Nigel Vaz, CEO of Publicis Sapient.
Courtesy of Publicis Sapient
Haley Crawford, a master’s student at Ivey Business School, contributed to this story.
As CEO of Publicis Sapient, a digital consulting firm devoted to revolutionizing the ways in which companies interact with their customers, Nigel Vaz is an expert on technology’s impact on business. His book, Digital Business Transformation, delves into the myriad ways in which companies must develop their digital capabilities to best serve their customers.
“Before, digital was a tangential idea to business,” Vaz explained. “Today, it’s an existential idea, within the top two or three CEO priorities. And of course, the last year has exacerbated that to the point that even the skeptics have come around. A retail CEO told me that there was no contingency plan for every one of their stores across the world to be closed at the same time. We now need to reimagine retail in the context of digital, which is exactly what my book and our work as a company is focused on.”
While this new world may appear to be the antithesis of traditional retail, these businesses can in fact greatly benefit from digitization. Rather than communications largely relying on salespeople in-store, the customer journey can now involve myriad facets of digital storytelling that bring shoppers closer to the universe of the brand.
At the helm of Publicis Sapient, Vaz’s role is to ensure that companies develop the capability to create new sources of value in a digital world. That means operating the way digital businesses do. Vaz asserts that this is about more than just acquiring technology. It’s about bringing together what he calls the five SPEED capabilities (Strategy, Product, Experience, Engineering, and Data) to produce products, services, and experiences that drive both customer and business value through the application of digital.
“The humans in this story are the most important,” Vaz said. “How am I changing the organization in order to create a better experience for the employee, who can in turn create a better experience for the customer? And from a customer’s perspective, they don’t want to see organizational complexity or dysfunction made manifest.”
The CEO discussed the example of airlines showcasing escapist holidays in their advertisements, and the dissolution of this dream once someone’s luggage gets lost. Cognitive dissonance can arise for the customer when the promoted product or service and the actual experience don’t line up.
By sticking to old norms and only listening to those in charge, businesses will hold themselves back from generating never-before-seen solutions to longstanding problems like lost luggage. Prizing new idea generation will only improve customer experience in the long run, and companies that fail to do so risk missing out on exponential growth.
“When you think about most of the Fortune 500 businesses, they were entrepreneurial at some point in time,” Vaz said. “But as the organization starts to scale, it develops a culture of structured decision-making as opposed to this entrepreneurial spirit. A lot of the work that we do with clients is determining how to distribute decision-making to the lowest possible part of the organization and […] establish enterprise startup culture. This prioritizes ideas on the basis of merit, where there is value that can be unlocked quickly.”
Being willing to risk failure by listening to new ideas is the only way that companies will be able to get out of a rut of outdated thinking.
Companies that innovate in entrenched industries by harnessing new digital tools are soaring today. The Dollar Shave Club, for instance, disrupted the well-established razor industry with its digital subscription model, showing major players like Gillette that they aren’t necessarily invincible. Other companies, such as Tesla, took this kind of transformation a step further by changing the entire way the industry is perceived.
“The paradigm shift that Tesla has brought to bear in the automotive industry is interesting,” Vaz said. “It’s not just the electric vehicle focus, but the idea that the car is now, like every other aspect of our lives, about software as much as it is about the physical product.”
In discussing one of Publicis Sapient’s client companies in the automobile industry, Vaz shared that 30% of the company’s cars were bought online post-pandemic. The consultancy’s role is to assist the brand in reimagining a whole new world of possibilities for online configuration, from car specifications to test driving and car delivery. While many employees are keen for this type of redirection, others are more resistant.
“What we’ve seen in organizations is a term called the stuck middle,” Vaz said. “You have people at the top who see the bigger picture and want to move really fast. And you have folks at the bottom who are newer to the organization, are looking for inspiration, and are willing to take the helm if you point them in the right direction. But then there is a group in the middle who all became successful within the current construct. When you think about how to get that group of individuals to shift, you have to think about incentive structures, and how to help them learn, unlearn, and relearn. How can you get them on a journey of continuous learning as opposed to continuous knowing?”
In order to champion new ideas and digital transformations, companies must provide incoming young employees with the opportunity to share their vision of a new approach the firm could take. After all, one of Vaz’s top tips to CEOs in gaining a fresh perspective on potential products and services is to ask their children whether or not they would use them.
By breaking the cycle of habit by ushering in a culture of learning, companies and their employees will be able to welcome new viewpoints and digital solutions with open arms.