Last week, Publicis Sapient named John Maeda its chief experience officer. You might be thinking “Who?” if the rise in business’ focus on design has escaped your radar.

Well, Maeda is a world-renowned design leader with a sterling résumé, including an MIT Media Lab professor, president of one of the top design schools in the world, the Rhode Island School of Design, partner at the prestigious VC firm Kleiner Perkins, and most recently a senior exec at Automattic, owner of WordPress, which is used by one-third of the world’s top 10 million websites.

Wired once said that “Maeda is to design what Warren Buffett is to finance.” Maeda also creates a widely read, yearly “Design in Tech” report. He has stirred the design world by asserting that design really isn’t that important compared with strong teamwork and partnerships — a controversial statement that rightly pointed out that design is about the human experience rather than designers or the design process.

This move makes a big splash in the design world for Publicis Sapient, helping it become more of a thought leader and attract other design talent. But does it really help its quest to help companies drive broad organizational transformation?


Last year, I researched the experience design provider landscape in depth and highlighted Publicis Sapient’s expertise at large-scale digital projects and at bringing together digital, physical, service, and spatial design. And in recent Forrester Wave™ evaluations, the company is a Leader in digital experience and a Contender in experience strategy and CX transformation. It’s already a top-tier provider and on most shortlists for firms tackling major experience design and technology needs.

So bringing Maeda into its C-suite just adds to Publicis Sapient’s established strengths, defending it against firms like McKinsey, BCG, and Accenture, which have all bolstered their design chops over the past few years. Forrester analysts Jay Pattisall and Ted Schadler predicted this kind of creative hire in their recent report about how creative differentiation helps brands.

Maeda says he’s going to Publicis Sapient to help what he calls the “end-ups” — his term for established companies that have been successful but are now struggling to adapt to a tech-driven world.

But our research shows that these companies often need more than design and customer research help. They also need to advance in several of the essential competencies of customer experience, such as measurement and culture, and to change their business models to become more customer-centric.

Hiring Maeda will further burnish Publicis Sapient’s reputation with design and business leaders who already knew what it could do. But it doesn’t shore up the areas where Publicis Sapient is less widely known — traditional business strategy and organizational change beyond technology and design efforts. Maeda will be a powerful force in helping Publicis Sapient in pitches to land new business and in protecting the firm from becoming an “end-up” itself, to use Maeda’s term.

Maeda’s motivations are noble: He told Fast Company that he wants to get out of the startup and tech world and “serve the lives of human beings, regular people, non-tech people.” And we heard him at a 2019 SF Design Week event two days after the announcement, where he told the crowd that he wants to bring more companies into the tech space and add more art from the design world to “end-up” companies.

This is where we believe Maeda will have the greatest impact: the thought leadership he’s known for, especially through his Design in Tech report (which he plans to rename the computational experience report). If Publicis Sapient is able to effectively tap into his thought leadership, the firm will benefit — and so will its clients and the industry at large.