As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Nigel Vaz, CEO of Publicis Sapient.
Nigel Vaz is the CEO of Publicis Sapient, the digital business transformation company. He is also a member of Publicis Groupe’s Executive Committee and serves as the French multinational’s Global Lead of Digital Business Transformation. He is responsible for consulting and advising clients on transformation initiatives that accelerate their businesses in a digital age and for evolving Publicis Sapient’s strategy and championing its people, culture, and core values. Nigel’s roots are in business strategy and technology. He has consistently helped clients build businesses and create sustainable value propositions for their brands by operating at the intersection of strategic thinking, creativity, and technology. Before Sapient, he was a successful entrepreneur, co-founding a public company with interests in telecoms, consulting, and connectivity solutions. Nigel has held various leadership positions during his tenure at Sapient, including Chief Strategy Officer and CEO of the business in EMEA and APAC. In his current position leading a business with expertise spanning technology, data sciences, consulting, and design, Nigel acts as a strategic advisor on complex transformation initiatives that accelerate the businesses of clients, including Marriott, McDonald’s, Lloyds Banking Group, Verizon and Unilever. Nigel is President-elect of the IPA (Institute of Practitioners in Advertising and board director of The Marketing Society. He is an inductee of the BIMA Digital Hall of Fame (British Interactive Marketing Association).
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I have always been fascinated by technology. I always imagined it to be the thing that imbues people with modern-day superpowers, so I pursued that passion by starting a company all about how technology was going to change business.
Post-acquisition of the company I started, I joined Sapient. I was drawn to the digital consultancy, now called Publicis Sapient because it also focused on helping businesses use technology as a strategic differentiator to transform businesses. Early on in my career with Sapient, I led the expansion beyond the US and grew the company to have a significant presence in EMEA and APAC.
I am now the Global Chief Executive Officer of Publicis Sapient. While the CEO role encompasses a breadth of responsibilities, I like to spend as much time as possible with our clients and our people. With clients, I enjoy discussing how their customers are evolving, new competitive threats, the role of technology in their business, and current and evolving business models. All of these factors typically contribute to the need for a company to transform, so I like to understand what they are seeing and experiencing regarding these factors and discuss how Publicis Sapient could partner to help them on this journey. When it comes to our people, I enjoy understanding their context and ensuring Publicis Sapient is a place people want to work and can thrive.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
Early in my career, I had a casual conversation with one of Sapient’s founders, Stu Moore, who asked me how I thought things at the company could be improved. I was about seven (uninterrupted) minutes into a firm with a punctuated list of everything I thought we were doing ‘wrong.’ After launching into my list of improvement ideas, it dawned on me that he hadn’t meant ‘tell me right now’ and that the office hallway maybe wasn’t the place to have this discussion. I learned an excellent consultant always takes time to understand the context and to develop an informed perspective on the situation. In this instance, I did not appreciate his context and hadn’t spent enough time to form an informed opinion of the problem.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that helped you in your career? Can you explain it?
I recently asked about books a lot since we now live on video conferences, and I have a large bookshelf behind me. Before our current lock down, if I had five minutes of downtime while walking in an airport, I would listen to three chapters of a book. One of the ways I can consume so much information is by downloading books and listening on 2x+ speed, so I hear the book as fast as I can process it, often while I’m walking. For different reasons, I often will start and not finish a book if I don’t find it relevant and will finish it later. For example, I started reading Quants because I was thinking about the state of the markets and how much of it is driven by machines vs. people. One book that I read last year and stuck with me is ‘Hit Refresh,’ the book Satya Nadella wrote about Microsoft’s transformation. I found it so interesting because it wasn’t written about an event or situation at Microsoft that occurred in the past, it was written in flight during their transformation of one of the biggest companies in the world with all the complexity of evolving and revitalizing such an iconic brand and business.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose-driven business” is more successful in many areas. When you started your company, what was your vision, your purpose?
