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What Inspired Nigel Vaz in 2019

Publicis Sapient’s CEO on the cultural moments that made a difference

Chief Executive Nigel Vaz travels constantly throughout the year, navigating in and out of airports and client offices around the world. When he’s not traveling, he’s often at one of Publicis Sapient’s offices or at home, spending time with his wife and their young son.

Vaz’s intense schedule doesn’t stop him, however, from reading multiple books a month.

Nigel Vaz

“One of the things people ask me about is how I read a lot of books,” Vaz says during an airport stop on one of his whirlwind business trips – this time, from Melbourne to Minneapolis. “One of the ways is by essentially downloading the books into an app that’s speaking the book to me really fast in my ear as I’m walking somewhere.’

If he has five minutes of downtime while walking in an airport, he can listen to three chapters.

“I trained myself to listen really fast so I can consume auditory information at a ridiculous speed -- sometimes six times the speech rate of a normal conversation,” he says. “To most people, it sounds like a squeaky voice, but I’ve been listening to it for so long.”

Which book stood out to him, of all those books he listened to in 2019?

“In terms of books, the context matters dramatically. From situation to situation, context to context. If you say business books, ‘Hit Refresh,’ the book Satya Nadella wrote about Microsoft’s transformation, is one that particularly stands out,” he says.

What struck Vaz about the book was that it wasn’t written about an event or situation at Microsoft that occurred in the past. “It was written in flight in the midst of transformation of one of the biggest companies in the world. With all the complexity of bringing Microsoft back from being this boring business. It was practically brain dead, and I would argue this was a resuscitation project.”

In addition to books, Vaz found time this year to take his son to the movies, watch Netflix documentaries and ruminate on the evolution of museum exhibits. Here, the cultural events that inspired him most.

"Technology is part of the problem but it also has to be part of the solution."

‘Our Planet’

David Attenborough’s documentary series premiered in April on Netflix, and that fact alone impressed Vaz.

“The BBC had built him and he built the BBC. For him to switch to Netflix -- a platform that can take this content to 150 million influencers around the world -- is pretty telling,” Vaz says. “For the first time, you can actually get your ideas and your message to a worldwide audience.”

Vaz, who recently attended a dinner with Attenborough, says the subject of the series, conservation and the human impact on the environment and its living creatures, was equally fascinating.

“I think what he was highlighting is the irreversible change to the planet,” he says. “In one of the conversations I had with him, he said ‘Of course, technology and innovation and progress have essentially been the root cause of this.’”

But it seems to Vaz that there are two camps in conservation philosophy. One camp says to stop harming the environment and turn back the clock, but Vaz doesn’t think this is feasible.

“In the other camp, we seem to make the comparison that technology is the root cause but it has no room to play in a positive evolution of this,” he says. “From my perspective, technology is part of the problem but it also has to be part of the solution.”

Vaz is inspired by the company Loop Industries, a reusable-packaging startup. “Loop is a technological solution to create a closed loop and a virtuous cycle in the context of consumption around plastic,” he says. “They’re starting to figure out how companies can not only distribute, but collect, recycle and be accountable for driving the reuse model.”

"What you consume has significantly improved both in terms of ethnic and cultural diversity, and its use of technology."

‘Aladdin’ and ‘The Lion King’

Vaz recently took his nine-year-old son to watch this year’s Disney remake of “Aladdin,” with Will Smith leading a diverse cast of live actors in the roles of the 1992 animated classic.

“That was interesting simply because it was the cultural reimagination of a classic, where a story set in a Middle Eastern context was played by people who were genuinely ethnically diverse, really bringing diversity to the roles,” he says.

He also noted the effortlessness with which CGI effects were woven into the storytelling, combined with the cast of actors.

“That was pretty spectacular,” he says, recalling another Disney remake of a classic that Vaz watched this year, “The Lion King.”

“These are powerful examples of how technology has completely reduced the friction between imagination and reality, where you can now use imagination to push through much greater boundaries,” he says. “So what you consume has significantly improved both in terms of ethnic and cultural diversity, and its use of technology.”

“While we have this rise of nationalism and divide that reminds us why we’re different, we also have people who are able to bring really unique perspectives together.”

Flower Drum Restaurant

Vaz is a big foodie and loves trying different kinds of food. He says he’s fascinated by how restaurants can become inspired by different types of ingredients that come together seamlessly -- in large part because of how globalized the world is becoming.

“What we’re now seeing is not just the fusion of different things to create a third thing,” he says. “It’s a genuine association of the cultural context of the place and the way in which things were done.”

He points to his recent trip to Australia for a poignant example. In Melbourne, he ate at Flower Drum Restaurant, where the staff have recreated ancient traditions from the Ming Dynasty to make Peking Duck. “I was amazed by the craft of it,” he says.

The experience eerily took Vaz back to a meal he once ate in Beijing, 20 years earlier. “The restaurant had been around for 1000 years. They put the plum sauce on the plate and they made a duck shape out of it with a fork, sketching a proper duck with features,” he recalls.

At his dinner at Flower Drum, the staff performed the exact same ritual, drawing a duck on his plate with plum sauce. “I thought, how cool is that? That today the context of globalization has not just allowed us to fuse different cultures, but to keep alive these very deep traditional inspirations at that level of sophistication.”

While the meal was delicious, it was the connectedness of the tradition and culture that inspired Vaz. “While we have this rise of nationalism and divide that reminds us why we’re different, we also have people who are able to bring really unique perspectives together.”

 

“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.”

Natural History Museum

Vaz spends most of his downtime on cultural activities with his family. One of their favorite pastimes is to go to London's Natural History Museum and New York's American Museum of Natural History, because his son loves nature, animals and conservation. On a recent visit, Vaz noticed how museums 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,” he says. “It’s constantly teaching you this is an iterative learning experience.”

He uses Darwinism as an example, and the visualization of evolution from chimpanzee to man.

“Based on how that evolves, you see man and the planets evolving for thousands of years, and we got to a point where we are now somehow perfect and evolution has stopped,” Vaz says. “Who’s to say we’re not driving another civilization? It demonstrates hubris to think we’ve arrived now and we’re perfect.”

Vaz believes this applies to the way people take in knowledge. What we think we know today may not be accurate next week. We might learn something that will change our perspective. “It’s a powerful idea, that what we know now might change,” he says.

He says when he was growing up, the hierarchy of learning dictated that a teacher taught the students information. Considering his son now, he says, “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.” 

Barbara Chai
Barbara Chai
Director Content Strategy & Thought Leadership

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