Publicis Sapient CEO Nigel Vaz: “5 Things You Should Do To Become a Thought Leader in Your Industry”
… I think one of the most important things that would bring good to the world is to instill in people the ability to be able to continuously learn, unlearn, and relearn things. I think what we know today may not be accurate next week so we must be open-minded and agile in our learning.
As a part of my series about “5 Things You Should Do To Become a Thought Leader in Your Industry”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Nigel Vaz.
Nigel is global CEO of Publicis Sapient and serves as Publicis Groupe’s Global Lead of Digital Business Transformation. He is responsible for driving forward the company’s vision of partnering with clients to ensure they are successful at reimagining and transforming their business for the digital age.
He has held a variety of leadership positions with Sapient prior to its acquisition by Publicis Groupe, where 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.
Nigel’s roots are in business strategy and technology, where he has consistently helped clients to build businesses and create sustainable value propositions for their brands by operating at the intersection of strategic thinking, creativity and technology. 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.
As part of Sapient’s executive leadership team, he drove the evolution of the European business and helped to build Sapient into one of the largest digital professional services companies in the UK from a start-up in the space of a decade, including its expansion beyond the UK to be a significant presence in Europe. He went on to lead the Sapient business in EMEA and APAC and its evolution to SapientNitro, as well as playing a key role in the successful integration of Razorfish to create SapientRazorfish within the Publicis Sapient digital business transformation hub.
In his current role leading a business with expertise spanning technology, data sciences, consulting and creative, Nigel acts as a strategic advisor on complex transformation initiatives that accelerate the businesses of clients including Lloyds Banking Group, BNP Paribas, Carrefour, M&S 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 doing this with us Nigel! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?
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 business 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 new and evolving business models. All of these factors are typically contributing to the need for a business to transform so I like to understand what they are seeing and experiencing regarding these factors then discuss how Publicis Sapient could partner to help them on this journey. When it comes to our people, I enjoy understanding their context and helping ensure Publicis Sapient is a place people want to work and can thrive. I’m also on the executive committee of our holding company [French advertising group] Publicis Groupe, which has about 100,000 people.
Can you briefly share with our readers why you are an authority on the topic of thought leadership?
I’m not sure I’m an authority on thought leadership or that anyone sets out to be an authority on the topic itself. I think thought leadership develops from harnessing and applying the learning from the field you’re in. Because of my focus, I’ve worked with many thought leaders covering a multitude of topics throughout the years.
My own focus is digital business transformation. Having said that, I think digital business transformation is an over-used term. For me, it’s not anything but the transformation in a world that is now almost entirely digital. My point of view has been shaped by helping companies use digital to transform for decades. The first generation of this was helping create internet-enabled businesses but now digital has become the heart of business.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
As I was trying to start my own company, I met with an angel investor to seek start-up funding. He point-blank refused to sign the NDA I was holding under his nose. I can’t remember his exact words but it was pretty much, “Son, ideas are a dime a dozen. If I’m going to invest at all, I’m going to invest in you”. I’d been focusing on the wrong thing. What matters is people and their ability to make their ideas a reality.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Early in my career, I had a casual conversation with one of Sapient’s founders, Stu Moore, where he 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 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 a good consultant always takes time to understand the context and to develop an informed perspective on the situation. In this instance, I was not appreciating his context and hadn’t spent enough time to develop an informed opinion of the situation.
How would you define what a ‘Thought Leader’ is? How is a thought leader different than a typical leader? How is a thought leader different than an influencer?
A thought leader is someone who develops a deep and hopefully differentiated, perspective on a topic. Within Publicis Sapient, we have thought leaders spanning industries from retail to financial services and capabilities from strategy to engineering. For example, we have John Maeda, our Chief Experience Officer, who is leading the way in computational design and we have Sheldon Monteiro, our Chief Product Officer, who is helping our teams move from outputs to outcomes.
In going with a more traditional definition of leadership, I would say a leader is someone who leads a large portion of our business/people. However, at Publicis Sapient, we consider leaders can be people from across the business at any level. To me, anyone in an organization can be a thought leader even if they aren’t a formal leader in an organization because thought leadership comes from being an expert in a field. Most of our leaders tend to be thought leaders because they’ve honed their expertise through the years, usually focusing on a specific area of business. In the example above, John and Sheldon are both thought leaders and leaders in our business but we have thought leaders in things like AI in financial services or our Management Consultants covering all industries that might not have a ‘formal’ leadership position in the company
With respect to influencers, I think this is a topic that’s subject to debate. Influencers are part of the social media conversation and can have a negative connotation because they are sometimes seen as more partial and pushing a specific point of view around a product or service vs. providing objective information. When comparing a thought leader to an influencer, I view thought leaders as typically having a more rounded and usually independent perspective.
Can you talk to our readers a bit about the benefits of becoming a thought leader? Why do you think it is worthwhile to invest resources and energy into this?
At an individual level, it allows someone to engage other people to test and refine a point of view. It allows them to turn thinking into reality. From the organization’s perspective, it allows us to enhance what we can bring to the world on thinking and solutions for real business problems. For us, I think it’s worthwhile because it allows us to create awareness for Publicis Sapient in the context of specific areas of topics we partner with our clients on and want to be known for
Let’s talk about business opportunities specifically. Can you share a few examples of how thought leadership can help a business grow or create lucrative opportunities?
