Q&A: Alan Herrick, President and CEO, Sapient
'The experience is the brand'
Sapient was founded in 1991 as a technology consulting firm. Over the years, it has grown into a global services company with over 8,500 employees, more than half of them based in India. Today, the $1.6 billion company has three major units: Global Markets, which provides consulting and outsourcing services to financial and commodity services; Government Services, focused on government agencies; and SapientNitro, focused on building brands, helping companies to connect with customers across multiple marketing and commerce channels. Sapient President and CEO Alan J Herrick speaks to Amit Ranjan Rai on the company’s business focus and how it is helping build brands that offer a better ‘customer experience’ for its clients.
Early this year, Sapient restructured its business from Sapient Interactive (marketing and branding side) and Sapient Consulting to Sapient Global Markets, Government Services and SapientNitro. Why?
What we saw with our clients was the need to combine brand and technology into an integrated offering. A lot of times CMOs would tell us they want us to drive engagement and acquisition, and they don’t as such have any bias on the channel. So what was needed was an integrated approach which combines the brand, technology, channels into an integrated marketing capability further connected to an integrated commerce capability. Marketing is about communication with your customer and commerce is the ability of businesses to converse, drive acquisitions and sell to the consumer. So, communication and commerce have been two separate worlds which we are trying to integrate.
So SapientNitro is a shift towards integrated marketing and communication, it is about integrated commerce, and the convergence of such ideas. It represents a package for our clients which helps them both engage with the consumers and also how they merchandise better; think about what products and services they would deliver and through what channels. This is what drove the strategic reconfiguration in SapientNitro to have a complete package of capabilities around. It is really about communication and commerce and is heavily brand-led.
What about the other two units?
Sapient Global Markets is more of a pure consulting and technology offering heavily focused on financial and energy services. It is really a business on how do you look at regulators, the central bank, intermediaries, asset managers and how do you help them with the issues in between. It is high-end consulting connected with technology. It is a little short of a third of our business.
Finally, there is Sapient Government which is mostly focused on the US government. Over the next five years, we are moving Sapient Government to look like SapientNitro. More specifically, it is going to be focused on how citizens effectively communicate with government services. Such communication is often about how do you have transparency in governance and connect with various services.
You call SapientNitro the world’s first customer-experience company. Why?
How do you describe everything from integrated communication all the way to multi-channel commerce? The strategy we have been talking about is what we call MC2, that is, multi-channel marketing and multi-channel commerce connected and enabled through technology. What we’ve been saying is that the experience is the brand. It is a very simple idea but one needs to understand it’s a fact.
When people think about experience they think of how to design a site which is sensible, has pleasing qualities, and can help convert sales. But think about how people are moving from mobiles to iPads, from online shopping to digital-enabled stores in the physical space, and so on; today, an entire ecosystem of channels is shaping our experience. A simple experience would be, I ordered online and want to return it to the store but I cannot because the store doesn’t have that capability. Now, many resellers cannot do that, but that’s fast becoming a basic expectation. Some years ago, banks didn’t have ATMs. And all of a sudden they started having ATMs and that changed the level of experience people expected. Today, if you don’t have an ATM you are probably not a real bank. Sapient did the first online banking application in 1994 with Wells Fargo, but today if a bank doesn’t offer online banking, it is probably not a real bank.
The same has now started happening with consumer product companies. If you don’t have a way to engage effectively across these channels, one would probably not like to do business with you. We are seeing that mindset where companies are trying to understand how they engage with consumers across all channels, how they communicate brands across these channels. And then, to merge brand communication with sales and service. I’m trying to order something online and I want to have a quick chat about it, or I have bought something and trying to return it — that’s service, isn’t it? So, all these elements which were separate are collapsing in time and space. What do you call all this? It’s not just brands, it is bigger than brands — the idea for us is how to create a customer experience. That’s what our clients are coming to us for. We are helping them in creating such a connected experience.
Can you explain with an example?
We are looking at really two main access points. One is a functional access point, which is, if I’m a consumer, can I engage and do the things that I want to do with the brand? Let’s say I am in a store and want to get information on a product on the shelf. I put the product code on my phone and get the exact information. Another one could be, I want to make a quick purchase sitting on a train, I already know what I want to buy, I can buy it through my phone and just ship it to my house.
So thinking in terms of functions of what consumers expect of a brand — whether it is a retail brand or a consumer product — is an important part of experience.
What do you offer that differentiates you from other agencies?
What we have really been working on is to stitch together or connect all the capabilities between communication and commerce. We compete with many digital agencies as well as traditional agencies, many of which are housed in the large holding companies. Our differentiation is twofold in how we go to market. One is that our DNA and our thought process are digitally structured. What that means is that when our client talks to us, he might have a digital marketing task but then it quickly turns into: Do I really understand the transformation that digital is having on my business? How does it affect my marketing spends, consumer engagement strategy, and organisational and investment structure?
We are a company which has got so many roots in both strategy and marketing that we can help them through the broader impact of digital transformation which is much larger than just digital marketing. That’s something we believe we can do uniquely; I don’t think the holding companies can do all that.
The other part relates to integrated marketing. We have integrated the workflow for both traditional and digital marketing and so if a client wants to drive engagement and acquisition, whether it is 20 per cent TV and 70 per cent digital or vice versa, we have an integrated model that has no bias. Compare that with holding companies— they have both digital agencies and traditional agencies and haven’t really been able to make them work together. That is one piece that differentiates us.
What is Sapient India’s focus? You have opened a couple of Nitro studios in the country. What are they all about?
When we think on the SapientNitro side, India is a huge strategic weapon for us. We think that your ability to harness technology in a world of where marketing is becoming increasingly dependent on technology is critical. Therefore, India’s tremendous technology prowess provides tremendous advantage for us to deploy talent and deliver effective solutions to our clients.
When you really look at the marketing aspects of it, there are a few different ideas. There is obviously how we do marketing for our clients in India who are interested in India as a market. That is one leg of our strategy.
The other part is the studios in India which give us the ability to produce many of the marketing things that we conceptualise through our talent base in India. And we continue to focus on how we grow and configure that talent space.
From a business model perspective, India is a unique advantage for us on how to attack marketing dollars. As you compare that with the competitive sets on holding companies, having our kind of technology and knowhow in India is a huge advantage for us.