Rishad Tobaccowala, Senior Advisor to Publicis Groupe, joins Cross Screen Media CEO Michael Beach to share his insights on a range of topics including what the future of advertising looks like and how organizations can thrive in these unprecedented times in our latest Screen Wars Thought Leader Interview. Watch the interview here and read the full transcript below!
Michael Beach: Hi, Rishad. Thanks for joining us.
Rishad Tobaccowala: Thank you for having me.
MB: First, a two-part opener we like to ask all of our guests, what was your first job? And secondly, how’d you get started at the media space?
RT: My first job was also how I started in the media space. I was a media planner and buyer for Leo Burnett advertising agency, which I joined in 1982 in Chicago. And thirty-seven years later when I finished my career, I was still in the Leo Burnett building, but I was no longer buying media.
MB: Excellent. We’re a big fan of your book Restoring the Soul of Business. I’ve got a bunch of questions. We’d love to ask you about that, but also about some of your recent writing as the world of advertising continues to shift towards data-driven and digital.
First, what should advertisers and networks be focused on to continue to grow? And then, where should technology be a smaller part and the human elements become more critical?
RT: I believe, and it is the premise of my book, that successful organizations as well as people combine the story on the spreadsheet. And on the spreadsheet are three key things: the understanding of how technology is evolving, the understanding that data does matter to both decision-making as well as things like personalization, and that P&L matters because if you have no money, you will not be around. So those are the three things on the spreadsheet. However, those are, in most cases, necessary.
Just like as I mentioned, data is like electricity. You can’t live without it, but very few people separate themselves with how they use electricity. So similarly, what separates people once they have a basic understanding of technology, data, and a P&L that works is the story side of the business. And the story side of the business is the talent of the organization; the culture of the organization; and the purpose and values for which the company, the organization, or the issue stands or the problems they’re trying to solve. Over time, companies that do those in a good combination—which I call balance—unify and integrate those characteristics well are the ones that win.
You see that in broad spaces. For instance, recently, there’s a company that’s done a very good job of re-inventing itself, very commonly known as Disney. When you think about it, they bet pretty much everything on it, and it worked, which is fantastic. They obviously had some going in assets, like a lot of their characters as well as other assets. And then you have another company that has evolved extremely well, which is The New York Times, which went from a newspaper at an $8 share price that has gone up 500 percent, to become a global multimedia operation. And those are people that, if you look at what went in those organizations, the changes were not necessarily technology. The technology appeared in those organizations long before they actually utilized it. It was the cultural shift that had to occur. And that’s what I call the story. So you have to have the story on the spreadsheet, but if you don’t combine the two, you don’t basically win. Disney and The New York Times are just two examples.
And then there are companies that struggled to do it—I would say much of the rest of the newspaper industry and almost the complete magazine industry—and I’ve worked with all these organizations. Let me assure you that these people who work at these companies are very smart people, and they’re very good people, but for some reason, they were not willing to change. This occurs because they spent too much time in either the spreadsheet side of the business saying, “If we do these things, it’s going to cost us money in the short run, so we won’t do it,” or there was a cultural divide between the old hands who wanted to basically remain true to the roots of the organization versus the new hands that wanted to reach for the stars, or what I call the wings of the operation. That’s another combination that companies need to do; combine both the roots and the wings. When you get that right, you’re pretty unstoppable.
MB: I love the comparison of Disney and The New York Times on the positive side, and obviously, newspapers on the negative, but all traditional businesses—we’re not comparing a technology startup to a traditional media business—but have you found, even looking at your experience on the agency side, that the talent there can re-invent itself? Or is there some combination of digital, native talent and traditional that you need to have or is it really that you can change the culture of your existing team?
RT: I believe you can change the culture of most of your existing team. I’ve obviously had the opportunity to be involved in a major transformation of the old company that I worked for called Publicis Groupe, which I’m still an advisor to and close to, but I no longer work there. I saw that transition from a company that in 2006, 6 percent of our revenue was digital, and the last time we stopped counting, which was, I think, around 2018, 58 percent was digital, because it’s hard to separate digital from analog, right?
