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Nissan Renault SapientNitro

Disruptive Leadership: An interview with SapientNitro's European MD Nigel Vaz


By Jessica Davies, News Editor

February 21, 2014 | 7 min read

In a world where technology is fundamentally reinventing how people connect with everything from media to society, disruption is fast becoming the status quo. In the first of a three-part disruption-themed series, Jessica Davies speaks to Dadi Individual of the Year Nigel Vaz about where the real threat lies for brands and agencies.

Definition of insanity. That’s what SapientNitro’s European MD Nigel Vaz calls the idea of any company trying to stick to the status quo. There’s simply no place for it in today’s continuously shifting, connected landscape, in which consumers’ media consumption habits are changing beyond recognition. Vaz believes the infinitely complex media landscape is putting the traditional approach of agency holding companies under pressure, while blurring the definitions and identities of agencies. “Is there such a thing anymore as an ad agency or digital agency, and if they continue to exist today how long will they continue to exist in this way? That’s a paradigm shift – a disruption – a need for a new breed of agency built for a new time and that time is where we live today. But the agency world is still stuck in 1964 – the Mad Men era,” he says. Brands are evolving to cope with today’s challenges faster than agencies themselves, according to Vaz. “Clients are becoming new breeds of clients faster than agencies are becoming new breeds of agencies because they are the ones feeling the pain; having their businesses fundamentally shifting. Look at Tesco – it picked Wieden + Kennedy – a tiny, 40-person independent American agency – to represent it. That shows it was looking for something fundamentally different and didn’t conform to what it was used to. We are seeing that all over the place. “The new breed of client will become the norm, and then the only question will be ‘can this new breed of client find a new breed of agency to fulfil its new needs?’” Current models whereby an agency holding group will put a string of agencies, specialising in different areas, forward for a client to ensure it can meet all demands, cannot provide the “cohesiveness” necessary for today’s brands’ needs, opines Vaz. “A holding company like WPP, for example, will bring forward ‘team WPP’ – 20 agencies that can do everything under the sun. But it’s not about combining things; it’s about connecting them. If you take 10 different agencies and put them all together on the same floor and under the same name, there is no way that structure can replicate something that has shared values, shared philosophy, approach and tools – and those are the things that give you the cohesiveness to do great work.” With people consuming media across multiple platforms and devices, brands are striving to connect with them at every available, suitable touchpoint in an engaging, consistent way that delights rather than repels. But to truly achieve that cohesiveness of message and ensure their connections with consumers are seamless, they must battle to ensure their own multiple agencies are united enough – essentially acting as the “glue” tying them together, Vaz tells us. “If you think of how brands and agencies were structured to serve, brands had a digital agency, a direct-response agency, an ad agency, an events agency and so on. Each agency served consumers in their own individual channels. But consumers are now moving seamlessly across all these things, which means there is a need for a totally different level of cohesiveness. “So brands are now forced to act as policemen because all these agencies typically won’t play nice and it’s a very inefficient and ineffective way to run these interactions with customers. But they also have to be the cohesive, narrative glue across all of that, which is very difficult when it doesn’t all come from a single place, but from multiple places,” he adds. The race to capitalise on the explosion of opportunities to connect with consumers across multiple platforms and channels led to marketers making severe mistakes, according to Vaz. The very notion of 360-degree marketing turned the art of storytelling – which all brands strive for – into “story yelling”, he argues.“Storytelling is the most powerful of human emotions, but when marketers took it, it became story yelling – they yelled from every single channel multiple times throughout the day and consumers developed an uncanny ability to block it out – they became blind to it all.” SapientNitro is built around the notion of ‘being, doing, saying’ – three ideas that allow consumers to be surrounded by the story, in what it calls the StoryScape. In this world, every interaction is the message of the brand – physical experiences of it, digital interactions and emotional triggers from communications. The agency’s origin was rooted in technology before its acquisition of Nitro in 2009 and it remains “fiercely independent”, says Vaz. Now companies like Accenture are starting to move in a similar direction, and are beginning to compete with agencies such as DigitasLBi for major brand accounts. Just this month DigitasLBi won Renault and Nissan’s joint €50m global digital brief – one of the biggest digital pitches ever – beating off competition from AKQA, Deloitte and Accenture. Meanwhile, British Airways – a brand which has itself transformed to deal with digital disruption – is reviewing its agency accounts and SapientNitro is in the running, along with incumbents BBH and Ogilvy. Vaz distances SapientNitro’s evolutionary journey from the likes of Accenture Interactive. “We were built to be a new breed of agency designed to be able to cope with the new breed client demands. We are not retrofitting ourselves to become something. When I look at Accenture Digital or Accenture Interactive, that’s a retro fit. It’s like saying ‘we’re a tank’ then putting a colourful bauble on the top and all of a sudden it’s Christmas. They still look like a tank.” Yet the real threat for brands and for independent agencies such as SapientNitro is not the agency holding groups – it is the likes of Facebook and Google, according to Vaz. “Companies like these are fundamentally reinventing the way we consume media. So how can we now justify traditional media models? I don’t think media consumption is going to exist in the way it does today,” he adds. For industry to fully embrace disruption it is vital companies have disruptive leaders – a trend that Vaz believes will grow. The reason the likes of Apple, Burberry and Google have launched such disruptive products and services is because their leaders are disruptive. “The iPhone was only disruptive because Steve Jobs was disruptive. Burberry is only disruptive because Christopher Bailey is disruptive. The leaderships of those companies were willing to take a bet, and lead their teams into stormy waters knowing that on the other side it’s better. There is a huge trend I see for leaders to genuinely embrace the future in this way as opposed to trying to resist it.”
Nissan Renault SapientNitro

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