvantages. If you are a startup, one of the biggest advantages you have is the ability to imagine or reimagine a future entirely from the ground up. And that's what we see startups do very well. The challenge that most startups have is to go from a startup to scaling up and becoming a successful and profitable company. The odds are very small. Not because startups don't have the ability to imagine, but there is a big gap between imagining something and executing it. And then there is an even bigger gap between executing something at small scale and scaling that up.
Larger organizations have successful businesses, so they have a lot to lose. Therefore, they have a lot of people focused on protecting the status quo and not enough people pushing the business to fundamentally re-imagine themselves.
I think for me the balance is when you get both those things happening together.
If you look at Netflix, the company has done an amazing job of going from delivering DVDs to providing streaming services and today producing their own content. Imagine the kind of people you need in a company when you're posting DVDs back and forth to when you're streaming and then when you're making your own content. It's a big shift, right? But as a startup, they had the ability to kind of reimagine all of the time.
On the other side of the spectrum, you have a company like Disney, which has been around for a long time, has a tremendous amount of legacy, owns properties like Pixar, Marvel and Lucas Films, which are long franchises of content. They also have these theme parks. What they are trying to do is figure out how to transform themselves to be a more digital business. And they are starting to move what is a very big physical business into the digital space. They are now launching Disney Plus. And Disney Plus is basically saying, we're going to take all the assets we have and compete in the digital world with a platform that is similar to Netflix.
Success isn't necessarily determined by a start-up approach or a large company transforming approach. Success is determined by the characteristics of being able to have a vision and the ability to disrupt yourself.
The narrative that people often like to talk about in the corporate world is a start-up versus a behemoth organization. But the reality is it's not that, it's the more successful ones versus the ones that will die.
How do you as a leader invest in upskilling yourself as you lead a global workforce through transformation, split across multiple geographies and generations?
The first thing that I do is spend time with people to learn about their perspectives. Like a town hall is not just about the business, it’s also an opportunity for me to learn and understand about our people through my interactions with them.
You have to stay connected to the people that you are leading. It can't ever become an ivory tower exercise.
The minute people become some kind of numbers in a spreadsheet that you don't really have much perspective about, there's a risk.
The other is that we're very fortunate in today's day and age where we have access to a large number of resources to learn from. I'm a huge believer in continuous learning, so I'm always keen to understand what's the next generation thinking about? What are the tools they're using? I run a startup club for my nine-year-old son and some of his friends at school where every weekend we get together for a couple of hours and we'd come up with ideas for how a group of nine-year-olds think that the companies that they interact with every day and every week, could be better. And it's amazing what you can learn from a group of kids. Today we have access to a ton of knowledge coming from everywhere, it's always an opportunity to learn, to understand, and develop your own perspective.
In a world that deems both customer experience and employee experience a priority, how do you as a leader prioritize without letting one impact the other? How do you strike that balance?
Well see it's a tough situation because I think you can't have one without the other. I'd say you can't have a good customer experience unless you actually have a good employee experience. Let me give you an example. If you actually look at an amazingly well-designed website, show me any website around the world that you think is a really good website, and behind that website I will show you a really well-designed content management system, which is really easy for the people who are managing that website to use so they can drag and drop content and it's easy for them to upload and move stuff around. Because the people who are designing the system understood that if you don't design the experience for the people who are going to create the experience for the customers, the experience that the customers will have is bad.
One of the things that's shifting now is that experience is no longer linear. What I mean by that is, if you're the customer and I'm the person who's building a product or a service for you, it's less important that I'm here all of the time for you and I create the tools and the support systems for you to be able to do something. Taking banking as an example. Why do banks work from nine to five? Because they can't have somebody sitting there 24 hours a day. But then we moved from that kind of banking, to online banking where there's no person, but there's a system and this system allows you to do banking 24 hours a day because there's no people involved in it. So it's better for the person and it's a better experience for the customer. Because you know what, if I want to transfer money, I don't have to wait till the bank opens tomorrow morning and call the person in the branch. I can go online and set it up now and maybe it'll happen tomorrow. But from my perspective, it's happened now. I don't have to worry about it tomorrow.
I think we're going to see a lot of situations where companies are starting to be very thoughtful about the experience of their employees because the experience of their employees, in turn, is going to actually make a difference to the customer at the end.
I don't think they are going to be either or. I don't think there is a situation where you can say I have to make a choice between a good employee experience or customer experience. Those two things go hand-in-hand.
With digital transformation becoming an industrial revolution in itself, what myths and mental blocks do people need to overcome?
When we talk about digital transformation it is nothing but transformation in the context of a world that is entirely digital. However, the first assumption is that it's got to do entirely with technology, when in fact the first place it starts is with people and human behavior.
As a consumer, our behavior is changing at an exponential pace, so is our behavior within companies, because we as people are changing. So our expectations of the kind of companies we want to work in, the tools we want to use are dramatically shifting. There is a change in human behavior and people behavior. That's one driver. The second is access to capital or new economic models. Now some might argue that there's too much money being thrown into business models that don't work. But by and large, if you don't have new business models, it's very hard to imagine this transformation taking hold because otherwise a lot of companies would protect the status quo. Let me give you an example. If I told you 10 years ago that I could stay in your house when you're not there and I live in it for a while, and you could stay in mine and we would never have to know each other. That would seem like an insane proposition. But today Airbnb is proving that model works just fine. Millions of people are staying in each other's homes without ever having met and not having much to do with each other. Speaking of startups, a massive unicorn that's public is Uber and Uber has no inventory of cars, yet its valuation is greater than some of the biggest car companies. These business models are happening because there's access to capital and the opportunity to create new models, but it's also predicated on consumer behavior. And then the final leg of that three- legged stool, which creates the platform effect is technology and the ability of technology to help realize these interesting business models and enable this behavior that people are trying to adopt.
If all those three things didn't happen at the same time, you wouldn't get this exponential effect.
So when you talk about myths, one of the things that companies often think about is that this progression is happening in a linear fashion. And the reality is the progression is exponential. And that's very hard for businesses to get used to.
The minute it becomes exponential, you get explosions. We're not actually geared to deal with that exponential challenge. People, by and large, were never designed to move at an exponential pace. And now that is effectively what we're being forced to do. You're talking to entire companies, whether they're fashion or healthcare or retail and basically asking them to unlearn everything they've learned and relearn it every few years. Everything that you learned three years ago, four years ago, is irrelevant. You've now got to relearn. I think that that is the hardest challenge to overcome in the context of transformation, to recognize that the rate of change is exponential and the scale of change is greater than it's ever been.
What are you most looking forward to in 2020?
What I am always excited about is the talent and the capability we bring into the organization and the people that we develop over the course of that year. So at the end of 2020, I'm looking forward to seeing who are the leaders that we would have grown and developed and who are some of the new people we’ve brought into the business that become our people. And then ultimately seeing the kind of transformational impact we create. I love reflecting at the end of the year on the impact we created in the world for companies that wouldn't be as successful had they not been working with us. And as I go into any year, I love to visualize which companies we’d want to transform the next year.