We have always been a purpose-driven company. When I stepped into my position as CEO of Publicis Sapient, we created one global organization with a singular focus on digital business transformation and launched our new brand. In parallel, we refreshed our purpose and core values; then, we reshaped our culture. When we created our purpose and values, it was the single largest collective visualization exercise we had done in our company’s history. Almost 1000 of our people across the globe shared personal impact stories that were turned into our purpose statement (“to help people thrive in the brave pursuit of next”). The values we felt would drive the behaviors to support our purpose and each other. We use our purpose and core values to drive all facets of our business, from hiring to measuring program ‘success.’
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
One of the biggest principles I have is to be constantly learning — from every source possible — and to use that information to help refine how you run the business. Things are constantly changing, and the rate of change is even faster than ever before, so the ability to learn will help carry you and your business through. And it’s more than just learning new things but an ability to continuously learn, unlearn, and relearn things. What we know today may not be accurate next week, so we must be open-minded and agile in our learning. Understanding what works in our business, what our clients are asking, and what are untapped opportunities are just some of the things I try to get as many inputs as possible to continuously refine and reshape our future.
Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family-related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
From a family perspective, the nice thing is I have never been home so much. Although I was home, it didn’t mean I wasn’t just as busy, though, so I carve out time every day to spend with my family, whether it’s having breakfast together or taking a walk in the park. I found that we need to be more deliberate in planning out the time to ensure we can all be together. Also, being home so much, I was itching to move around our house for a ‘change of scenery.’ My family and I found we sometimes gravitated to the same areas of the house and were on top of each other, so we ended up with ‘designated’ spots for most days. We sometimes switch our spots around or, when possible, I like to take calls going on walks.
Can you share a few of the biggest work-related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
One of the biggest challenges I faced as the leader of the organization was people wanting me to have all of the answers. This is an unprecedented situation, and none of us has the answers, but we are working through our plans with what we do know, what we anticipate and what we believe is best for our people. To create transparency with what we do know, I have global town halls every few weeks with the whole company. We spend some time upfront setting the context, what we’re seeing, and how we’re reacting to it, how our people are feeling and supporting each other, and additional resources available to help. Then we spend the majority of the time on open questions and answers, where we encourage people to ask questions live. This has helped with transparency and opened a great two-way dialogue with our people that we can learn from and react to.
Another challenge I personally faced early on was general fatigue. I was used to working long hours, but I felt more drained than usual. I identified I was getting what I called ‘Zoom fatigue’ — all of the videoconferencing was really sucking the energy from me. While I was used to being in a lot of meetings, it can be different when you’re in person and feeding off each other’s energy. I have started better evaluating the best way to connect, given the topic — sometimes just having phone calls as opposed to videoconferencing. The other thing I’ve started doing is what someone in Publicis Sapient dubbed ‘Ten Take,’ where I try to give myself a 10-minute break in every hour so if it’s an hour-long meeting, I try to end it 10 minutes early to give a mental and physical break for the team and me. I encourage our people to prioritize the well-being of themselves and their teams above everything else, and these are a few ways I’m addressing that with myself and my teams.
Many people have become anxious about the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, anxiety, and loneliness.
What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain it?
We all know that this remains a difficult and unprecedented time. Staying connected to each other is critical. I encourage everyone to listen to each other, whether it be a loved one, one of your employees, or a client. Sometimes we would ask questions like, ‘how are you doing?’ and we don’t listen to the answer. I suggest pausing and seeking to understand how someone is doing. It helps us build connections with people and helps you stay connected, even when we can’t be together physically. I also encourage people to support each other with compassion and empathy. If there is something you don’t understand, take the time to understand. It’s an important step on anyone’s journey, mine too. And lastly, also to accept that we don’t have all of the answers now. I think so many of us are uncomfortable with the uncertainty of this pandemic. Still, it can be a bit liberating to accept that we don’t have the answers to many things and to control what you can while staying informed about what we do know.
