Sapient Saga: How an IT consulting firm became an advertising agency

  • Narayanan Madhavan, Hindustan Times, Gurgaon
  • Updated: Jun 13, 2015 08:49 IST

A coffee table lights up, revealing a map, switched on by a coffee mug connected to a sensor. It shows coffee places nearby.

Behind this somewhat surreal mix of the virtual and the real lies the story of an information technology company that became a creative-infused advertising agency.

Sapient Corp folded into global advertising conglomerate Publicis Groupe SA in February this year after a $3.7 bn acquisition, complete a digital age metamorphosis.

For companies like Sapient, India is a key playground in this new global game of transformation, both because of the way internet and telecoms link the world and because the nation is a hunting ground for talent – and a market for services.

In 1999, when Bangalore-based Infosys became India’s first company to list on the tech-heavy Nasdaq, analysts like Goldman Sachs had named US-based Sapient as one of its key rivals that it had to match up in its global IT consulting ambitions. As it turns out IBM and Accenture are among Infosys’s global peers, but Sapient has slipped away into a different realm altogether where agencies owned by WPP, Omnicom and Interpublic are its peers.

Today, more than 65% of Sapient’s global staff of 15,000 is based in India.

In Gurgaon, creative professionals in casual clothes loll around on beanbags with bright overhead lights and fancy props like Internet-connected light bulbs to think up the next bright idea for a brand campaign – which could involve interactive mobile apps, easily navigable websites and love stories woven around customer relationship management software.

Two unlikely partners in this game are Rajdeep Endow, Sapient’s India MD who is an IIM-Ahmedabad graduate with a strong background in technology consulting, and KV "Pops" Shridhar who left Leo Burnett last year after 17 years to become Sapient’s chief creative officer for India.

“Today’s marketers are challenged by 10 to 15 channel marketing partners. Without anyone knowing, the landscape has changed,” says the goateed Sridhar, who helped launch India’s first colour TV and fax machine decades ago. Today, he has to deal with many Internet screens and real-world touchpoints for customers, going beyond the simple old world of print and TV/radio.

For Endow, this has involved a human resource transformation in the company.

“If I look back at the last 10 years, we have had to undergo a metamorphosis in three areas: capabilities, culture and brand. And integration is critical in making this happen,” Endow says.

“I used to haul up people once for wearing flip-flops to office. Now I see people in shorts around me. Diversity has become an explicit focus for several years now,” says Endow.

One practice, strangely is not typical advertising style. SapientNitro works as a global team-for-global clients operation, defying the geographically delegated agency model.

Sapient’s journey in turning a new leaf has been a long one. It had a chief creative officer in the US as far back as in 1994, when its founder-CEO decided one fine day that Internet consulting would be the main focus for the company.

Sapient, then a network computing expert, had then built the world’s first Internet banking application. Many acquisitions later, after putting a cultural transformation in place, the company is now is led by the creative arm SapientNitro, which accounts for 65% of the $1.4 bn revenues of the New York-listed Sapient.

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