Q&A with Rishad Tobaccowala


On the occasion of the SITO Institute for Consumer Behavior and Location Sciences Breakfast Briefing at the JW Marriott in Chicago on March 28, 2019, Bruce Rogers, founder of Forbes Insights, had a Q&A session with Rishad Tobaccowala, Chief Growth Officer, Publicis Groupe and noted futurist for his thoughts on his book and what marketers need to do to stay relevant in an age of data.

Bruce Rogers: What’s the premise for your upcoming book?

Rishad Tobaccowala: The book is titled Restoring the Soul of Business: Staying Human in an Age of Data. I travel a lot around the world and I was listening for questions that people were asking, regardless of country, regardless of industry, regardless of age. I began to realize that most books were not answering those questions in ways that made sense. And then I tried to figure out what could be improved with non-fiction books. And what could be made better with non-fiction books, was not that publishing had to be disrupted right, it wasn’t how it was going to be distributed–it was what was being written about. Most books are written for the writer.

They’re not written for the reader because the writer wants to write a book so they can go on a speaking tour. Most non-fiction books should have only been one chapter long. What started as a Harvard Business Review article is then repeated 12 times in the book. Lastly, it’s full of outdated case studies, because the publishing process takes about two years from the time you finish writing it.

I wanted to do a book that had something different and was about the questions that people were asking that I thought I could help answer. I share evergreen anecdotes but no case studies, because companies don’t share the best case studies and even then they get out of date quickly. I also decided to write a book so you can read any chapter in any order. There are chapters like, “Too much math, too little meaning” – which is about data. 

Another chapter is “The Turd on the Table” or how to turn truth to power, and another on how to basically be a good boss and how to live with bad bosses. These are questions that people haven’t been able to answer. And as my editor says, “you actually are saying stuff that no one has said before”.  I said, “yes, hopefully it’s not insane, but, it’s different.”

Rogers: Let’s talk about an example of “truth to power.” You were early to see the coming disruption to the publishing and media business, yet few headed your predictions.

Tobaccowala: 23 years ago, I was doing a lot of direct and data based marketing for Leo Burnet and began to realize that direct and data-based marketing didn’t work in most cases. I had an advanced degree in mathematics, so I figured out how it didn’t actually work. And the reason was by the time you found your target, you bought the list, you cut the trees you mailed the stuff out, it was more expensive than advertising on television to everybody.

And so, in effect, my thought was: “What if we can remove all of those costs? And that’s how I discovered things like Prodigy and CompuServe.  We put clients McDonald’s and General Motors on AOL.

I said there’s a new world coming. In early 2000, newspapers were at their height and I said that I anticipate in the next 5-10 years you will lose half your business unless you change. Same for magazines.  And they said yes, that’s interesting but we won’t change. People say, “I want the facts. I want the data.”  Hey, everybody knew the facts, everybody knew the data. And the reason people don’t change depends upon if they’re incentivized to do it or if the company is organized the right way. So it’s basically about culture, structures, organization and incentive. It’s not about data and technology.

When people said, “content is king” I said “that’s not necessarily true.” Content companies struggle to keep margins, which are going to people who know how to monetize content, which are the companies who can help you discover content and distribute content. Google and Facebook, point you to content, they don’t create content. We create the content, we take our friends, we do everything, we take our data to them. They don’t create limited to no content . And yet they’re the most valuable companies.

That’s why magazine companies are going out of business. Newspapers – outside of a handful in the UK and The New York Times and WSJ – are going out of business. We have companies that have billions of dollars being wasted even to this day. So let’s figure out what the real issue is and the real issue is internal culture, internal talent, internal systems. It has more to do than just technology.

Rogers: What are the implications for marketers?

Tobaccowala: My biggest concern with all of us in our business is the following:  Marketing was supposed to grow more important in the future. But it didn’t, and the reason it didn’t were three reasons. One is we’ve haven’t figured out how to talk accountability language. Few people define themselves by a brand. Second, to a great extent, we rarely use the language of the consumer. We often end up with brand speak. Who cares about the words of the brand? And thirdly, many marketing service firms as well as, in some cases marketers, are increasingly subservient to the major platforms or are not as relevant as the new direct to consumer brands.

