Publicis Sapient’s Nigel Vaz: the consultancies are doing what we did a decade ago

Nigel Vaz accepts that advertising’s holding companies have their problems. What he has no time for, however, is the trendy notion that management consultancies are becoming their biggest threat.

As the new global chief executive of Publicis Sapient, the arm of Publicis Groupe that most closely resembles a consultancy like Accenture or Deloitte, Vaz is ideally placed to survey both worlds. Like all of us with an interest in advertising, he has paid close attention to Accenture aggressively manoeuvring into ad land by swallowing up 30 agencies in the last six years, including – just after this interview – the celebrated Droga5. He has watched, and he has remained unmoved.

“We almost never, for all their talk of becoming a threat to the holding companies and to the agencies, see them on the big comms and the big media pitches,” Vaz tells The Drum. “Because they don’t have the scale, the reach, the perception to do that. It is really interesting because their narrative would make you believe that Accenture Interactive is now the largest digital agency.

“Sir Martin Sorrell was famous for saying [when running WPP] ‘we never see Accenture and we never compete against them’ – he was right. Publicis Groupe would have never seen them had it not been for Publicis Sapient, which then creates a huge competitive front because we’re competing for essentially what they perceive as their day-to-do day, or core, versus them making massive inroads into our core.”

Publicis Sapient’s own day-to-day, or core, is hard to define, not least because one trait this company shares with its consultancy counterparts is a proclivity for jargon when describing what it does. Industry wags have had great fun in recent days poking fun at its latest bout of corporate gibberish on Twitter. But don’t let its opacity fool you: Publicis Sapient is a proper player, with serious scale, and its parent company considers it integral to its future. A future, that is, in which it hopes not to be so reliant upon advertising.

Stripped of the gobbledegook, Publicis Sapient’s elevator pitch is to help legacy businesses go digital, which it has done for Lloyds Banking Group, Nissan and Nestle, among countless others. It has 17,000 staff, in 100 offices and 50 countries, drawn largely from Sapient, the digital agency-cum-consultancy Publicis acquired for $3.7bn in 2014, and Razorfish, the digital agency it already owned. Vaz has been working at Sapient in increasing capacities of seniority for 20 years, and now he holds most of its keys.

“If I look at Accenture's acquisitions of however many agencies around the world, I look at their playbook and go, they're doing what we did with Sapient in 2007 or 8 when we acquired [agencies] PGI in the US or Nitro globally,” he says. “They’re trying to figure out how to merge creativity [into their offering].

“I regard myself as slightly naive for thinking at that time that with a little bit of capability in a couple of cities around the world we could have taken on the likes of Publicis, WPP – even if we had a better model. Because it wasn't actually about the model. It was about the relationships and the trust and the history, and about the fact you need to be able to do this not in two or three places with two or three different agencies that you smash together … you need to do this in a cohesive, coherent way across a hundred countries if you're going to solve [creative briefs] for Daimler or Mercedes or Campbell’s.”

The ad market is tough enough for Publicis Groupe without having to worry about new rivals. Its 2018 accounts revealed an ominous spending slowdown among US-based FMCG clients, and this “attrition” has continued into 2019. But what Publicis calls its “game changer” offerings – data, “dynamic creativity” and technology – grew by 28% in 2018 and 27% in the first quarter of this year. And Arthur Sadoun, the group chief executive, has made it no secret that he sees Sapient as vital for ramping up this revenue stream and limiting its dependence on advertising’s dwindling dollars.

“Of course, we can compete with WPP and Omnicom on the marketing transformation side of things,” Sadoun told The Drum in an interview earlier this year. “But the difference between those guys and us is we have Sapient, and Sapient is actually a direct competitor of Accenture or Deloitte."

Vaz is wary of stepping on his boss’s toes by commenting on group business, but what he will say is that he believes the issues facing holding companies, on the whole, are analogous to the problems being brought to him by clients.

“The challenge the agency holding companies have is not actually competitive. The challenge that agency holding companies have is actually the same challenge that our clients are having, which is consumer behaviour is basically making FMCGs, or auto companies, think about how to reduce cost. Those things are affecting the structural side of the holding company business way more than something that they may or may not have lost to a consulting business, by and large.”

He insists the expectation to deliver does not faze him. “It creates a very hard context for us as a company which doesn't necessarily put any undue pressure on us, I would say, but pressure on the entire company. Everybody in the company feels equal accountability – the executive committee is only seven people. You all take accountability for the whole business.”

Publicis Groupe’s weekend acquisition of Epsilon, its biggest ever at $4.4bn, is intended to make all its employees’ jobs a little easier. The firm’s deep data on customer behaviour will be available to the whole business as part of the ‘Power of One’ philosophy which sees its sundry silos come together to solve big-picture client challenges. “In a traditional holding company relationship with a client, they have to say to the client, ‘get your IT folks or whoever the partners are to go build all these systems’,” says Vaz. “And that's not the business we're in.”

The business Vaz is in – in layman's terms – is more or less this. Let's say a bricks and mortar grocery retailer wants to increase its sales. It could create an ad campaign promoting its existing services, or it could create a new e-commerce service to open up an entirely new sales channel. And sure, it can advertise this too. That, in a deeply simplistic nutshell which the company would not thank us for, is the Publicis Sapient sell. It has convinced Carrefour and Walmart to employ its services.

While businesses might question whether they need more advertising, they will never doubt whether they need more sales. And as manufacture-and-market firms see new, nimble direct-to-consumer rivals eat into their bottom line, the feeling that they need to "transform" themselves becomes ever more nagging.

As Vaz puts it: "FMCG companies really are looking to reinvent themselves because they're having to figure out how to be in a new business. How do you go from manufacturing stuff and selling it through retail to suddenly moving to a subscription-based business where you now have a consumer interface and you have to start producing service?"

If you ever find yourself asking these questions aloud, you can expect a Publicis Sapient business card, assuming they still rely on such antiquities, to cross your palm soon after. The challenge for Vaz is to reach you before Accenture does.