Nigel Vaz is the CEO of Publicis Sapient, the digital business transformation company, focused on helping companies survive and thrive in a world that is increasingly digital. With expertise spanning strategy, product, experience, engineering and data, Publicis Sapient helps businesses sustain relevance by adapting to change and capturing value through digital.
In more than 20 years with the company, Nigel has acted as a strategic advisor on complex transformation initiatives with clients across geographies and a range of industries including financial services, automotive, retail, consumer products, and telecommunications, media & technology (TMT).
Named by Consulting Magazine as a Top 25 Global Leader, Nigel advises some of the world’s largest businesses on their transformation initiatives. Publicis Sapient clients include Carrefour, Goldman Sachs, Marriott, McDonald’s, Nationwide, Nissan and Unilever. Prior to Sapient, he was a successful entrepreneur – co-founding a public company with interests in internet consulting and connectivity solutions.
In addition, Nigel is a member of the Executive Committee of Publicis Groupe and is Global Lead of Digital Business Transformation for the communication, media, data and technology group.
An inductee of the BIMA Digital Hall of Fame, Nigel has also served as President of the IPA (Institute of Practitioners in Advertising) and board director of The Marketing Society.
He is a regular commentator in broadcast and print media including the BBC, Bloomberg, CNBC, CNN, the Financial Times and Wall Street Journal, and author of numerous articles on business transformation, technology, brand experience and culture.
Nigel is author of the bestselling business title Digital Business Transformation – How Established Companies Sustain Competitive Advantage from Now to Next, based on years of partnering with clients to harness the power of digital.
1. What values are most important to you as a leader?
There is a quotation that I repeat often, and that I try to live by: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
The words, by US anthropologist Margaret, cover a lot of bases and I think encompass the values I hold dearest: have a vision, be purposeful and determined, and know that however hard the decisions are that you’re making you are clear on why you’re making them. And crucially, don’t go it alone when there are so many good and smart people that can help make the journey easier and more enjoyable.
It’s a theme which runs through Publicis Sapient’s core values and which, after more than 20 years with the company, are inseparable from my own. These values have shaped me as a leader, as much as I have helped to shape them:
Inclusive collaboration – by creating space for multiple voices and diverse perspectives we are better able to realise shared goals.
Engage with openness – when we share and seek ideas and dialogue openly, we deepen our understanding and connection with others.
Have a learning mindset – when we find the courage to question what we know, take risks and learn continuously we unlock potential in ourselves and others.
Partner for client impact – by understanding our purpose and ultimate outcomes we are better able to partner with clients for extraordinary impact and long-term, sustained success.
Embrace the future – generate possibilities and use the power of creativity to innovate in ways that make a difference to people’s lives.
2. Who or what is your biggest inspiration?
The thing that inspires me every day is the belief that technology can change people’s lives, and the world, for the better. It’s the potential positive impact of technology, rather than the technology itself, that inspires me to do what I do – it gives me energy and purpose.
Even as we stand on the cusp of a new paradigm of humanity’s relationship with technology, I remain an optimist and an advocate. As you’d imagine, I’m fully aware of the potential disruptive power of future AI systems. My ‘what if?’ scenario, however, is one where digital enhances the human condition; where vast datasets can be applied to help us reach positive health, societal geopolitical and ecological outcomes that have so far eluded us.
As to where that inspiration came from – I learned early on that technology and human advancement go hand in hand. As a small child, I had dysgraphia. A lack of strength and dexterity in my hand meant that writing and creating was a real challenge. Discovering computers helped me to type, create, and much more. It’s no coincidence that the superheroes who inspired me back then – Batman, Captain America, the Hulk, Spiderman, Iron Man – always had a little engineered help among their suite of superpowers. That sowed a seed with me. Ever since, I’ve been passionate about the way that technology has the transformative ability to enhance people’s lives.
Today I lead a company of more than 20,000 people in 53 offices worldwide with the shared purpose of helping people thrive in the brave pursuit of next. At Publicis Sapient, we believe that digital can change people’s lives for the better, and use the power of technology to help our clients redefine what’s possible.
3. Best piece of advice you have been given?
I didn’t take a standard ‘first job’ because I quickly realised that the people interviewing me didn’t hold the same high opinion of me as I had of myself, and that I wouldn’t get the opportunities I wanted. I make no apology for the self-belief, because I was also quickly taught some humility.
As I was trying to start my own company, I met with a VC 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.
To this day, I’m reminded that success isn’t founded on a static idea, but on the ability of people to imagine what’s possible and of organisations to help them deliver it. It’s why my aim as a leader is always to foster an environment where everyone can thrive, and to create a more diverse and inclusive business in which people can not only work happily and effectively but can see opportunities to develop and grow their careers within the company.
4. What would you tell your younger self?
When I was growing up, the hierarchy of learning dictated that a teacher taught the students information, and the students absorbed that information. My advice to my younger self – or indeed to anyone progressing through education to the world of work – is to learn how to learn. It’s more important than the thing you’re learning. It’s the evolution of ideas and knowledge.
In business, as in life generally, what you know at any given time can be useful, but what is truly valuable is establishing a mindset to learn continually. The most fundamental change any individual or company can make is to build the appetite and the ability to learn, unlearn, and relearn.
The old model of learning during the first third of your life, applying that knowledge in the 2nd third, and prospering from that in the final third no longer applies. For young people entering the workplace today and tomorrow, it will be an environment where the need to continually reskill is already well-established. They will have to learn at the same rate they experienced while in college – undertaking enough new learning every four years to effectively earn a new degree.
I was reminded of this 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 a powerful idea – That knowledge isn’t absolute, it’s iterative.
5. What has been your most important or profound lesson as a leader?
The nature of the work I do, and we do at Publicis Sapient, means we get to see some mis-steps that are commonly made by leaders and by businesses – I learn from those, and we try to help other companies avoid the same pitfalls.
One of the chief lessons is to understand that business transformation isn’t a project, it’s a state of mind. The hardest part of being a business leader – especially leading through change, or in any personal or enterprise transformation – are 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.
A favourite expression of mine is, “The inconvenient truth is that most companies are great at their core business, but not great at reimagining the future of their business” – and what’s true for business is also true of business leaders. The average CEO has 30 years of business experience and makes decisions based on that accumulated experience – that’s natural. But think how much the world has changed in the space of five years, let alone 30. The same thinking and approach are not going to stand the test of time. You need to be able to turn your preconceived ideas on their head – to be willing to learn, adapt and act with speed.
The same is true of companies not realising they will have to shift their entire mode of working if they want to compete. They need to first ask themselves how they’re actually changing their business models to reimagine their business in the context of a world that is entirely digital. What they don’t want to be doing is taking the exact same processes they had before and digitising them. That’s digitisation, it’s not transformation.