Interview: Nigel Vaz on 'reimagining' agencies
Picture credit: ©BronacMcNeill
The new IPA president tells Michaela Jefferson about his bold new agenda - and what he thinks about consultancies, diversity, tech and the duopoly
Earlier this month, the IPA - the professional body representing advertising agencies - announced that Nigel Vaz, CEO of Publicis Sapient, would be succeeding Sarah Golding as its new president.
His promise for the next two years is to help agencies to "reimagine" themselves as "partners for growth" for clients at a time of "fundamental change" for the ad industry, as agencies risk losing their relevance in the tornado of in-housing, consultancies, and rapid advancements in data and technology.
"As someone who runs a business that is global and serves a number of clients in a number of markets, one thing [I know] for sure is that our clients' consumers are changing, which is forcing them to change their business models and examine new ways of working and new strategies to drive growth," Vaz tells Mediatel.
"Agencies' clients are reimagining the way they engage with consumers, so we have to reimagine our relationship with these clients."
Helping agencies to re-establish their relevancy and reflecting on how the IPA could help implement a new model was a "good orienting frame" for Vaz's thinking when he accepted the role, he adds.
Thus, his "Reimagine" manifesto, which he further breaks down into role, revenue and responsibility.
Vaz's appointment is a break from the norm for the IPA, as he is the first president to come from a technology background. He has close to twenty-years' experience holding senior positions across the digital transformation business, Sapient.
Founded in 1990, Sapient was acquired by Publicis in 2015 in a deal valued at £2.3bn, at the time the largest ever acquisition by any holding company. Earlier this year its consultancy practice, Sapient Consulting, and its agency business, SapientRazorfish, merged under the Publicis Sapient brand, with Vaz appointed global CEO in February.
According to Vaz, his presidential appointment is significant as a reflection of the change the agency world is going through, with technology - both consumer tech and data technology - at the forefront of that change.
He wants agencies to aspire towards "leveraging data and technology and all the other apps that are available to them" to position themselves as essential strategic partners for their clients.
Furthermore, with his experience working across Sapient's consultancy practice, Vaz understands where agencies can mark their point of differentiation from the growing threat posed by consultancies such as Accenture, which is making bold moves into the agency space.
"A lot of that part of the world has been positioned as the nemesis of the agency world, which I don't think is telling the whole story," Vaz says, adding that the consulting world is facing its own set of challenges.
"Unlike a lot of consultancy businesses - many of whose value to clients comes from costs or efficiencies - agencies can really become partners for growth to drive clients' revenue, and in turn drive greater financial returns for the agency."
If agencies successfully reposition themselves as "partners for growth", Vaz says any concerns around the role of procurement should be alleviated.
"My belief is that if you really are driving growth for clients, then you're seen as a strategic partner [and] you should be able to protect and grow your own remuneration with the client and avoid being commoditised," he says.
However, possibly the most pressing challenge facing advertising today is the growing distrust of consumers towards ads. In a paper published earlier this year by Credos, it was revealed that public favourability towards advertising hit a low of just 25% in December 2018.
The revelation prompted the launch of a whitepaper and partnership addressing the issue of trust between the three main advertising trade bodies: the IPA, ISBA and the Ad Association.
According to Vaz, his presidency is "absolutely" going to continue to address the issue, first and foremost by the IPA taking a position on what good advertising and good agency relationships with clients should look like.
"This idea of transparency and trust in marketing today, especially as we're starting to deal with more and more data, and our consumers' data, is one of the areas that the IPA has to take a very active role in protecting," he says.
Vaz also wants to the IPA to "become real guardians of brand safety" - and while there are a "bunch of things" that the IPA is already doing with that, "we could continue to do much more, whether it's working with government or working with ISBA, or other institutions, and certainly [working with] the partners, the Facebooks and Googles of this world," he says.
Asked how he sees the IPA's relationship with Facebook and Google evolving in light of the brand safety blunders they are both plagued by - which has seen some advertisers pulling ads from their platforms - Vaz is clear that he does not believe the duopoly ever intentionally flout brand safety guidelines.
"The challenge they're facing, from my perspective, is in large part technological," Vaz says, before pointing out that this is without even half of the planet currently being online.
Imagine what will happen when the next 100 million or billion users come online, he says, and the pressure that will put on how the industry uses data and how the solutions that are in place today are scaled further.
"So for me, one of the areas we have to start partnering with [Facebook and Google] on is beyond just talking policy."
"It's starting to get into the very conversations about how we can introduce technological solutions or improve the ones they've already got, by getting the agencies to collaborate with the platforms more, so we don't continue to see the inadvertent situation that we've seen where brands' advertising is exposed alongside content that is inappropriate for their audience."
Ultimately, however, what Vaz does not want to do is to try and take the presidency of the IPA in a "completely new direction" for two years. Instead, he's keen to push the strides made by predecessors "to the next level".
For example, he wants to improve the level of diversity within the ad industry. Vaz, who is the first IPA president of Indian-American descent, says that a lot of work has gone into diversity reporting, which is "great". However, he now wants to work on figuring out what actions can be taken to actually begin to change the diversity mix.
"It's childish to think you can actually [reimagine an entire industry] within a couple of years," he adds.
"What I want to do is set a foundation for how we start to begin, going with the dimensions of the three Rs."
"Hopefully others can continue to build on that as a platform as we go forwards, because what we do know is that both the agency relationship with clients and the IPA's relationship with agencies could use that shift."