Razorfish

Six Questions: Rishad Tobaccowala


Rishad TobaccowalaThe Drift is turning a new page this week.  We’re publishing the first in an irregular series of interviews with provocative media, marketing and communications thinkers.  This post features an edited interview with Rishad Tobaccowala, chairman of Digitas LBi and Razorfish and thought-leader within Publicis.  Rishad will be keynoting the Upstream Seller Forum on Tuesday October 29th in New York.

DOUG WEAVER:  What do you think of our industry’s talent level today?  What other disciplines or backgrounds could help us inform the work ahead?   

RISHAD TOBACCOWALA: We do not have enough talent that combines an awareness of business (IQ) and creativity/insight (EQ) and a digital mindset (TQ). As an industry…we need to a) invest in training, b) hire people who are good in one or two of these skills and expose them to opportunities to learn the others and c) aggressively hire folks without a college degree but who have taken courses in computers, or folks from Art Schools (who increasingly are very tech conversant) and d) place a real priority on minority hiring.

DW:  Is the idea of a “digital agency” or “digital specialist” already anachronistic?    

RT: In a networked world where people can speak with each other we have to invest in product and services and experiences more than just advertising. The mindset change is very significant, the processes are different and there is need for true tech and data expertise and a faster metabolic rate. In some cases digital groups will become part of what were historically analog agencies and in some cases digital experts will pick up offline/analog skills.

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DW: Does the concentration of power and insight by Google concern you at all?   And do you see a credible competitor assembling their own “ad technology stack?”

 RT:  Google is an important partner for us and clearly a dominant player. However there will be many other players emerging as data/creativity/commerce begins to blend with each other. There are at least half a dozen key players in the US including Facebook, Adobe, Amazon, Ebay, Aol, Yahoo, Microsoft and Twitter that can morph in some very interesting ways since they have identity, data, scale and lots more. Of these Amazon and Adobe and Aol are all working on building stacks. Salesforce and Oracle are also approaching the space from a CRM and employee focus.

DW: Do exchanges, trading desks and “bidding” for audiences have the potential to change the fundamental scope of the advertising business?  It seems like the weight has shifted toward distribution and connectivity and away from creativity. 

 RT: Exchanges, Trading Desks and Bidding for audiences is a growing reality and recognizes that marketers want to reach audiences rather than underwrite space and they want to do it as efficiently as possible. Relevance with tight controls is what this is delivering. However in building a brand we need more than plumbing we need poetry. We still need to plan the interaction.

 DW: Name something you read or watch regularly that keeps you grounded in the present and something that keeps you thinking about the future.

 RT: I chair a foundation in India that helps 10,000 poor people and reading about what we are doing and their stories gives you a sense of perspective. For me the Arts is what makes me think about the future because the best artists start with blank sheet of paper or canvas or space and create/see/visualize/make happen things that were never there, which really is about re-imagining reality.

DW: You’re coming to speak at the Upstream Seller Forum at the end of October.  In 12 words or less, tell us what we’ll be hearing.

 RT: The Key Trends That Publicis is Betting On. How to re-invent yourself.

For a full, unedited transcript of the interview — including additional questions — click here.


Agency, Heal Thyself.


This week a good friend sent a provocative Ad Age article around to several people in the industry; the topic was marketers’ new-found tendency to throw their agencies under the bus.  (“In Pressure Cooker, Marketers Lay Blame on Advertising.”)

As I read through the many complaints about this or that client publicly dissing the work of their agencies, a thought occurred to me:

This wouldn’t be happening if Hal Riney were alive.  Or Martin Sorrell, for that matter.

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The simple truth is that in the relentless pursuit of margin growth and short term victories to drive cash flow, agencies long ago stopped defining themselves.  No, the good old days were never really as good as we remember them, but you can’t dispute that in past decades ad agencies had personalities.  Some were defined by the “strong man” who led them:  Riney, Jerry Della Femina, Jay Chiat, Bill Bernbach. (In at least one case – Mary Wells Lawrence – a “strong woman.”)  McCann Erickson was “Truth Well Told” and Doyle Dane Bernbach regularly put out strong, stark creative messages that were – for the time – rather shocking.

Today I think it would be difficult for many agency employees to accurately and simply describe the DNA of the place they work.  What are the true hallmarks of an OMD, a UMI, an MEC?  Perhaps Digitas and Razorfish and Starcom all have well-defined characters – but how many of us understand them? Indeed, it’s now the rare shop that rises above the sea of anonymity and sameness.  Like, for instance, Crispin Porter Bogusky.  Say what you will about the creative excesses of the place (the creepy Burger King dude, e.g.), but CPB has a sense of swagger….and they don’t ever seem to be hurting for work.

If agencies allow themselves to be seen as temporary commerce hubs – routers for ad messages and billings – then they are complicit in their own commoditization.  I started my career at an agency (albeit early in the first Reagan term) and have spent many years prowling their halls.  And I can’t help but think that a shop with a strong sense of itself would not be so easily pushed around.

I welcome and encourage all the comments I’m going to get about how I’m wrong about this or that agency, or how my views are hopelessly naïve and dated.   But all I ask is that my agency friends circulate this post internally and allow it to provoke an important discussion:  Are you, in fact, only as good as the accounts you have on contract right now?  Or is there something more you to which you can aspire?