'Bone marrow' surgery needed for industry on martech, CX boom: Publicis Sapient global CEO Nigel Vaz
"When Publicis bought Sapient and 15,000 people, it was a bone marrow transplant. It was not an addition. They struggled with it massively and I’d be the first one to say…it’s still hard because the language set, the thinking approach, the way you solve problems, it’s all different.”
You need to know this:
- Five years after Publicis paid $3bn for Sapient, Nigel Vaz says it’s “still hard” bringing media and creative agencies together with technologists to deliver customer experience (CX) strategy and digital and business transformation
- He acknowledges Publicis “struggled massively ” with the Sapient acquisition – the language, the thinking and approach to solving problems were “all different”
- It’s why consulting firms will equally struggle to integrate brand, messaging, media and creativity into their offers
- It is the future, however – communications and media has to be stitched together via technology with all the experiences and interactions a customer has with an enterprise. This is the new battlefield for marketers, agencies, consultants and technologists
- Marketers are moving from “doing marketing” to becoming customer architects who traverse the entire organisation and its processes, systems, customer interactions, product development and communications – it’s vastly different to a conventional marketing remit
- But marketers are still working out how they work with CIOs and chief digital officers for CX design, strategy, systems and delivery. There are three primary models, depending on the company
- Historical definitions of agencies, consultancies and technology companies are “fast becoming irrelevant” – their capabilities are colliding
- CMOs are biased to agency groups to help deliver new-world CX programs but CIO-led CX initiatives skew to consultancies and IT firms. No side yet dominates integrating complex CX capabilities with communications, messaging and media
- Sapient and Publicis are progressing – Vaz says Sapient’s pre-Publicis deal acquiring Australian-founded international micro agency network Nitro in 2009 was always troubled but it prepared Sapient for understanding how Publicis and its agency brands operate
- Consulting firms are the equivalents of Game Of Thrones “White Walkers” to holding companies and agencies - they face their own upheaval and their dominance is not a fait accompli
Technologists v brand v CX
Nigel Vaz is a fascinating character. He’s entirely palatable to a technologist but he’s also president of the UK’s Institute for Practitioners in Advertising (IPA), the body that has been driving so much of the global debate on long-term brand building versus digital’s first child - performance marketing.
Vaz is not from a classic agency background but now runs a technology, digital and business transformation firm of 20,000 people globally that is owned by a traditional communications holding company.
Vaz entirely backs the IPA’s thesis that since the GFC, short-term performance marketing is over-indexing in most corporate marketing allocations and tactics.
But then he argues the best marketers are no longer doing marketing but “acting as the agent for the customer back into the business, not marketing”. It’s getting complicated and we haven’t even started.
"There is this whole investment in the product, the service, the experience that typically is really not defined by marketing. There are real structural shifts that have to happen there because the messaging piece and that experience piece need to be connected."
Marketing, agency and media capabilities must expand
Before we get to the Game of Thrones analogy and Vaz’s prediction that consulting firms have as much upheaval coming at them as the communications holding companies, hear Vaz out on the big forces shaking up much of marketing, media, communications and customer experience.
“What a lot of businesses are really struggling with today is that customer experience essentially transcends the whole company,” he says. “There is this whole investment in the product, the service, the experience that typically is really not defined by marketing. Imagine if you’re selling a car - where does the customer experience sit? With the people who make the car or with the people who market the car? Where’s the customer experience of a mobile handset sit? With the people who make the handset or with the people who market the handset? There are real structural shifts that have to happen there because the messaging piece and that experience piece need to be connected.
“We might see marketing budgets moved closer to the product team to connect those two and both of those teams now need to be enabled by technology and platforms outside of marketing in the context of customer self-service. If you’re trying to design the experience, all the channel technologies, the call centre tech, the self-service apps that customers use online or on their mobile devices, all of those have to now sit alongside the communications and messaging. If you are a customer and you get a message from me about an offer and then you use that app that you got the messaging on to consume that offer, that’s suddenly now in your sales and service systems. Historically they’ve had nothing to do with marketing. The architecture is getting more complex.”
