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Jun 22 2011

Yahoo! Scene - SapientNitro Opens Kimono, Shares Culture


By Angela Natividad

Some moments after I sat down with SapientNitro’s Worldwide Chief Creative Director Gaston Legorburu and Creative Director John McHale, I got a hard sense of what our time together would be about.

“Our secret weapon is our culture,” Gaston said. And the culture is bred and nourished with conscious attention.

They reflected that they’ve never actually discussed this with the press before, and maybe because of that, they sat and outlined the entire blueprint.

The SapientNitro Positioning Statement

A mystique surrounds SapientNitro’s culture, in part because the “agency” — if you can call it that — came from left field, blindsiding traditional agencies and digital players alike. Sapient’s roots lie in business and IT consulting, two specialties that still heavily impact its culture. It’s technology, hardware, organizational management — universes that traditionally have nothing to do with creative. But two years ago, when it started building touchscreen “Happiness” vending machines for Coca-Cola, followed by machines that dispense Unilever ice creams when a person smiles, agencies began to worry.

Two years ago at the AdForum Worldwide Summit in New York, Gaston told an audience of search consultants that SapientNitro is not interested in being defined, as an agency or otherwise. What it cares about is pushing technology forward in a manner that brings a brand’s core message to modern salience, meeting users halfway.

“If clients can dream it, it can be built” with SapientNitro, Gaston said to me. It seemed almost like a boast, but he said it with such wonder that it seemed clear even he was in awe. “You don’t run the risk of having your dream hijacked or changed.”

That this often happens with agencies is a frequent complaint. A lot of it has to do with the way traditional agencies perceive their role. If you look at yourself as a “brand steward”, you start believing that you know what the client wants better than even she does. “So how do you position yourself with clients?” I asked.

“We’re not a ‘digital agency’ because we don’t think digital can or should be separated from other work. We are idea engineers,” said Gaston. “We work from the idea that strategy and experience need to be informed for multiple dimensions.”

The Ideal Client
The ideal SapientNitro client isn’t looking for separate agencies to manage its digital and traditional marketing. They recognize advertising is just one part of a company’s overall behavior — and it’s the behavior itself that must be managed. SapientNitro is in an ideal place to address that. Because of its consulting roots, it’s often asked a question rarely posed to the typical agency: “How best do I organize the marketing department?”

But clients have fears about what they’re giving up when they go with an agency that claims to speak digital, analog, organizational management and creative. “The questions we usually get from clients are, can you tell stories? Will I give up creativity? Will you be a steward for the brand?” Gaston said. “But the product must be as important as doing good business.”

Client Deal-Breakers
SapientNitro has deal breakers too. Here are three that tell them a client is a no-go: The client introduces you to the existing CD right when you walk in. “You’re threatening this person’s job,” Jon said incredulously, “he’s not going to be nice to you.” Use of procurement. “This isn’t necessarily a bad thing,” Gaston qualified. “But if our ultimate client is not involved in negotiation at some point, it is a bad thing.” Red flags with other vendors they’re working with. “You know how they say you can tell who a person is by the company they keep? You can tell a lot about a company by who they’re already working with,” Gaston said.

Elaborating on that, he admitted to having peeves about hiring people from certain agencies — “Because if you do well in that culture, you won’t do well in ours.”

Sustaining SapientNitro’s Culture
SapientNitro’s seating layout is fusion-based, valorising the dissemination of different ways of thought versus clustering similar people. People are seated in open space, like co-working. And CDs don’t get the corner office.

“I sit with my partner, another CD, and a JD who only arrived six weeks ago,” Jon said with a grin. In the same sense, an AD may find himself seated beside someone from development. This way teams don’t turn into cliques, hierarchies don’t form based on roles, and authority figures don’t slip into obscurity on the battlefield. People exchange ideas — and new approaches — all the time.

“If you ask your people to create an org chart, they will always — without fail — put their department at the center,” Gaston said. The fusion system is meant to discourage this thinking. To demonstrate the efficacy of this idea, two years ago SapientNitro hosted the AdForum Worldwide Summit for a night, inviting its bus full of skeptical search consultants into an open space for dinner. Seating was just random enough that people didn’t feel too far out of their comfort zones, but everyone was seated beside a SapientNitro employee. It wasn’t obvious, it became clear over time as conversation developed and naturally drifted to questions like “…so, where do you work?”

This made it impossible for agency folks and search consultants to cluster in their own groups, regarding the others as simply that. Over the course of dinner people bonded in a way that ingratiated the firm to the search consultants themselves: each felt a personal connection to at least one SapientNitro person.

The fusion co-working idea works well when a company is fifty heads strong, but when you start to scale, things can easily slip into chaos. This concern was quickly addressed: “We have a cellular structure,” said Gaston. “Once your team gets too big you’re forced to split.” They also addressed the issue of upward mobility. “You know how sometimes you’ll have two top creatives? Normally in agencies, the only way the second-best can become the best is by leaving or by throwing the first guy under the bus. At SapientNitro, the only way you can get what you want is by helping others” — mental jujitsu, basically, where you get other people to care about what you care about.

And for employees who’ve since gone elsewhere, there’s the SapientNitro Alumni Network, a private social network that you can’t even access until you’ve left the company — enabling former SapientNitro people to stay connected with the company and keep getting back together, bringing with them still other new ways of thinking, and the ways that they’ve developed as people since their departures.

The Cult of ‘Stay Humble’
Gaston, who arrived five years ago following a merger, admitted thinking SapientNitro’s approach was cultish at first.

“We had a client meeting,” he recounted, “and I thought it went really well. Then the client left and everybody got up and started putting the pros and cons of the meeting on the board — what they thought went well, what didn’t. They would turn to each other and say things like ‘You could have done this differently…’

“It was creepy actually, but it’s part of the cult,” he kidded, adding, “it injects a certain level of humility. And when you have a lot of really smart people, that’s a good thing. You could have started last week, but you can still send an email to the CEO and say ‘this is f’d up!’

All this leads to the question of how newcomers are inculcated in the culture in the first place, because clearly it can’t work for everybody.

“It doesn’t,” Jon and Gaston said almost in unison. SapientNitro generally attracts Type A people that are humble already, so they are always looking for new things to learn. This culture is so strong that those who don’t fit can feel it right away. Whether in mergers or in hires, one of three things can happen when a person first encounters The Culture:

· He sympathizes with his captors (“Patty Hearst Syndrome!” Gaston beamed)
· He runs out screaming
· He hides … and gets smoked out

The Nitro Question

Utopian culture talk is nice, but you wonder whether it’s true when the media’s telling another story about a company. Following the departure of Nitro founder Chris Clarke this year, Nitro recently lost the Dove account, which accounts for $30 million in US ad spend. Sapient had spent $50 million to acquire the agency just two years ago. The result was scathing press about the company’s poor judgment in making the acquisition.

“Nitro’s business represents 10% of the whole,” Gaston pointed out. “And when I’m asked, I always say the same thing: I would do it all again. When we merged with Nitro we said ‘Look, you guys just come in and try to learn two new things everyday, but also teach two new things everyday’.”

The idea was never to absorb Nitro, it was to transform the whole. Think “caterpillars to butterflies.”

You’re gonna get some natural shedding with the breaking of a chrysalis. Since Nitro’s integration with Sapient, the company overall changed slightly but significantly. It became less dev-oriented. Once they were competitors to Razorfish et al.; suddenly they are in the same arenas as Wieden & Kennedy, Crispin Porter & Bogusky, and RGA.

That is a significant metamorphosis.

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