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The Futurist- Media strategist Rishad Tobaccowala

In media circles he is often referred to as ‘The Futurist’ . He’s predicting the rise of ‘Mongrel Marketing’ , betting on two languages ‘English and Internet’ and says the ‘Future comes from the slime’ . BE gets up, close and personal with Rishad ...

, ET Bureau|
Dec 24, 2008, 04.06 AM IST
For a guy who bets big on digital media, and is on the mark nine out of ten times, not being a Facebooker comes as a surprising revelation. ���I usually log in through my daughters��� account,��� reveals Rishad Tobaccowala, the chief innovation officer of Publicis Media.

This honest admission came from a man who once said Starcom MediaVest Group (SMG) should operate more like a social network than a vertically integrated hierarchy. But bending conventional wisdom has been the hallmark of Tobaccowala���s two decade long career. ���Futurist��� , ���Oracle��� , ���Innovator��� ��� these are some of the sobriquets assigned to Tobaccowala. Ask him about his success mantra and Tobaccowala���s quick and simple mantra is: ���Question management beliefs because that���s what keeps the think-tank bubbling.���

Media strategists like Tobaccowala, and his ilk are in great demand, more so now than ever before, as advertisers race to come in first in an obstacle course of a competitive marketplace and constantly challenged by a rapidly changing media landscape. Even as the scenario demands speed and dexterity, Tobaccowala insists it���s not so much about replacing traditional media with new media platforms. ���People in the world are doing four things, seeking, sharing, buying (e-commerce ) and expressing. So brands which imbibe the four in its communication and marketing will do well, irrespective of whether it���s new media or traditional media,��� he explains.

According to him for those looking to stay ahead of the curve it is important to look in the most unlikely of places. He says rather dramatically: ���The future comes from the slime.��� And given the number of times that he���s been proven right one would imagine that he knows what he is talking about. So what���s he advising his fraternity and clients these days? His advice to media professionals and clients is simple: ���The future does not fit in the containers of the past.��� Reinvention, according to him is the name of the game: ���One must be accustomed to a permanent state of unrest and not cling to the status quo. Instigate and invent new forms of creative.���

The more we talk to him it is clear that he is not one to mince words. Tobaccowala tells us that he isn���t impressed with most solutions provided nowadays and is dismissive of those who learn Hindi and Mandarin, only because they want to get a toehold into India or China. As new media and markets grow, Tobaccowala says that what people are looking for is new ways to connect.

���At times that���s scary for marketers,��� he admits, but adds that one must understand that mindsets matter and not technology or language. ���People with emotions matter and not machines.��� He tells us of the time when he told his client, HP, not to get into Second Life. His reasoning? It���s overhyped.

���Everyone���s going for what is hot. The hottest thing is Facebook and every brand wants to have Facebook application . I ask them, why?��� He points out that while theoretically it might seem like a good idea to try and sell financial products to people queuing up to buy tickets at a multiplex , it���s very likely that they simply wouldn���t be interested.

���Similarly, people logging on to Facebook will not be interested in ads,��� he states. An example of smart usage of new media, he says, is a site started by pet care products company, Purina:���After pornography, seeking information on pets is the next big thing in the US. The site enables pet lovers to share tips, information and videos on cats and dogs.��� He also rubbishes attempts of marketers who jump on to new media bandwagons and markets. ���This blind belief in the thing of the moment is where we falter . New media don���t build scale, traditional media can do that,��� So which direction does he see the world moving in? He tells us that the future could well be Mongrel Marketing.

He explains the term saying: ���The future is a mish-mash of things. Take the movie Slumdog Millionaire for example. It���s a story based on Mumbai, directed by an Englishman with its music composed by an Indian,��� he says. He believes that the two languages of the future are English and Internet . Those who don���t realise this according to him do so at their own peril. Tobaccowala sees loads of opportunities in the new world. However the three big trends all media people must take account are search, video and entertainment and social media. Why is search so important? He says, ���It���s relevant to people but is relevant to us because of the users intent.���

