Publicis Groupe’s Rishad Tobaccowala: “We Are No Longer Marketing to People, But to Gods”

What: Rishad Tobaccowala gave a master talk for brand marketers at a special event organized by Publicis Media Mexico, and Portada got the chance to ask him about key trends shaping the marketing industry.
Why it matters: Tobaccowala, Chief Growth Officer at Publicis, has decades of experience in strategy and growth innovation. He has been recognized by numerous institutions as a visionary with fruitful ideas for the future of business and marketing.

Rishad Tobaccowala, Chief Growth Officer with 36 years of experience at Publicis Media Groupe, has been called by many as a visionary, which makes sense if we consider that his main area of focus is the future. On August 20, Tobaccowala gave a master talk for brand executives in Mexico City, titled "How to Remain Relevant and Grow in Transformative Times". Technology is advancing at an unforeseen speed, and Tobaccowala's insights about how to be prepared for the future left no doubt in the room about why he has been recognized as one of the five Marketing Innovators by Time magazine.

For everyone involved in business and marketing, whether it's brands, media or press, it's important to think about strategy. For Rishad Tobaccowala, explaining what strategy means isn't that difficult. "You only have to think about three words," he explained to kick off the conference. "Future, Competitive, Advantage. You have to think about the future, about your competitors, and about what advantage your business brings when faced with them." That sounds simple enough, but how will we know in what direction to go? "You can't succeed if you go left while the rest of the world goes right," he added. Therefore, he proceeded to explain which three global trends are already shaping the future.

Three trends are shaping the whole world, and marketing isn't exempt...

... Quite the contrary, marketing is one of the disciplines that will become increasingly important as these three trends shape the future, according to the Publicis executive. These are unstoppable trends that will affect everyone, he says, for better or for worse: 1) Globalization. It used to be a western idea, but it is now a global phenomenon. 2) Demographics. With the growth of Asian, African, and Latin American populations, the future is more and more diverse. 3) Technology. It's been around since the discovery of fire, but the last decades have seen an acceleration that forces us to adapt as quickly as possible before it's time to adapt again. Thus, explained Tobaccowala, every new idea needs to be aligned with globalization, diversity, and new technologies, or else, it is destined to fail from the very start.

The bond between technology and marketing

So far, there have been two key moments in which technology has changed forever the way to do marketing, asserts Tobaccowala. The first one occurred in 1995, with the start of the World Wide Web and the first connected age. "All of a sudden you could look for products, brands, and services online," he explained. Then, in 2007, Facebook went from .edu to .com, and the second connected era, one of social networks and mobile networks, exploded. 11 years later, everyone has at least one smartphone with more computing power than the first space shuttle.

You're no longer marketing to people or consumers, but to gods.

So, how do these advancements affect the ways to do marketing? For Tobaccowala, the first thing is accepting that every consumer now has god-like power on the palm of their hand. "I always say to my clients, 'You're no longer marketing to people or consumers, but to gods. How are we going to satisfy gods?" he asked rhetorically to the conference attendees. "Clients can no longer say something like 'We're going to empower customers' because they already are empowered. All companies are having major problems on this second connected age because we think consumers are waiting for us, big mistake." Therefore, everyone involved in marketing needs to make sure to talk to real consumers, who are now more similar to gods than ever, and stop believing in some made-up fantasy about what people want.

What should we do about it?

Rishad Tobaccowala declares that as technology keeps advancing and we move towards the third connected age (the one of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning), Marketing will be more important than ever because it is the discipline that tries to understand and meet consumers’ requirements through a combination of art and science. "When you go into a boardroom, you don’t see a CMO, you see a CEO, a CFO… But it’s time for marketing to take over the companies, or the consumer will run away," he asserts. "Today, we need to stop being dollar-obsessed and become people-obsessed. We have to eliminate internal friction and silos, be ready to outsource instead of insourcing. In the era of networks, networks are what we need." Moreover, he says, we should be ready to look differently at certain things that we think we know, like the way brands are built and how businesses are scaled.

The first thing I do when any client is building a brand for the first time is I use the word SAVE. S = For whom are you a solution? A = How are you giving people access to new opportunities? V = What value do you bring? E = Why is someone's experience better because of you? So I ask, 'How are you going to SAVE someone?'

"The most important thing I've learned," said Tobaccowala nearing the end of his master talk. "Is that you can't control anything but yourself, even if you're senior. No one has enough data to really know anything, the most we can aspire to is to become data-driven storytellers." But perhaps even more important is the notion that, even though we don't always want things to change, we can't expect the future to be static, and in order for everything to stay the same, we are the ones who need to change.

Some recommendations to remain relevant

After the master talk, Rishad Tobaccowala talked to Portada and we had the chance to talk to him in more detail about key ideas to keep in mind for the future.

Portada: What is the role of the marketing teams of the future? How can CMO's predict what's coming and be ready for change?

R.T.: Some parts of the future are easier to predict than others. I've always believed that marketing is becoming more important, and therefore CMO's need to be taken more importantly. Companies are not paying enough attention to their marketing teams, and it's becoming more important that they do. And why do they not pay enough attention to marketing teams? Because marketing didn't use to be as important as it is today. Marketing is a combination of art and science, sometimes in a similar way to writing. You train yourself to be a writer, but there's an art to writing a story. Marketers have become very comfortable with numbers, they have tended to be less comfortable with emotion, but the future is not only about spreadsheets, it's also about the story.

There are differences that have to do with things you can't count. [...] That's what marketing is about. That's actually what life is about.