It was a company that was focused in a strange way. We had about maybe 150 engineers, and today, we have 15,000 engineers. So this is like a ten-, twelve-year journey. And what I figured out was that we did some things right and we did some things wrong, but eventually we did more things right than wrong, so we lived to tell the story, but the three things that often people fixate on, answering your question about changing, is people fixate on a strategy. Very important. I was the chief strategist of my group. So yes, that’s important. They focus on M&A, and that might be acqui-hires or an M&A. That is important because when you think you want to go in a different direction, sometimes you have to bring in new talent and new capabilities. That’s important. And the third is, you have to rethink the way you’ve organized, because most companies are organized for the past versus organized for the future, so they call that a reorg. And occasionally, a strategy and M&A reach to a reorg. So those are what I call the fundamental threes that people focus on, but here is why it often doesn’t work.
It’s not because the one, two, three wasn’t done right. I’ve often seen one, two, three being done right. It’s because nobody talks about four, five, six. And number four, five, and six have all got to do with the talent. So number four is: why should I change? So I’m sitting in the company, I’m doing really well, and now you’re asking me to learn new things and change and go through all kinds of pain. Why should I? Why is it good for me? And don’t tell me it’s good for the company, therefore, it’s good for me. No, no. Why is it good for me? That’s number one.
The second one is, if I’m going to do these things, how am I going to be incentivized? Even though it’s good for me, it might be good for my career. I did things inside my old company, where one day I was running 200 people in tens of millions of dollars of revenue, and the next day I was sitting in a room by myself running zero dollars of revenue. If my compensation had been based on how much revenue I was generating and the number of people I was commanding, I would never have done that. I would never have done that because I just decided to help the company re-invent the future by launching the first digital agencies for the company. But in order to do that, I couldn’t have hundreds of people and hundreds of millions of anything. We had nothing.
But I went from year to year, but I was incentivized if this worked out. By the way, when I went from year to year, I didn’t lose any incentives. So that was the second one.
And the third one is skill sets. Who’s going to provide me with training or people around me to help me? So when I started these new things, it wasn’t just me learning. I got the ability to hire two, three people from outside who can help build our skill sets. And we forget that.
So I believe any organization, that once they have a strategy, some acqui-hires,and some reorg can change the people inside as long as they tell them why it’s good for them, how they get incentivized, and what they get for training. Seventy-five percent of the people will change; twenty-five percent will not. And after you tell them why it’s good for them, and after you provide them with incentives, and after you provide them with training, that 25 percent that does not change, management is going to have to make a very tough decision. And it’s really difficult. And I say it with great humility, which is, how do these people get eased out of the organization? And that is a decision that many people are very unwilling to make for a very odd reason, but not the reason that I usually find it very difficult.
The reason I find it very difficult is because it’s very hard to tell somebody they don’t have a job, because they have families and they got a whole bunch of things. But it’s a little bit easier if you say, “Look, the world is changing. You have to change. I’m providing you with reasons, I’m providing you with training, and I’m providing you with incentives.” And the person says, “No, I don’t want to change.” And at some particular stage, you’ve got to say, “What the hell?” That’s not the issue why these people still survive. It’s because they control a lot of existing business. And so people are scared of them. And that’s the worst thing any organization can do. Let someone who controls a lot of legacy assets threaten the future of the organization by not changing. And because some of those people are very senior, and because some of those people are very close to the C-level executives, if not the C-level executives themselves, that’s the biggest problem.
Make no mistake. There is no organization that I know of that does not have talent in the company. You do not have talentless organizations. That’s not possible. There’s not a company that I’m talking to or listening to today who doesn’t have world-class talent. They just have to be unleashed. They have to be optimized. They have to be given these reasons.
MB: I love the example of when you spun out the digital part of the agency. I think that when you wrote in your book that leadership was able to keep great people that were thinking long-term for the company. They set up the incentives so that no one was really incentivized to disrupt that, but do you think everyone realized how big digital could be, going back to your original point, in order to make that shift?
RT: I don’t think any of us realized how big it was. And I would tell you, I would be the first one, the leading voice to build these assets, who missed a couple of things. I missed how big initially search was going to be, for instance. It was one of the only things that we had to go buy versus build. I was helping a lot of other people build a lot of our other capabilities, but I missed search. We eventually fixed it, and we are the leading people in search. We bought Performix from Google. But we fixed search. It cost us money, but we fixed it. But the reason I missed that is because I was paying attention to our clients. And if you remember, the first clients for search were not big companies; they were people who either were small companies or were never advertising. So it was the long tail. And I had no long tail advertisers. So I saw no demand, and I, therefore, did not understand what was going on. So that was one.
