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Publicis Sapient's Global CEO, Nigel Vaz in an exclusive interview with CNBC India
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"We continue to drive digital business transformation for organizations with our capabilities across SPEED (Strategy, Product, Experience, Engineering, and Data & AI)" - Nigel Vaz, CEO, Publicis Sapient

In an exclusive interview with CNBC India, Publicis Sapient Global CEO Nigel Vaz explains how India continues to be a key talent hub for the company, with plans to double its workforce in India over the next 2 years. He shares how Publicis Sapient is leveraging the power of data and technology to fundamentally reimagine brands and businesses, helping them stay relevant. Watch the interview.


Q1- What that's meant for you as a company and what it now means more so for your clients?

Whether you're a bank, or a retail business, or a healthcare business, or indeed a government, you have to fundamentally re-imagine yourself for a world that is incredibly different than the world of only two or three years ago. And so, what we're seeing is, folks wanting to understand the impact of blockchain to know that the food that you're eating is coming from the same farm to your table. They want to understand the impact of AR and VR on immersive gaming, but also retail experiences. And all of this means that people are asking more fundamental questions like why do I need to go to a bank to open a bank account? Or why does trade finance have to be so complex? And all of these things effectively mean that whether you're an automotive business or a retailer, digital is the only way you get to goals like sustainability, how you drive growth, how you find more profit, through efficiency in the business, or indeed create better experiences for customers.

Q2 - You know, 2021 was a good year on the back of everything that you've just articulated to us, Nigel. With the Publicis group becoming the world's most valuable agency group, the most valuable holding company, and to a large measure driven by the kind of growth and the kind of performance that you were able to deliver at Publicis Sapient. Now, as we look ahead into 2022, how much of this do you believe is sustainable? How much growth do you anticipate coming in? What is the kind of headroom that you see from here on?

Look, when you think about Publicis group fundamentally, it is in two businesses. One business is connecting consumers from an advertising and marketing perspective to brands and getting those brands’ messages and promises delivered to consumers. And on the other side, it's in a very different business through Publicis Sapient, which is leveraging the power of data and technology to fundamentally transform these brands and these businesses to deliver on the brand promise they're making. So, what we're seeing, frankly, is both of these businesses, one through the power of Epsilon and identity, helping Publicis get the right message to the right person to the right channel on the right device. And on the other side through Publicis Sapient fundamentally transforming businesses to be more relevant from a digital perspective. And our results like you said reflect that. So, as I look forward, I see the opportunity for us to both go from strength to strength in the core advertising and marketing business at Publicis group, but also a huge amount of opportunity for Publicis Sapient to continue to demonstrate the kind of success we have seen over the last few years.

Q 3- So, let's talk about India and your plans for India. Clearly, a strategic market for you both in terms of the clients that you service, but more importantly, also as a hub for talent. So, what are the hiring plans? What are the investment plans? What is the expansion plans as far as India is concerned?

Sure, I think first and foremost, India is a hugely strategic part of the company but unlike many of the businesses that think about India as an offshore location for them to advance a particular capability or particular part of their business. For us, India is a broad extension of Publicis Sapient. So, from our engineering capability, which is world-leading, which is driven in huge part by the engineering prowess of our teams in India through experience and strategy and consulting and design. All of these capabilities, products are represented in India. So, we think about the ingredients of digital business transformation as being SPEED and SPEED essentially is an acronym of five things. So, the S is strategy, the P is the product, so essentially going from the value hypotheses to the product that is constantly evolving, not a project that begins and ends. The E is experiential, how you design and create new products and services. The next E is engineering. So how do you create products and services which differentiate and create value as opposed to IT, which used to be about risk and cost. And then the D is data and AI, so how you're constantly iterating on your business.

So, when we think about our plans for India, we think about the SPEED capabilities that are what differentiates us in the market with our clients, but also which are what is representative of the capabilities we have here. So, our strategy for India is twofold. First, to take the office to our people. So, we went from having three large offices in India pre-pandemic to today operating in more than 80 cities. And more and more, what we're doing is continuing to ensure that we create opportunities for people to work where they want to and how they want to and ensure that by bringing in new people into the workforce, and our company, we can broaden the scope of the work and impact we create.

