CEO Nigel Vaz on Publicis Sapient’s 30th birthday

24 December 2020 8 min. read
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Nigel Vaz is CEO of digital business transformation company Publicis Sapient. He is also a member of Publicis Groupe’s Executive Committee and serves as the multinational’s Global Lead of Digital Business Transformation. 

Publicis Sapient is celebrating its 30th anniversary this month. In three decades, and throughout Nigel’s 20-plus years with the company, Publicis Sapient has partnered with clients across a range of industries including financial services, retail, automotive, media & technology, travel & hospitality and energy on transformation initiatives to accelerate their businesses in a digital age.

Nigel spoke to about 30 years of digital firsts, leading through a crisis, and how digital plays a fundamental role in helping businesses transition for the future. 

Nigel, congratulations on Publicis Sapient’s 30th birthday! You’re in the business of digital transformation, how has Publicis Sapient itself transformed over the last 30 years?

Publicis Sapient has been in the business of digitally transforming our clients’ businesses for more than 30 years. Born from a different mindset than the IT consulting world, and with transformation in our DNA, we recognise the need for constant evolution.

Nigel Vaz, CEO, Publicis Sapient

Publicis Sapient has existed in many forms over its lifespan, growing from a Boston-based start-up to be one of the world’s largest digital professional services companies. Along the way, we have evolved Publicis Sapient’s own strategy, enhancing our sector expertise and management consulting, and developing our market-leading engineering capability, as well as championing our culture as a diverse and inclusive company that prioritises the experience and growth of all our people.

Today, we’re 20,000 people in 53 offices around the world. The exciting thing for me is that our work is as relevant today as it was in the early days of internet adoption. Digital transformation has arguably never been more relevant than it is right now. It’s hard to believe that, at 30, we’re really just coming of age. 

What does your role entail, and how has the Covid-19 pandemic changed this?

I began my Publicis Sapient journey two decades ago, and it’s as rewarding today as it was then. As Chief Executive Officer, my primary job is as strategic advisor for our global clients across a range of industry sectors including financial services and automotive, consulting on transformation initiatives that accelerate their businesses in a digital age. 

Businesses were facing exponential change even before Covid-19 came along and acted as an accelerant in the wholesale transformation of business relationships and interactions between companies, customers, suppliers, and employees. For all of the commercial challenges caused by the global pandemic, it has also acted as a launchpad for established companies as well as start‐ups to take a fresh look at a changed world and reorient themselves to provide the products and services that create customer and business value. 

The pandemic, then, hasn’t changed the nature of the conversations that I have with business leaders, but it has increased the urgency and focus on the identification of new sources of value for their customers; fending off competitive threats from digitally native entrants; learning how they can operate with digital at the core of their business; and doing this all in an agile, iterative fashion that keeps pace with the ever-increasing rate of change in the world. 

How have you seen Covid-19 impact businesses?

It’s only now, almost 12 months on, that we are starting to understand the virus and put up a fair fight. Covid-19 magnified the rate of change in the world around us, including the business environment. Countries, companies, and individuals rapidly moved from seeking to protect health to adapting our work and our lives to this new context. Challenges in our existing infrastructure and processes became apparent, but so too did opportunities to do things differently and, potentially, better than before. 

For all of the commercial challenges caused by the pandemic, it also acted as a launchpad for established companies as well as start‐ups to take a fresh look at a changed world and reorient themselves to provide the products and services that create customer and business value, and keep them relevant in a digital age.

Covid-19 has profoundly affected the way we think and behave; how we interact socially, our mobility patterns, how we consume and how we work, all in a very short space of time. The subsequent effect for businesses and entire industry categories is still coming to light. The pandemic has seen these new habits deeply formed over the last year, and they are unlikely to disappear once the virus is gone. 

Business models are, therefore, having to evolve in real time to deal with immediate demands while sustaining these shifting behaviours in the long-term. 

Publicis Sapient’s 30th birthday

Why is digital business transformation more important than ever?

To put it bluntly, it’s sink or swim time for many. The accelerated progression of technology and its rapid uptake by consumers have pushed the issue of digital business transformation to the top of the agenda for organisations globally. The opportunity, or existential threat, that these seismic changes represent is focusing the minds of business leaders and business owners on the future of their companies and industries as never before. 

Further reading: Covid-19 has accelerated digital transformation by seven years

The pandemic has only served to brutally expose the gaps or delays in some companies’ transformation efforts. To remain relevant in this new digital world, businesses and their employees must get past what can be the hardest part of any enterprise or personal transformation: the choices we make every day to move toward what will drive our future success. Often, this will mean letting go of things that made us successful in the past, to make room for new skills, relationships, ways of working, and opportunities. 

Over the last 30 years, the biggest shift I’ve seen is technology going from something tangential to being essential to all organisations and their ability to identify and unlock new sources of value – for customers and themselves. Today, digital is so significant because of the four forces of change coming together and accelerating: shifts in consumer behaviour, business models, emerging technologies and societal change. 

These forces are causing companies to rethink everything about how their businesses operate, from deep-rooted processes and organisational structures, to best practice and ways of working. Only through digital business transformation can organisations create value by driving growth, increasing operational agility and effectiveness, and ultimately, creating better experiences for customers.

My new book, ‘Digital Business Transformation’, publishes early next year and explains this in the context of today’s challenged world, and is based on 30 years of Publicis Sapient helping companies to transform.

Publicis Sapient is known for its digital firsts, what are some of your favourites from the past 30 years?

I’ve been lucky enough to work with fantastic clients during my time at Publicis Sapient; large-scale organisations that are leaders in their respective fields, where we’ve offered a helping hand in ensuring their business is future fit. We built the world’s first fully digital trade finance bank in Anglo-Gulf Trade Bank; the first digital boarding pass for Lufthansa; the first digital showroom for Audi, and the first digital menu boards for Dunkin Donuts to mention just a few.

What are your top business predictions for 2021? And the next 30 years.

In 2021, we will continue to see the impact of the pandemic. We know that there will be economic turbulence in the months ahead, but there will continue to be bright spots. The crisis has profoundly accelerated the digital transformation of many sectors and many companies – and they are unlikely to take their foot off the gas now that they have survived and successfully navigated through the pandemic. 

Consequently, many leading businesses will prioritise investment in ecommerce, experience and their wider digital transformation programs. 

The next 30? It’s tough to predict, but it’s an inevitable truth that we will see technology continue to play an ever-increasing role in our daily lives through our work, consumption, mobility, even our interactions with others. Most importantly, we will see technology help us become more inclusive as both businesses and society. 

One thing I can say for certain is that as humans, we are more resilient than we can ever imagine, and even in the midst of adversity we must remember that and be confident in the knowledge that with every great challenge comes great opportunity.

When I look back on how far Publicis Sapient, and our clients have come in 30 years, I am both hopeful and optimistic for what comes next for all of us. It’s the how we get there that we need to be focusing on now.