It's very important that marketers not only let the numbers make the decision. One thing I advise our clients is they should be comfortable talking about things they're uncomfortable with. Business has an emotion to it, not everything is defined. Blaise Pascal wrote, 'We choose with our hearts and we use numbers to justify what we just did.' Luxury brands are growing more than any other category right now, but the reality is that a Mercedez Benz won't take you to a place faster or better than a very cheap Nissan or Toyota. The difference in performance is very low, but there are other differences that have to do with things that you can't count: it's about design, status, feeling. That's what marketing is about. That's actually what life is about.

Portada: What is the best way for marketers to connect with the emotion part of the industry?

R.T.: The biggest way I think marketers can learn (besides looking up everything you don't know) is to keep in mind the customer of your client, to observe people. And one of the ways to observe how people are changing is by spending a lot of time with art and culture. When someone asks 'How can I understand people better?' I sometimes say 'Why don't you read Madame Bovary? Or Don Quixote?' These are actually about people. When someone asks 'How can I be an entrepreneur?' I suggest them to look at what artists do, whether writers or painters. Every time you get up in the morning and you have to write a story, what do you have? A blank sheet of paper, and you have to invent something! Marketing is about people and business. We should be proud that we are working in something that is art and science, and not run away from the fact that it is both.

Portada: You mentioned in your presentation that the future is about going with inevitable diversity, do you think there is a way for brands to adopt attributes that get them closer to multicultural audiences?

R.T: There are four different levels of diversity:

1) Your communication should reflect that you recognize culture. The first thing is being aware of cultural differences. Speak to that cultural difference. The way that you frame your brand should resonate with the reality of that particular culture.

2) Diversity is important within your company. Things like the failed Pepsi ad happen when there is no one there to see it. Even if you are very smart, if you try to market, say, in Mexico, but there isn't even one person with Mexican heritage in your group, you'd probably come up with something very stupid.

3) People are more human than they are different. There are people that say 'I need to create a message that is just for African-Americans'. If your product or service isn't different and you're only selling a human message, why do you try to make it a totally different story? Part of diversity is understanding that sometimes humanity is more common than differences are different.

My worry is a world in which people stop saying things for fear of getting into trouble.

4) People are naturally diverse and they have diversity of talent, but they also have diversity of thinking. It means someone should be able to tell you that they disagree with you, and you should be not thinking that it's because they are anti-something, they can be just anti-your-thinking. My worry is a world in which people stop saying things for fear of getting into trouble. Diversity of thinking is the most important one of all, and one of the ways of getting better at it is traveling. My belief is that the ultimate diversity is the diversity of mindsets; part of it is because of your background, part of it comes from culture, but sometimes you can have men and women from different cultures and of different colors, and everyone thinks the same.

Portada: You also mentioned the need for companies to consider the scale of influence, what would you recommend to brands that are investing in influencer marketing? 

R.T.: It's a matter of authenticity and purpose. When you get an influencer, the influencer works if ideally, they are talking about a product or service that they already used and liked before you bid them to say they like it. The catch is that when you can buy influencers, it backfires. A lot of influencers take money from a brand that they don't use or care about. The other thing that happens is that now everyone is an influencer, which means that no one is an influencer. Kylie Jenner's products work because she's selling something she really uses. Some people charge thousands of dollars to send an Instagram post, but it doesn't work if it's not authentic and purpose-driven. At least in a commercial, it's clear that it's a commercial, but in this case, people just think that you sold yourself out.

Portada: We're entering the era of Artificial Intelligence. If marketing is a combination of art and science, how will we not lose the art part, the human touch, as machines start to take over?

R.T.: I didn't talk about it today, but I've written about it on my blog. The third connected age, which has just begun, is composed of three things. The first connected age was a page connecting to other pages; the second one was people connecting to people, either through mobile or social. The third connected age means three things: data connecting to data, which is what AI is; things connecting to things, which is the Internet of Things; and new ways of telling stories, which is voice-based technology, augmented reality, virtual reality, and mixed reality.

This is what will happen: first, because of AI, certain things that machines can do better will be done by machines, but people plus machines have been found to be better than machines in most cases. There are certain things that machines can do, but when things are changing all the time, people can think and compute the change on the machine that computes it. Second, these technologies allow us to tell stories in different ways. More people are connecting because of AI, that allows things like google translate. We can also tell stories through Alexa and things like that. And another thing that it's in its early days is, if you go to the NYT website (other websites have it), you'll find a Virtual Reality section where you can learn about a refugee camp and actually explore it. You start to believe you are in there, you feel empathy. When people started to see that, they started to contribute. Part of this technology will go very math-oriented, but also part of it will provide ways to connect.

I tell stories because I do things that machines cannot do. [...]Machines are getting more accurate, and also faster. The human side of you is going to be the differentiating side.

Portada: How will consumers be sure brands are connecting with them in a human way?

R.T.: The human touch will become the difference. What can be automated will be automated. I have an undergraduate degree in advanced mathematics and an MBA from one of the most quantitative schools in the world (University of Chicago), but I do as little as I can with numbers. I tell stories because I do things that machines cannot do. When someone tells me 'The spreadsheet told me to do this', I say 'I hope you get a job soon', because if you tell me what the spreadsheet says, 'What is your value? Why do you have a job?' Not only blue-collar jobs will be automated, but also some white-collar jobs. Machines are getting more accurate, and also faster. The human side of you is going to be the differentiating side.


Janet Grynberg @grynberg_janet

Janet has worked as editor and translator since 2013. After graduating with honors when receiving her Bachelor's Degree in English literature, she began working as a book reviewer for Expansión, the leading business magazine in Mexico. She has also worked as editor of young adult literature for publishing houses like Planeta and Penguin, and she's the author of a book of short stories. She's in the process of getting her MA in English at McGill University. Her interests include arts, good food, and her 8 pets.

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