Today all of us have got to recognize that you can’t talk of authenticity, purpose, environment governance but basically operate as if everything is about manipulating numbers. If it’s all about manipulating numbers, you’re going to lose your job. Because the machines are going to do it better.

If it was true that we all actually looked at life through rationality of a spreadsheet, then let me assure you that all of us would be driving Toyota Camrys and wearing Swatch watches. Because Swatch watches are as good as any watch and Toyota Camrys are as good as any car. But we don’t do that. It’s because we’re all human beings and human beings are variable and choose with their hearts. They use numbers to justify what they just did. The world’s best brands recognize that. And therefore whenever people say it’s all about data, I say, “Yes, that’s absolutely necessary in today’s world, but it’s not sufficient to them.”

I had this discussion in my opening chapter about “too much math too little meaning,” I know math. I know math better than most people. I went to the University of Chicago for a finance degree, so I’m not anti-math. I think data and math and location and all these things are extremely important. But there’s got to be something more. You can’t win without those, but having those isn’t sufficient to differentiate.

Rogers: Let me just challenge your idea around the direct to consumer movement, which is very powerful. But in some of the conversations I’ve had with marketers and some of the trends that I’ve seen, is that the digital-born brands, now want physical locations. And they want to understand how to use TV.

Tobaccowala:  What happens is that all brands will eventually end up using television/video. It’s just what I mentioned I had discovered in 1995, and people are going to rediscover in 2019. They’re going to all end up using television, but the television will be very different than the television we know, including out of home.

Networked, wired, out of home is going to be the big thing that people are going to discover because you can’t avoid it. These direct-to-consumer brands scale it with television, but they created the brand and then they innovate without television.

There’s a fast cycle time that these brands innovate with. Most of these brands, happen to have three exit possibilities. Very few of them will actually be viable by themselves. Most of them are being created so that the large companies buy them. Many of them are going to go out of business, because the economics of these businesses don’t actually make sense. They can’t scale really high because if you start thinking about all the stuff they have to do, they’re not really scaled businesses.

The direct to consumer brands have not really scaled, and now you’ve basically got 12-13 of the same type. And there’s going to be a whole bunch of churn. But that’s a fantastic way of learning, and creating new products. So what they’re actually showing is a new way of marketing, they haven’t necessarily shown a new commercial business model. Yet.

Rogers: What’s the one piece of advice you’d offer to marketers, given the challenges and disruptions they face?

Tobaccowala:  I would give you the three different pieces of advice I give myself. The first one, is, and even though I look like an old Nokia phone, I’m still running the latest operating system. How is that? I spend 1-2 hours each day learning new things. I get up at 4:30AM every morning and I spend an hour and a half learning new things. I truly believe that if you aren’t learning new things, you are becoming irrelevant and you’ll start faking it and then you’ll lose your job. The second one which is extremely important, is try to build a case for the exact opposite of what you think is true.

The reason, to an extent, is that I am convinced that some of the stuff I  believe is because I’ve built a very strong case as to why I am wrong. And then I’ve thought really hard as to why I might actually be right even though I built a very strong case that I am wrong. So if you can’t build that case, for the opposite side, then you can’t know what the hell is going on. It also is a way to get you out of your filter bubble and listen to other things. And third is, I would say that the future is about data-driven storytelling. It’s data driving story telling. It has to be about data because it has to be truth based on facts. So invest in yourself, think the opposite what you think is true might actually be true and data driven storytelling.

Rogers: Thank you.

You can read the full Q&A here: https://www.forbes.com/sites/brucerogers/2019/04/02/qa-with-rishad-tobaccowala-staying-human-in-an-age-of-data/?sh=4e363435e796

Buy the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Restoring-Soul-Business-Staying-Human/dp/1400210542

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