The second is, of course, continuing to hire, we've hired more people in India over the last year than we have over the previous three. And we're continuing to see that kind of trajectory going into the next year. We expect over the next few years to double a workforce in India from 10,000 to 20,000. I feel like we're going to see this kind of growth come across all of our SPEED capabilities - engineering, which continues to be the dominant capability for us on a global basis, is also the dominant capability first in India, where we compete against the startups and the DevOps and cloud firms, and the API development firms. But also increasingly against, businesses that think about, hiring talent into captive organizations which means that they have to focus on a single industry in a single problem, us being able to create an environment where folks are able to one day solve problems for a global investment bank in New York, sitting in India, the next day solve problems for a French retail business, sitting in India and the third-day work to build a digital city in the Middle East, sitting in India - means that we're an extraordinarily attractive workforce as digital business transformation becomes the biggest imperative for CEOs in their own priority.

Q4- You know Nigel since you point out that digital transformation is the single biggest imperative for CEOs and that is, among the top priorities on the CEO dashboard, what are you now seeing in terms of spending especially in the codification that you just articulated for us on the SPEED capability index, if I could call it that? What kind of spending would you expect, as we look ahead into 2022 and beyond, given the fact that this is no longer a luxury but a necessity for most corporate boardrooms?

I think it's a really good and important conversation to get into because I actually feel like digital transformation used to be short for IT. That's what digital transformation was. Digital business transformation, which is the focus of Publicis Sapient, we believe, is the fundamental re-imagination of business and when you think about it like that, if you're a CEO solving a sustainability issue or you're focused on climate change or you're thinking about how to make your organization more diverse and inclusive, technology and the way in which you transform your business has a key role to play.

So, what you're seeing is digital business transformation spend, showing up as spend on sustainability because people are thinking about re-use and how to eliminate packaging. If you know, energy companies, they're thinking about how to modernize the grid and instrument the grid so that we actually know when power cuts occur, how long the power is going to take to come back. Because clearly, Uber can tell us how long our car is going to take to get to us but when the power goes out, which I know happens in India, but also in many other parts of the world, very hard to get a view on when the power is actually coming back. All of this is showing up as spend in modernizing the grid, in climate change and sustainability, but powered ultimately by digital business transformation.

Q5. I remember reading an interview that you gave previously Nigel, where you talk about how many of the clients that you work with, are going to this phenomenon where there's a lot stuck in the middle, so the top layer of the organization does want to move forward, and the bottom layer of the organization is looking for inspiration and is aspirational. But there's a large chunk that's happy with the status quo and stuck in the middle. How much has changed through the course of the pandemic? Is the stuck middle less stuck today?

Yeah, I think there's a huge realization I think over the course of the pandemic, both at the top of the organization at the bottom, I think where you have the strategic need to change and the desire to want to see change that actually in the middle, you now have to find new mediums to be successful. So, what we have seen over the course of the pandemic is I think it's brought at home for a lot of leaders who were in the middle of the organization - that they're going to need to redefine and reinvent themselves in the context of a world that looks very different than pre-pandemic.

So, I'm talking about people managing supply chains, for example. And supply chain management has been around for a long time. But now the question being asked is what the implication of supply chains in the context of a world that is digital. How is your entire supply chain instrumented? We build lots of supply chain watchtowers for people to understand where in the supply chain you're going to have issues, to visualize problems before they occur, to start to actually streamline supply to ensure that it gets to the place that needs it the most and is not sitting in a place that doesn't need it. All of these folks are in what you call the stuck middle, which is a phrase I use in my book on digital business transformation. Now, starting to realize that whether you're in procurement, you're in the supply chain, whether you're in marketing, whether you're in finance, how you think about your role in the context of this new world has to evolve, because the people that are coming into the organization have very different expectations from their leaders, CEO’s at the very top of the organization and executive committees and boards are under huge pressure to find growth, to find cost-saving and efficiency and to create better experiences and products for customers.  All of which are entirely needing to be driven by how the organization is driving its digital business. So I think it's an extraordinarily exciting time if you're willing to embrace change because the one thing I will say is that change and ambiguity are the two constants living in the business world today. And as long as you're willing to embrace change and ambiguity and experiment and fail fast in order to move forward as opposed to being extraordinarily worried about risk and analysis paralysis before you make a decision. I feel like that opportunity to lead the way absolutely exists.


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Parth Chhabra