We can’t know for sure what the Post-COVID economy will look like. But we can, of course, try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-COVID economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet, at the same time, Post-COVID growth can be a time of opportunity.
Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-COVID economy?
In a post COVID economy, the most significant change for business is the pandemic has shifted consumer behaviors more than any previous incident at this scale. I think it’s vital for companies to recognize that technology and their investment in transforming their business is even more critical than before to have a strong future.
Businesses need to recognize that every consumer interaction — -across all age demographics and backgrounds — from gen z to millennials to a seasoned business executive is now a digital interaction. These digital interactions have been solidified into consumer habits as most of the world has been in lockdown for several months, giving it enough time for these reactive interactions to transform into permanent behaviors and habits that will withstand the pandemic. For example, as COVID temporarily closed some physical branches of banks, those bank’s customers had to shift to interacting with their bank via an online or mobile platform, like depositing a check or opening a savings account, which can be accomplished digitally. This shift altered their banking habits and interactions from physical to digital, cementing new habits that will withstand even after physical branches may reopen as consumers realize the convenience of depositing that check through their smartphone or opening a savings account remotely.
This allows a tremendous opportunity for businesses to tap into newly formed consumer habits and meet new demands with innovative digital solutions. These digital interactions also mean a proliferation of data. This means an opportunity to use data to understand and anticipate consumers’ needs even before the consumer knows to ask for something, which can be powerful for a business.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act, or live?
The most obvious way that COVID has shifted the way we live, act, and behave is to decimate any boundaries between the physical and digital world we interact with. For many people, these walls were already collapsing, but now there will be a complete merge between the digital and physical realms that we lived with before the pandemic.
Digital experiences are going to become so advanced that there is virtually nothing you can do that cannot be experienced in the digital world or virtually. In some cases, like grocery shopping, the digital experience might supplant the digital experience, and in other, like concerts, it will enhance and extend the experience. The platforms already exist to support things like global live streaming at scale, and the platforms will continue to develop rapidly. For those who still choose to attend an event like a concert in person, it would mean creating better pre-event (e.g., travel), during event (e.g., information on queues in concession stands or bathrooms) and post-event (e.g., sharing top memories) experiences. For those unable to attend a live event, due to capacity, time, or distance, they can still attend and have an experience almost like being there in person, offering people experiences they may never have had access to.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-COVID economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-COVID Economy?
We are seizing the opportunity of the new challenges brought on by COVID across every sector by meeting them head-on with unique and digitally innovative solutions. Through continuing to invest in capabilities that we believe will be the most relevant for our clients. Our company’s core business ethos has always been digital business transformation or DBT, long before the crisis. In a lot of ways, we have been prepared to deliver these kinds of rapid changes.
We value ourselves as partners to our clients and hold ourselves accountable to deliver on outcomes that matter to them by fundamentally asking questions about the future of work and how our own people are doing on an ongoing basis. We are meeting the rapid shifts in consumer behavior with innovative solutions by leveraging the power of technology to ensure that the only way we conduct business is the most efficient way possible.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
I would encourage others to treat this as an opportunity as much as it is a challenge to shape a better future. For other business leaders, I think this is a real opportunity to not merely go back to the way things were but to fundamentally reimagine every aspect of your business in the context of this new world. We know the world has always been changing, but that change has now been accelerated. I would advise taking the time to understand how you can meet and anticipate your customer’s new demands and needs and how you run your own business. For example, in Publicis Sapient, we have spent a lot of time talking to our people. We are developing our perspective on the future of work and examining aspects like the purpose of an office. We are co-creating our future. I would encourage others to do the same and believe it’ll help create an environment that attracts and retains the best people.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
One quote I repeat often, and try to live by regularly, is the US anthropologist Margaret Mead’s “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” It covers a lot of bases: have a vision, be purposeful and determined, and know that, however hard the decisions you’re making are, that you’re clear on why you’re making them. Finally, don’t go it alone when there are so many smart and passionate people that can help make the journey easier and more enjoyable.
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