Rishad Tobaccowala


Last week in this space I offered the hope that publishers, advertisers, agencies, platforms and ad tech companies would make better choices now that the much-abused Cookie was being taken out of service. I suggested that someone should be in the room advocating for privacy and honesty. I also hope we’ll reconsider who we serve and how we think about them.

Consumers? Impressions? Unique IDs? Traffic? No. Citizens.

Several years ago, an adtech and data firm asked me to moderate a panel on privacy at one of their conferences. I agreed, provided we could populate the panel with actual people – civilians who visited our websites, watched our videos, looked at our ads, bought stuff. Setting aside the fact that this was first time many in the audience had ever discussed privacy with anyone outside of our business, the insights were remarkable.

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“Who said it was OK to target me?” asked a business owner from Nassau County. “What am I getting out of that deal?”

“Don’t tell me the internet is free,” said a teacher from Queens. “I pay money every month to get online.”

“I get it and I’m OK with ads,” offered an electrician from Jersey. “But don’t you think you guys are overdoing it and poisoning the well?”

These were not Luddites or radical consumer activists. Just Citizens who’d been overlooked and taken for granted for one hell of a long time. They’d been treated like numbers on a spreadsheet, anonymous cogs. And they were fed up.

Something remarkable happens when we begin framing the people at the center of our world as Citizens. We start to grasp our responsibility for giving them a decent environment. We become stewards. We make fewer careless assumptions about what we can get away with and start asking what’s the right thing to do.

I haven’t kept in touch with the Citizens from that panel. But I would guess that they, like so many others, are spending a bunch more time on Facebook and Instagram – in spite of the fact that scores for trust and privacy on those platforms are bottoming out.  They probably reason that if they’re going to get jerked around they may as well get jerked around in an efficient, predictable environment.

Now we’ve got a chance to start again. We can win those Citizens back. As the amazing Rishad Tobaccowala writes in Restoring the Soul of Business, we can close out the age of Too Much Math, Too Little Meaning. No more carpet bombing with the same dumb ads. Less content and more facts and real information. No more careless use of data. No more thoughtlessness about the environment we steward. 

That’s no way to treat Citizens.

If you’re a qualified sales leader and want to talk about the next era in our business, you might like to attend Seller Forum on Wednesday March 18th in New York, reach out now for your invitation.

Deep State Advertising.

Over the 20+ years I’ve known him, I’ve always thought Rishad Tobaccowala (now with Publicis Groupe) was a national treasure.   He has that rare gift of being able to intellectually surround an issue and then quickly carve it down to its most essential point.  So it was with particular interest that I read his prediction that advertising would decline 30% over the next five years.

He’s right, of course.

The principle reason he cites for this decline is the flight to ad free environments.  “We don’t value (consumers’) time,” he explains, going on to quote the valuation as “less than minimum wage.”  I agree, but for a somewhat more elaborate set of reasons.

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I think too much of the “advertising industry” is just that:  an industry devoted to advertising… to generating more and more and more of it; to giving each other awards for it; to managing it’s migration into every nook and cranny of life.  If we’re honest we’ll admit that the “advertising industry” has become a self-referential deep state affair, hell-bent on its own survival.

We’ll also admit that many of us have lost sight of the original story-line, the real mission:  that the purpose of our work is not to win the next agency bake-off or secure a bigger share of “the budget.” We’re supposed to be devoted to helping marketers sell products, grow their businesses, build factories and employ workers. Small wonder that marketers have come to see advertising not as a source of growth but as a cost-center.

To paraphrase noted Vermonter and 30th president Calvin Coolidge, “the business of advertising is business.”  Or at least it should be.

Not to sound like too much of a relic, but when I started out at a small ad agency at age 22, part of my training program was delivering beer kegs, shadowing bank tellers and working in a shipping warehouse full of car polish.  It may seem quaint now, but we understood on a visceral level the business our clients were in. And by extension the business we were in.

We’ve lost a little something since then.  I hope we get some of it back.

Your Cheatin’ Heart.

 Your Cheatin Heart“At times of uncertainty, marketers become polygamous.”    ~ Rishad Tobaccowala, 10/29/13

When our keynote speaker dropped this little nugget at Tuesday’s Upstream Seller Forum in New York, it was like a face full of ice water after a hard night.  It’s clear, simple, powerful.   And so, so true.

Think about the long periods – decades, eras – when the marketer’s world was relatively stable and, if not predictable, at least based on regular cycles.  Perhaps I’m influenced by the hazy recollection of simpler times, but agency relationships were once longer and more durable; commitments to channels and media partners were less capricious and disposable; and ROI was measured across years, not milliseconds.  It would be easy to long for these simpler, more monogamous times and wish for them to come back.  It would also be foolish.  Welcome to the age of permanent asymmetry.