But returning to your questions, I missed something as big as search, but the other thing that I did not miss—I quickly figured out that this was growing bigger than I could imagine—was how big it was going to be.
So while I was the senior, most digital person in the company who went to the board—which I happened to be on—and said, “This thing is so big, I don’t think I’m the right person anymore. This is bigger than my skill sets, okay? And we need to go actually purchase big companies fast to do things.”
And we bought companies like Digitas and Razorfish, and David Kenney, who came in from Digitas. I worked for him for about six, eight months and a year, and then he had an opportunity and he left, and I basically took his role. Over time, I kept building a case as to why we needed to build and buy bigger things. So what happened is, this thing got bigger and faster than even I imagined. So most people didn’t realize how big it was going to be.
Now, the good news was that I happened to have Maurice Lévy at that time, a global CEO who actually saw the vision much broader than I did, which was helpful, and Jack Lewis, who was the other person. They liked the fact that I don’t only listen to that, but to a greater extent, I understood from time to time that their vision was bigger than mine, but we managed to make the whole thing work. And I think that’s the other part of it, which is the ability to basically recognize that the world is changing so fast that somebody who doesn’t make mistakes in this isn’t really trying hard enough.
MB: So one more question on this, because I love this topic. How would an organization have looked at how to handle it not working out? Is that something that kind of took away a risk for you for coming back? How should an organization look at that? Because obviously when it does work out, it’s amazing, like The New York Times has done. But if it doesn’t work, how should an organization handle that?
RT: So here’s what begins to happen. I think what needs to happen is one has to sort of recognize a few things. The first one is when you try these new things, my suggestion is put some of your best people on it. Take them away from the highly lucrative big clients, the big businesses, the big revenue streams, and put some of your best people on this. Most people don’t do that. And there are two reasons why I would suggest that. Reason number one, I would suggest that is it sends a very strong signal to the organization that the future is important, because if you take some people who are really good and you move them into these new things, people say, “Oh, my God, I’ve got to pay attention” versus taking people who are unknown or who you can’t place anywhere else in the company to put them up.
So one reason is, it’s a signaling process, and signaling is a big part of the culture, because if people say, “Hey, the people I admire, the people who are running these big things are doing this. There must be something there.” But this isn’t like a leper colony where people have gone. That’s number one. But the second is this, the likelihood of these people succeeding in these new areas is at best 50/50. At best, okay? And when you put some of your best people in this with a 50/50 success rate, here’s what happens: you’re beginning to learn whether there’s gas in the coal mine or if the canary knows how to fly. And what myself and my team and management believed was that we knew how to fly, but we would go down coal mines and sometimes we wouldn’t come up. I mean, not literally die, but we would not come up.
And their basic decision was the problem is not with the canary, it may be with the coal mine. So let’s figure out whether this area is actually as good as we want. The truth of the matter in most cases was the canary was very good, the coal mine was habitable, but the canaries were confused about how to use the coal mine, because it was new. Right? And so the canary would come back and say, like half-dead, “There’s something very strange. There’s still gas in there, but it’s damn strange.”
The support that management gave was, “Okay, now we’re going to give you some new maps and you’re going to go down again.” What you need to do is recognize if you put your best people in, and then provide them with support, the good people have to come back and say, “Here’s what we’re learning, including that maybe we don’t know how to fly.”
One of the reasons we succeeded, at least at Publicis, is many of us in the senior management knew we did not know how to fly after a point. We found people who could help us from outside while we trained people on the inside, and it wasn’t like we have to learn to fly.
So sometimes people call me and say, “What’s going on in the space?” So I say, “The last time I actually did anything worthwhile, actually actionable, was ten years ago. I’m clueless, okay? I can strategically tell you where everything is, but if you ask me to activate anything, don’t you ever come near me because it’s going to fail.”
But the ability to say, I now know what to do, but I know getting other people to understand is the other problem. And then not to take it personally. Because in effect, if you’re constantly letting the board know every quarter where you are, you don’t surprise them by saying you put a whole bunch of money, and then come back a year later, and everything’s failed. They’ll get really pissed off. When you basically say, “Give me a little bit of money. I’m going to come back in a quarter and tell you how it’s going.” Yes, what’s working or isn’t working.
