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On Record 12/01/2000
Eric Adams
Publish Magazine

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Sapient is on a roll, big time.

It's hard to talk about Sapient without sounding ingratiating. But then again, Sapient is on a roll, big time. The company, founded in 1991 largely as a systems integrator, today provides Internet strategy consulting, sophisticated end-to-end solutions, and launch support to Global 1000 and startup companies. But who doesn't?

What sets Sapient apart is its A-list of clients, revenues on a rocket ride, and a roomful of accolades, analyst recommendations and awards that would make Tiger Woods envious. In the past year alone, the Cambridge, Mass.-based "architect of the New Economy" ranked first on Adweek's list of the top 100 interactive agencies. It was named the number one e-commerce integrator (out of 152) by Forrester Research. Fortune called Sapient "the leading mid-sized challenger to the large, traditional consulting firms for business strategy." The company topped SmartReseller's "Smart 50" list (now SmartPartner) of smart companies last year. IT Services Advisory named Sapient the "most admired eConsultancy" in the country. And Southwest Securities says this of the firm: "Accomplishing the seemingly impossible, Sapient recognized the e-business revolution in advance, which enabled it to transform its business model from a client/server focus to an e-business orientation before the shift in demand became obvious."

On the Nasdaq board, on which many Internet-centric companies have soured in the eyes of investors, Sapient announced a two-for-one stock split last August after quarterly revenues increased 96% over the previous year and 25% over the previous quarter. You'd expect numbers like this from a nimble startup, not a mid-size consultancy, but even with the inertia of 2,800 employees in 18 worldwide offices, Sapient's one-year revenue growth is 335.11% higher than the industry average. And Sapient was added to Standard & Poor's 500 Index, making it the first e-services consultancy to join the ranks of blue-chip S&P stocks.

All in all, not a bad year

So what makes Sapient ( the toast of the town? A number of factors, starting with the company's focus on its own people, according to Paul DiGiammarino, Sapient's executive vice president.

"Attracting and retaining the best people and companies is an integral part of the value proposition we offer our clients. I'm very proud of the degree to which we focus our culture here toward our people, giving us one of the lowest attrition rates in the industry," says DiGiammarino.

And Sapient is not afraid to acquire its people wholesale. In 1998, Sapient lured on board Clement Mok, the high-profile designer, along with the 145 employees of his San Francisco-based Studio Archetype studio. In late 1999, Sapient signed on E-Lab, a pioneering research lab in the nascent science of studying user experience online and e-brand identification. Earlier this year, Sapient dried the ink on a deal to acquire Human Code Inc., the Austin, Texas-based developer of rich media.

And even though the arrangement puts Sapient in the curious position of funding its own clients, last May Sapient announced a deal with Thomas Weisel Capital Partners, L.P. (TWCP) to create a $1.3 billion private equity fund to help established companies create new businesses to compete successfully in the New Economy.

"This strategic alliance gives CEOs a single resource that can deliver the strategies, investment discipline, end-to-end implementation, funding and management needed to transform their off-line assets for success in the online world," says DiGiammarino.

It's all about brand

Sapient's success can also be attributed to the company's skill in practicing what it preaches like a mantra to its clients: Strong brands will mark the winning companies in the New Economy. To that end, Sapient launched a campaign in July to make Sapient a household name—well, at least in the homes of Global 1000 executives. Internally, the company has restructured itself following a company-wide decentralization, aimed at quicker response in global regions.

"In some respects, we were the victims of our own success. Companies that came to us for technology thought of us as a technology company. Companies that came to us for creative work thought of us as a design firm. Our reposition is designed to ensure that the market sees us as we truly are—a full-service partner," says Clement Mok, now chief creative officer.

Company officials hope Sapient's brand repositioning will help it better anticipate and understand the implications of new market trends, a characteristic that has defined the company in the past, according to Merle Sprinzen, Sapient's chief marketing officer. "Sapient pioneered the use of fixed-time/fixed-price contracts a decade ago to help clients make their IT projects predictable," says Sprinzen. "Sapient handled wireless and Internet projects as early as 1994, and we made strategic acquisitions in creative design services and experience modeling because we understood the key role that user experience was going to play. During the height of the dotcom craze, we chose to focus on a new breed, incumbent attackers, believing they would ultimately emerge as true players in the New Economy. And we have recently joined forces with a leading merchant bank to provide these incumbent attackers with financial capital and launch support."

