Publicis Sapient’s John Maeda explains how big companies can think like startups

'Grown-up companies have gotten a bad rap'

John Maeda has been a professor at the MIT Media Lab, president of the Rhode Island School of Design, designer partner at venture firm Kleiner Perkins and most recently served as the head of computational design and inclusion at Automattic.

So perhaps it’s no surprise that he made another big leap with his latest job, becoming chief experience officer at Publicis Sapient — the consulting arm of advertising giant Publicis Groupe.

At the time he took the job, Maeda said he’d become more interested in working with “end-ups,” his term for larger companies that “serve the lives of human beings, regular people, non-tech people.”

An admirable sentiment — but it’s easier to talk about large-scale digital transformation that it is make it a reality. So after Maeda had been on-the-job for a few weeks, we met up to discuss how things are going.

While Maeda didn’t talk about his work with specific clients, he only seemed more convinced than ever that he’d made the right decision, and that “grown-up companies have gotten a bad rap.”

At the same time, Maeda sees some key ways in which these companies need to change, like becoming “dataful” — i.e., “leveraging quantifiable data to iterate faster.”

He added, “The CEO needs to run at exponential speed, because they know that the water is already above their head.”

Maeda also discussed his upcoming book “How To Speak Machine,” how companies can collect user data without violating user privacy and why he built his own app during his first 25 days on the job. You can read a transcript of our conversation, edited and condensed for clarity, below.

TechCrunch: So you’re 25 days in. Before you started, you said you were excited to work with what you called end-ups — these larger companies that are the opposite of startups. How has your idea of what the job was going to be compared to those first 25 days?

John Maeda: It really fits what I thought it was going to be. The startup-endup terminology came from — I wrote something for Gigaom with my partner in crime back then (Becky Bermont, now at Ideo) about startups and end-ups.

I think the end-up company is like this Mother Earth or Father Earth that everyone needs to be healthy. Even the startups need it! They’re talking about disrupt, disrupt, disrupt, and you know, maybe a few are brand new ideas, but the rest of kind of like, “You know, I wouldn’t mind being acquired by [a larger company].”

TC: Right, their long-term plan is to be acquired by one of the companies that they’re disrupting.

JM: So I think the end-up — I’m wondering if we should call it a grown-up company. And I think grown-up companies have gotten a bad rap.