This is the other thing that we have to realize in the media business, what senior management is really interested in is what isn’t working and how can it be fixed. They’re not really interested in what’s working. They’re interested in what isn’t working. What can we learn from it? Is it fixable? Or what can we do? I have always found that the best meetings are those where you say, “Okay, we’ve got some good things going, but here’s some things we’ve been struggling with.” Because of two reasons.
One is, they trust you more. But the other is, remember what you’re asking them. You’re asking them, there’s a pot of gold at the end of this rainbow, but I have no idea as a leprechaun how to get there. So guess what this board says? “We are super leprechauns. We will teach you or we will get someone else” versus you saying, “I’m all fine.” And they quickly figure out it’s not fine.
So a lot of this has to do with interpersonal dynamics. And therefore, you will find specifically in companies that do this transition well, there is trust in senior management between key players. Otherwise, you can use all this data. There’s a lot of negative data that comes out, not about the people, but about the learning process. People can use it to damage people’s careers. And that’s why people don’t do it.
My point is, I can show you a list of things, and Maurice and Jack could show you with a longer list, which they will remind me, of stuff that didn’t work out. But the good news is none of it came to kill us, and we quickly figured out what didn’t work out. And two out of three times, I would tell them it didn’t work out. One of the three times, they’d say things like, “You’re a fool. It isn’t working out and you’re refusing to acknowledge this.” And on good days, we were batting about 70 to 75 percent of what we did worked, which is pretty incredible.
MB: It’s amazing. Another recent piece you wrote, “The Great Re-Invention,” dives into this further. It talks about how people can re-invent during challenging times. What do you recommend as a starting point for the process of a great re-invention?
RT: So the Great Re-invention was thinking overall about COVID. It has three stages. What I was explaining was there would never be a new norm. This was written in March of 2020. Yet, it reads like it was written yesterday. It was written a year ago. It’s almost prescient in everything that it said. It’s very popular. A lot of people at Publicis and a lot of senior clients also keep reading it. So it basically says, “Hey, look. I said in March that this thing was going to last twelve to eighteen months, which it is. That’s number one. Number two, that this was going to be bigger than anything that we had seen before, because there will be a health challenge, a financial challenge, a political challenge, and a social challenge all occurring at the same time.
Third is when anybody stops or starts doing something for twelve to eighteen months, their behavior changes, even if they do it for three to six months. As a result, any business plan anyone written in December 2019 needs to be revisited if not thrown out.
The other thing is, there is no return to the new normal. There’ll be a great re-invention. And in order to do that, you need to do three steps. Step number one is basically saying, “What would my customers do differently now versus December of 2019? What would they start doing? What will they stop doing? What will they want more of? What will they want less of?” And just to make sure that you do the exercise properly, start doing that exercise first outside your category. Pretend you’re an airline, pretend you’re a restaurant, pretend you’re an event person. Ask that question. You’d come up with some pretty radical answers. What will they start, stop, do less of or more of.
Now as you open your mind, think about it for your own category. What would people want more or less of? That’s the first part of the exercise. The second part of the exercise is, over the last twelve to eighteen months—twelve months, it’s been a year now since the lockdown—most companies have learned something. They have. They have learned the fault lines in their business. So what hasn’t worked? What’s gone wrong? They’ve learned the resilience of their business. What’s gone right? If they’ve looked, they’ve basically started to see new opportunities and they’ve seen new threats.
Do a little inside analysis of that as a SWOT analysis. So the strengths are resilience, the weaknesses are shocks, and the opportunities are what may be new because an asteroid has hit the earth. Are there new mountains? And weaknesses are what are the new cesspools. Think about it that way. And then think in your mind that in February or March of 2019, as you were coming out of the great recession, we were also entering a new technology age driven by mobile and social. Companies thought they were restarting when they should have really been starting, because there was a new mindset and there were new technologies. Gillette and Schick kept thinking that they were competing with Gillette and Schick. They didn’t see Dollar Shave Club. General Motors and Ford thought they were competing with each other and Toyota and BMW, and they didn’t see Uber and Tesla. So basically say, “Hey, what new competitors are likely to come out? And what are the new opportunities that we may be able to go to?” You know, like a brand like Lysol. They have become a service model. It’s leveraging United Airlines and hotels and things like that from being just a disinfectant. So there are those.