This new brand framework is the product of several months of research and discussion that was led by the company's brand and marketing strategists, creative designers, program managers and internal communication experts. The company hopes to build its brand by positioning itself as a strategic expert in its six major areas of practice: financial services; media and entertainment; energy services; retail and consumer product; public services, such as education and health; and technology and industrial services.

"We're trying to build brand by establishing definitive points of view in each industry and using that as a lens into how we manage our own business and consult with our clients," says DiGiammarino. Sapient, for example, saw the writing on the financial services wall several years ago.

"We saw early on that the financial services market was moving from a buyer-centric model to a consumer-driven model. We then saw our job as one that should give our clients the information they needed to make the move, plus personalized tailored services," says DiGiammarino.

One of Sapient's clients, Wells Fargo, was one of the first banks to offer online services. And now 40% of Sapient's business is in the financial sector, including ties with another market pioneer, E*TRADE.

The five disciplines

Full service is one of those nebulous terms that every company bandies about. At Sapient, executives have defined service in the shape of five disciplines, according to DiGiammarino. The first is strategy, as evidenced by the company's brand repositioning plans.

The second is experience modeling, which is the art and science of studying the online user. In addition to the naming of a chief experience officer and the acquisition of E-Lab, Sapient has hired a cadre of sociologists, anthropologists, experts in ethnographic studies and other liberal arts majors to assist in understanding the ever-elusive user.

"Using innovative behavior modeling techniques, we are trying to understand user profiles in new ways. We feel we need to better understand users and what functions they are looking for, because with the proliferation of choices of media type, there needs to be a sharp focus on how information is presented," says Mok, who helps oversees this arena within the company.

The results, of course, differ from user community to user community. "The professionals who visit Adobe .com demand a different user experience and set of tools than those who bank with Wells Fargo," says Mok.

After extensive user modeling, the company turns its attention to the third discipline, traditional design functions, such as interactive design, content creation and information architecture. It's here that the look and feel of the brand is hammered out and tested to ensure that it maintains its character in whatever media it may be delivered.

"Testing here is quite helpful because we get a better sense of how things should be tailored and localized, and a better understanding of the nature and complexity of the resources that need to be brought to bear," says Mok. The design takes shape not only from color palettes but also in the engines of servers, via integration with other systems, and through the hard work of enterprise middleware that breathes the life into e-commerce sites.

The fourth discipline—technical expertise—is Sapient's original stronghold, and an area where other design firms turned e-commerce shops often are weakest. DiGiammarino sees Sapient's expertise as another major element in the company's value proposition for its clients. "This is an area where we have proven our expertise and remain strong," he says.

But these four disciplines would be wheels spinning in different directions if Sapient didn't perform well in the fifth discipline: program management. According to DiGiammarino, "I think nothing is more important that pulling everything together in a methodical way from day one."

Sapient handles this discipline with what it calls the "One Team Approach." Teams are made up of clients, industry and subject matter experts, leaders in digital business strategy, and experts in integrated engagement leadership, creative and experience modeling disciplines. With the team in place, Sapient then follows through with a methodology that sews together the experience.

"We feel this to be our strongest point," says DiGiammarino. "Many companies pass the ball from designer to technologist without there being much interaction between them or among the many other professionals who make a project fly. Anyone who has managed both creatives and technologists know how different the experience can be. It's difficult bringing a couple of disciplines together, let alone many, but we work hard at it because we believe no project succeeds unless you do," he explains.

Good advice

So what's the secret to bringing a company to such an enviable position? Sapient has it worked out: "A service company needs to figure out which one of these disciplines it wants to bring to the table, and then how to supplement the others with outside partners," says DiGiammarino. The formula has definitely worked for Sapient, as it continues to steamroll across the digital landscape of the New Economy.

Courtesy of Publish Magazine

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