Consultants eating the agency lunch is 'superficial'
It’s why Vaz says, so far, neither agencies, IT, tech or consulting firms entirely dominate this new collision of customer experience, tech, classic marketing and media. It’s tough to stitch it all together – five years on, Vaz says the Publicis-Sapient marriage is still a work-in-progress.
“When Publicis bought Sapient and 15,000 people, it was a bone marrow transplant,” Vaz says. “It was not an addition. They struggled with it massively and I’d be the first one to say…it’s still hard because the language set, the thinking approach, the way you solve problems, it’s all different. Everything is different so you have to stitch that stuff together and it’s taken us the best part of five years to do.
“So when I look at some of the conversations that are happening now about the consulting business eating the holding companies’ lunch, it’s a superficial story. I was one of the key people who led Sapient’s acquisition of Nitro outside of the US way back in 2009. It was a wake-up call and it was also the docking station. We started to build the docking station that five, seven years later allowed us to connect with Publicis. Otherwise, it would have been like Mars and Venus. But we built that connective tissue that allowed us to connect because one of the big challenges, like Accenture has today, is can it integrate these businesses it has bought?
“I challenged a Wall Street Journal reporter who asked me the same question. I said just find one CMO who has moved their global advertising and media budget to a consulting business. You can’t find them because they don’t exist. Just like you will not find, prior to the acquisition of Sapient, somebody say they given hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars in technology to WPP or Publicis because they just don’t want to. Yes, you might have given Publicis a website or a mobile app but you would not give them the transformation of Lloyds Bank which now Sapient is doing in the context of Publicis, before they bought Sapient.”
"When I look at some of the conversations that are happening now about the consulting business eating the holding companies' lunch, it’s a superficial story."
The White Walkers
And so we get to Vaz’s Game of Thrones analogy where he compares consulting firms to White Walkers.
“The role of agencies has always been to partner with companies to drive growth and the role of the consulting businesses, of which we know Sapient historically has a long heritage in being in and competing with, was always about how to make your business more efficient,” he says. “So you’ve got these two paradigms kind of colliding in the middle.
“I do think for all the talk that the consulting businesses are eating the lunch of the holding companies today, my view is a lot of the holding company challenges have to do with the transformation that they themselves are going through. I think the consulting businesses will absolutely go through an iteration of their own,” he says. “I don’t think we’ve quite seen that wave yet but that is sure as hell coming.”
“When you start to understand what the impact of automation is going to have on businesses like audit and tax, what does that do to the big consulting businesses like Deloitte and EY and all of these businesses? When you start to look at the regulation coming into play where audit and consulting need to start to be separated, I mean, there’s a lot of complexity in the services space that is coming to the fore.
“If you look at Publicis acquiring Sapient, Publicis is now squarely in competition with Accenture because they have Sapient, not because Leo Burnett or Saatchi & Saatchi are competing with Accenture. That overlap is very little.”
Vaz likens the industry's current position Season 1 of Game of Thrones, and everybody is talking about the White Walkers.
“The White Walkers are going to basically be the people that destroy everyone in the Seven Kingdoms, that’s the storyline. And then, you realise by Season 8 that the White Walkers ... are dealt with quite handily because everybody else got their shit together.”
“I think five or seven years from now, there’s a real problem if anyone of these constituent groups haven’t gotten their shit together. But I actually think the storyline today of the White Walkers are coming - which is the mantra you’d hear in the media a lot especially as it relates to the holding companies - is premature,” says Vaz.
“I mean, the reality is the holding companies are going through a massive transformation of their own but they need some time between Season 1 and Season 8 to get there. And if they don’t get their shit together, then, White Walkers won’t be one episode. It will be the plot line.“