Smart thought leadership can serve as an amplifier to existing work that we’ve done. We like to turn learnings from engagements into something meaningful that can help our other clients and educate our own people. For example, we have had successful engagements with Marriott and RBS in terms of building native mobile apps. So one of the consultants developed a journalistically styled piece on when is it the right time to develop a native app as opposed to enhancing an existing web platform. It provided us an opportunity to highlight our past proven success and educate our own people and other clients on how to decide on the best strategy.
Can you share 5 strategies that a person should implement to become known as a thought leader in their industry? Please tell us a story or example (ideally from your own experience) for each.
- Relevant. One key is to be timely. Our clients and potential clients are overwhelmed by news and information, and a lot of it impacts their business. We can help them by intuitively knowing what’s important to them and synthesizing what it means to them. Consumer data privacy is a big topic in the mainstream news. And with the California data privacy law taking effect at the beginning of the year, one of our consultants began a discussion about the privacy law and what it means for retailers. She spoke with our experts on what the best strategy for a company might be while working in the parameters of this law. It also allowed us an opportunity to revisit our best thinking on how digital transformation is impacting the marketplace, particularly in retail.
- Amplification. Amplify ideas in the world that you agree with and use your personal experience to further thinking on an issue. As we develop thought leadership, we always ensure it’s focused on a real-world issue our clients have or will face. And as we launch the thought leadership, we work with our client partners and business development teams to ensure it reaches the right current and prospective clients.
- Solution-driven. Thought leadership needs to go beyond identifying a problem in a particular industry. It needs to have a perspective on how it can be solved or show how we have solved it previously. Hopefully, a client can see themselves in the topic and understand we have a perspective on it and can partner with them on solving it based on their unique situation
- Distinctive. Thought leadership needs to help you or your firm be distinctive. What do you want to be known for and how can you differentiate? An example of this for us is to be the experts in “dataful” — a term we use to define the use of data to inform and design experiences. We are №1 on Google search for the term “dataful” because of our thought leadership efforts.
- Omnichannel. You need to think through your approach to channels and tailor content for the appropriate ones where you think your audience, usually the clients in our case, might be. You have to humanize it — how can you tell the 900-word research report that you published online in a video? How can you tell it on LinkedIn? How can you humanize it with a panel of internal experts and clients? We’re still testing and learning about how to best do this but we’re making progress.
In your opinion, who is an example of someone who has that has done a fantastic job as a thought leader? Which specific things have impressed you about that person? What lessons can we learn from this person’s approach?
I recently attended a dinner with David Attenborough. If you look at the 5 strategies outlined for thought leadership — he hits them all. Despite his work spanning several decades, it’s always relevant because he is constantly evolving it — pushing both himself and his audience. It always getting amplified, whether it’s about a specific species or issue. He’s also thoughtfully providing ideas and solutions. He is a distinctive and preeminent voice in his space. He has also evolved his channel strategy, having transitioned from the BBC to Netflix. This was an incredibly impactful transition as Netflix allowed him to reach an incredible number of people across the world.
I have seen some discussion that the term “thought leader” is trite, overused, and should be avoided. What is your feeling about this?
I think it’s all about context. I agree with that idea if someone self-proclaims they are a thought leader. As mentioned earlier, I don’t think thought leadership is something you can just claim — it comes from your audience acknowledging you have a valued perspective. I’ve always believed your opinion is only as good as the amount someone is willing to pay you for it.
What advice would you give to other leaders to thrive and avoid burnout?
I think everyone needs to find something(s) that is important to them and allows them to relax and get re-energized. Whether it is exercise, music or another personal passion — people should identify what it is for them and find a way to incorporate it into their lives no matter how busy they may be. For me, it is spending time with my family. I travel and work a lot but I ‘protect’ my weekends to spend time with my family.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I think one of the most important things that would bring good to the world is to instill in people the ability to be able to continuously learn, unlearn and relearn things. I think what we know today may not be accurate next week so we must be open-minded and agile in our learning. On a recent visit to the Museum of Natural History, I noticed how these information vaults have owned up to humans’ limited knowledge and understanding of evolution up to this point. The exhibits in science are now continually admitting that they didn’t know everything and were wrong about something previously. It’s constantly teaching you this is an iterative learning experience. It’s a powerful idea, that what we know now might change, which I think mirrors technology and how it’s poised to disrupt every vertical of business.
When I was growing up, the hierarchy of learning dictated that a teacher taught the students information. Considering my son now, rather than teach our kids to learn information, we should teach them how to learn. It’s more important than the thing you’re learning. It’s the evolution of ideas and knowledge.
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 that you’re clear on why you’re making them. Finally, don’t go it alone when there are so many good and smart people that can help make the journey easier and more enjoyable.
We are blessed that very prominent leaders in business and entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world with whom you would like to share a meal with?
Last year I read ‘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. I have spoken with Satya but would enjoy being able to spend more time with him discussing his incredible leadership during a time of such transformation at Microsoft
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