This week’s Drift is proudly underwritten by PubMatic. With PubMatic’s platform, publishers have the ability to offer their inventory to over 400 global Demand Partners – ad networks, demand side platforms, ad exchanges, and agency trading desks – and have on demand access to all the software, tools and services they need to realize the full potential of their digital assets.

Over the 19 years that I’ve been part of the digital marketing world – and in the dozen years before that – I’ve watched many companies and executive try to bring stability and structure – monogamy — back to their relationships with marketers.  But those marketers remain unsure, hesitant – polygamous.  Whether you’re an agency, a media company, a technology provider or a measurement company, your marketer clients are never again going to settle down.  Things are never going to be simple again.  Get over it.  And then get in front of it.  How?

  • Ditch the command and control models.  If you insist on exclusivity and contractual obligation to define the parameters of your customer relationship, you’re going to lose more and more often.
  • Be the network.  In an open, uncertain environment, we value those who most quickly connect us to the people and resources we need, not those who simply lock us into that which they control.
  • Lead with a Point of View.  In an open, uncertain environment, polygamous clients are drawn to a strong POV as moths are to an open flame.  Those who try to conform and contort themselves to what they think the client wants to hear are just delaying the inevitable rejection and marginalization.  Those prepared to tell the customer what he needs to hear will get to the destination faster.

In the movie “Heartburn,” Meryl Streep is looking for a comforting word from her father in the wake of learning that her hubby has been seeing others.  But the old man cuts to the chase:  “You want monogamy?  Marry a Swan.”   Among marketers, there are very few swans left.  To some, that represents a declining market.   For others, a new beginning.

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.


Over the years I’ve used this space to offer reviews and amplification of books that I think are important to the digital advertising and marketing community.  Some are directly about sales theory (“The Challenger Sale”); others about how we think and create (“A Whole New Mind”); and still others are issue driven (“The Daily You”). Today I’m reviewing a internet book that’s about history.  Sort of.

Cory Treffiletti is well-known to many of us in this industry.  He’s been a leading agency-side executive (i-Traffic, Freestyle Interactive, Carat) and entrepreneurial thinker (IUMA, Catalyst S+F, Blue Kai) since the mid-90s.  Now he’s taken on what can only be described as a massive labor-of-love in compiling “Internet Ad Pioneers: The Stories of the Unsung People Behind the Birth and Growth of the Internet Ad Industry.” The structure is simple:  Cory queued up interviews with 31 people (buyers, sellers, entrepreneurs, researchers and others) who were all deeply engaged around the origins of digital advertising and marketing.  The book is a straightforward presentation of those interviews.

This week’s Drift is proudly underwritten by Yieldex. A big data pioneer, Yieldex developed the first cross-channel inventory forecasting, management and pricing platform to help digital publishers fully monetize their inventory. Plan to join us for the Yield Executive Summit on October 3rd.

Yes, I was initially quite interested in the book because I’m one of those interviewed (Chapter 7) and because I count over two dozen of those featured among my friends, colleagues and collaborators in the business.  But if it were just a self-congratulatory walk down memory lane, “Pioneers” would sell about 31 copies.  The more I read the interviews – the individual stories and recollections – the more I realized this is an important book that should be on the bookshelf of everyone engaged in our business.  For two reasons:

Just When You Think You Know the Story… As I read through the chapters focused on even very close friends, it dawned on me how little attention I’d paid over the years; how many details and themes I never knew, and would never have known had I not stopped to read.  We are all so caught up in the next 15 minutes that we don’t really listen to one another.  I was struck by Maggie Boyer-Finch’s anecdote about a young agency executive who was going on about how great his agency was – all the while unaware that Maggie had helped found that same agency.

Everything Old is New Again. Many of the stories are deeply personal and the themes are evergreen.  Many revolve around times of hubris and unrestrained growth, followed by the inevitable day of reckoning.  There’s very candid conversation around the decisions that were made, and gut wrenching stories about downsizing and survival during “internet winter.”  There are also very practical discussions about evaluating talent, building teams, navigating deals and holding onto core values during chaotic, asymmetrical times.  “Internet Ad Pioneers” may tell stories from the mid-90s, but they can be overlaid neatly over our current discussions about social, mobile, local, video and whatever comes next.

At its best, the book is driven forward by Cory as an active interviewer:  he knows his stuff and raises just enough pointed observations and connections to keep things moving.  (You recognize this quality most when it’s not there:  the Chapter 8 “interview” with Media Post editor Joe Mandese reads like the John Galt monologue from “Atlas Shrugged.”  I would like to have heard more of Cory’s voice in that one.) No book is perfect:  the “closing comments” at the end of each chapter – while generous and respectful – can sound a bit repetitive and overly solicitous of the subjects.  And there were a few spots where some bracketed editorial comments would have better identified and contextualized the stories.

But these are minor points.  Buy this book and read a couple of chapters each day.  Do it not to celebrate the past, but to help yourself and your company navigate the immediate future.