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Sunday, April 14, 2013

With product lifecycles shorter, it's the brand that will count: Rishad Tobaccowala

DNA Money editor Raj Nambisan co-authored this Q&A appearing in the edition on Monday, Feb 11, 2013.

Rishad Tobaccowala is a marketing innovator of visionary proportions. The semantics he spouts are bewitching, but their essence is persuaded by a simpler dictum: be 360-degree relevant, grasp the future and thrive in it.  He is the chief strategy and innovation officer at the Chicago-based Vivaki, which is an amalgam of the digital and media assets of advertising giant Publicis Groupe such as Starcom Mediavest, Zenith Optimedia, Razorfish and Digitas. In an interview with Raj Nambisan and Ashish K Tiwari, he tells it as he sees it. Edited excerpts:

You talk of advertising having entered a golden age. Is it primarily because of the measurability factor?

There are actually five factors, including measurability. It starts with people, because marketing is about understanding and meeting customer requirements. In the past, people were not so empowered so you could get away with stuff. Today that’s harder, which basically means you have to understand and listen. The second is because everything from social media to people wanting to know who’s in the company and what’s in the company. You actually have to train all of your company to be marketers of some sorts or the other. Because there is twittering coming, there is CRM (customer relationship management) --  even the truck driver has to be trained because he’s a brand ambassador.

The whole organism morphs into a brand ambassador…
Yes, the whole organisation has to become marketing-oriented. The third reason is there are many more ways to marketing than before. And digital allows you to do what is the fourth and very important thing: tell the story, which is what marketing is all about. So what is happening now is that you’ve got new ways of storytelling. The old way was with images, words, pictures and sound. But now you have participation, mobility and data that allow you to tie into YouTube and other kind of stuff. The fifth and the last one is better metrics. Take all the five and you get a pretty potent thing.

Where is India in this process of impactful digital adaptation? Anywhere near the golden age?
See, anything you can say about India, as we know, the opposite is also a true. But what you can say today is that India is in the process of doing the leapfrog. All of us are old enough to remember how we had to wait for months to get a phone line...

Skipping technology generations?
We are going to not skip, but almost-skip, the entire PC-based digital revolution and go directly to mobile and tablets. That is one. The second is, because infrastructure in some places is broken down,  electronic commerce is taking off. Third is, in India, whatever we may say about our government, it has been far more progressive on things that have to do with digital than even the United States. For instance, I noticed that 75% of e-commerce is about travel in India, but a lot of it is basically Indian Railways. And this unique identity card will set off something very interesting. And electronic tendering systems will become a way to fight around corruption sooner or later.

Your thesis is that brands will be important in this era of infinite information. Shouldn’t it be products than brands?
The reason it will be brands more than products is not because they are not connected. You know, a brand is built on five different things --  resonance with culture, design, utility, storytelling and value. Utility is where the product is delivered, and, sometimes, on value. The interesting thing is, the other three have nothing to do with the product. So it is not that the product doesn’t matter. But the reason why the brand has to be involved is because product lifecycles are becoming shorter and shorter.

You famously talked of the future belonging to mongrels – metaphorically, of course, referring to the imperative of a combination of talents and self-upgradation needed to survive today…
What happens is there is a personality -- what they now call a ‘T’ person talent: someone who is very specialised in one or two things. It’s like imagining the bottom of the T. But they need to be enough of a generalist, and, more importantly, have the ability to network and collaborate across silos. If you stay narrow in a world that’s interconnected, how will you connect with other people? You don’t even know what to connect to! So that’s what a generalist does. The vertical line in the T is your skillsets, the horizontal is your ability to connect to other verticals and connect the dots.

Is information power or the door to power?
Information is the door to power more than information is power. There is a lot of information and my belief is that there are four levels -- data, on top of data is information, on top of information is insight, on top of insight is wisdom. Insight is by taking a lot of information and figuring out how to make sense. Wisdom … you add a sort of a layer of a combination of experience and humility that takes you to a different stuff. There is a lot of information about digital – a lot of data -- but very little insight and very few people have done it long enough to basically say this works and this doesn’t. But if you don’t have any information … that’s why I say it’s a door to power; without it you can’t even get insights.

You tweeted a few days ago on wisdom, where you said you have to become who you are. On other hand, you persuade us to get out of silos --  unbecome what we are, as it were…
Yes, but there’s a very big difference. The ‘become who you are’ and unbecome what you are two different things. Become who you are – is about things that you are naturally good at and which make you happy. For instance, I’m perfectly capable and I used to run large accounts for Leo Burnett, but it was very clear that gave me a certain level of joy but not the same joy I get from what I do now. When people say you are very good at what you do, I say, “No, no no!” ... I’m now doing what I am very good at -- which is a huge difference. But in doing what I am doing, I am constantly reinventing myself. So I what I basically do is help my companies reinvent, help people reinvent, clients reinvent and I myself am reinventing. But what happens is, if you put me into something that was static it would be nicer on my travel and other schedules, but I’d probably be less excited. But if you put some people who like managing static organisations on to my stuff, they’ll probably shoot themselves. Hopefully everyone’s doing something that’s exciting and as valuable as I’m doing. There’s that definition of justice by Plato or Socrates, which says everybody in their rightful place.

How do monolithic content companies survive because there are low-to-no entry barriers? Anyone who writes well can live off a blog and gnaw away at the content business…
A blogger can write well but a blogger, with a few exceptions, will never make enough money to live. Won’t have scale and a way to monetise content. Even if he gets scale, it’s not going to be anything like online or what anything else gets. The other thing is, they don’t know how to monetise because you need to have things like a sales force, a cross medium and all kind of stuff. Sure the barrier of entry is none, but the barrier of entry to get a continuous audience is huge. And the barrier of entry to monetise is even huger.
Guess why I blog myself? I do it because of three things. And this is in backward order: but the third reason is so that I can learn how to actually do it, like what is it to write a blog. The second is to share my opinion with the world. If I get enough traffic, it influences the world and therefore helps me build a brand. And the first and biggest reason is, it is a sales tool. It helps me sell to clients. So the way I make money is I’m better known and somebody asks me to go and speak, and my clients and the agency get something.

What’s your advice to the other Chicago Booth School fellow, Raghuram Rajan?
We are just good friends. His kids were taught by my wife, who is a teacher at Booth and that’s how we came to know him. He is incredible.


Factions result in Fractions. Factions result in Friction. Factions create Fiction. In an interconnected world silos are for losers. In the end, time is the only thing we have. And the way we spend our time is the way we spend our lives. We often say we are killing time. But really, it is time that is killing us. So, how best to make the most of time? Five steps: Eliminate (needless activity), Focus on comparative advantage and positive outcomes, Scale yourself, Do new things, Give time to others.

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