Traditional media, from television to newspapers, will continue to be important, but he thinks they need to re-evaluate and change their ways. Considering the impending gloom and doom economic scene, he says television will work because of market dynamics , discrepancies in demand and supply, which will prompt a lot of marketers to go back to basics. He reckons spends on experimental digital stuff will be toned down, nevertheless: ���Marketing is increasingly happening in real time. People want what they want but they want it now! But organisations are still clearly on calendar time! That must change.��� Thinking out loud Tobaccowala believes in the future, ���we might have a force called Rapid Reaction Marketing Teams, men and women who can react to certain events and leverage them.���

An initiator of online advertising, Tobaccowala , who graduated in Math from Mumbai University and followed it up with a degree in marketing and finance from University of Chicago, first established himself worthy of the title ���The Futurist��� when he convinced his boss at Leo Burnett Worldwide to spin off the interactive ad unit. This was after a decade as media buyer, account manager and researcher and his move to head the interactive unit definitely raised eyebrows as it defied logical career moves. ���A senior marketing head from the client���s side tells you he doesn���t believe in traditional media and that we should do interactive marketing. So I went from Moscow to Siberia on the express. In a snap, I moved from the centre of power��� creative and client services to the middle of nowhere,��� he reminisces.

Soon Leo Burnett Interactive Marketing Group, with Tobaccowala at the helm, bagged its first client- McDonald���sand he stumbled upon a small time tech firm called America Online- AOL. Thus the fast food giant became the first nontech company to advertise online. In the mid-1990 s at a time when the titans were gobbling up private agencies and many were rushing to Wall Street, Leo Burnett was one of few who held off on the bourse.

Instead the company expanded markets and its electronic services . Tobaccowala spotted a relatively unknown production house, persuaded management to make the acquisition and nurture it as a separate entity. Hence Giant Step Productions became the first in-house company not to carry the Leo Burnett nametag (of course in 2003 things changed and Publicis Groupe snapped up Leo Burnett). Another notch in Tobaccowala���s belt is when he persuaded marquee clients like Procter & Gamble and General Motors to jump on the future train and stay committed to the Web during the downturn.

He made a career out of defying the odds and breaking new ground. To Tobaccowala , three things were clear ��� TV will be more important in the future (what he calls the era of visual engagement ), the gap between media and creative will be a blur and the media model would go from one of segmentation of audiences to re-aggregation . Right on all three counts, he founded SMG Next, the futures practice. Then came the first online media company called SMG Digits, SMG Play, the first video-gaming unit that figured out how to place ads in games, which caught rivals napping and Reverb, a word-of mouth practice.

If there���s been a blotch on his near perfect record it would have to be in the area of search. A big miss? Yes! ���Search was built by long-tail advertisers, we were not out there first and played catch-up players with SMG Search,��� he admits, but adds; ���We might have missed a few, but if I could predict the future then I would have short sold all my stock early September and would have retired,��� he laughs.

When Jack Klues, the first-ever chairman of Publicis Media Groupe, suggested Tobaccowala should go back into a business role, he decided to build something new and make a business out of it. He took a hat full of different ideas that did not fit in the existing system and created what he calls ���a bhelpuri of a company��� , called Denuo three years ago. The ���think-do��� company has been configured for agility and flexibility and works on a plug-and-play model.���All the crazy ideas that didn���t gel in anywhere came into Denuo,��� he says. Well, if records are anything to go by, crazy is the future.

Mongrel Marketer

Trust Tobaccowala to give the 2008 US Presidential election a digital tweak. He summed up the difference between the two democratic candidates, Hillary Clinton and Barrack Obama, in these simple words: ���She used Hallmark Channel , he used YouTube,���

According to the new age media guru it was a battle between the analog mindset and a digital one. ���It was about experience versus change, old wisdom and technocracy versus grassroots re-aggregation and new media. She showed no emotion until the end and he talked about hope and change,��� he adds.

According to Tobaccowala the next US President���s bottom-up approach, mixed use of traditional and digital media and adherence to the message of ���Yes We Can��� put him miles ahead, and by the time Clinton���s gang caught on to the power of emerging media truths, it was too late. So we ask him, what lessons did we learn? ���To begin, now I ask my clients, who are you? Obama or Clinton?���
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