And then the last one, the third step after you take an external look at the customer, consumer changes, an internal look at your own things, ask, if you were to start a service or product that satisfies those consumer needs, or customer needs that you anticipated, and you only have three constraints: whatever you do has to be legal, whatever you do has to be technologically possible in 2021 or 2022, and whatever you do has to break even in three years or less. What would you do? Do that exercise. Companies will come up with outrageously amazing ideas. And my whole point is if they don’t do it immediately, they’re out of business soon because someone else is going to do it. So that’s what I call the great re-invention.
MB: Yeah. I love that. I’m trying to think of the three constraints at the end…
RT: The three constraints are, it has to be technologically possible, it has to be legal, and it has to make money in three years or less, to break even in three years or less. Those are the only three rules. So it’s an economic rule, but it’s not next quarter. It’s three years or less. It’s a legal rule, which obviously means that you can’t break the law. And it’s a technological rule. Don’t talk about technologies that don’t exist in 2021 or early 2022.
And with only those three constraints, understanding new customer needs and understanding what your company has gone through, what would you do? And you’d be surprised that even the most curmudgeonly ancient board member like me will come up with amazing ideas. And I always say, ideally, you do this with some alcohol or weed, but if you don’t, that’s fine. Let your mind wander a bit, but that’s where the future is. So I keep telling people, don’t talk about the new normal. There is no new normal; there’s a new strange. Don’t talk about restarting; think about starting anew.
MB: Have you found across talking to all the brands and organizations, the newer and older organizations, are they finding the same impact in the exercise? Looking back at the constraint, the three-year economic part of that, it seems like that would actually favor an older, traditional brand that may still have resources, that maybe the lifecycle for their existing product is about to run out. What have you found there?
RT: It’s actually good for two types of brands. It’s very good for established brands as you say, older established brands. And it’s very good for startups. The reason is, because startups’ venture capital doesn’t expect to get its money back for three years or less, so they’ll give them the runway to go. The large organizations and multiple lines of business, they could draw credit lines, et cetera. The businesses that find it very hard to re-invent, are the small to medium businesses, because they don’t have the runway that they need. In fact, small and medium businesses have been most hurt by COVID, because the large businesses were able to get low interest rates; they had resources. The small ones, the new startups, had venture capital, but the mom and pop stores, etc, they’ve struggled the most. And what has helped to a certain point has been in the service loan forgiveness, etc., but it’s not enough.
MB: It just seems more like a contemporary BAND-AID than a long-term re-invention, for sure. I’m struck by what you talked about earlier on the ratio of engineers. You said 150 to 15,000?
RT: So we have about 15,000 engineers out of 80,000. And that’s because of companies we bought like Sapient and Epsilon. And for instance, in the Publicis Groupe, our second largest number of employees after the United States is now India. Not the United Kingdom, not France, not China. It’s India.
MB: Looking ten years ahead, what does the agency of the future look like?
RT: I would say that looking ten years ahead, the agency of the future will be built around four deliverables. The first deliverable that it will be built around, which will be very important and will continue to be forever important, is modern creative storytelling, data-driven storytelling, because agencies are eventually about brands and brands are about stories, but they will be told in new ways. They may be told in utilities and services and mongrel media, and it may not just be film and television and other kinds of stuff, but how do you basically tell stories in new ways? So ideas, storytelling, and creativity will be very important. It will grow more important as machines and AI do more and more of the other things. So that’s one part of it, which I think agencies will always have. And that would require a diversity of talent, global skill sets, again, which is very hard for any particular organization to insource.
The second thing that they will do is have a significant amount of scale in helping clients grow with major platforms. Today we have quite a few platforms and those platforms include not just companies like Walmart and Amazon, but there are a lot of platform companies. So how do you deal with all these platform companies, each of whom have identity network effects, direct to customer relationships? Those will grow, and agencies will basically have strategists, will have relationships with all these people, and will be able to mix and match them. It’ll be sort of the new media planning and buying, which will also include everything from screens and sound to apps to God knows who else that’s coming. So that’d be a second component, which is, how do you portfolio manage your contacts? It’s a new kind of media planning business after creativity.
The third is strategic guidance and innovation. Where should you put your bets? How can you innovate? Innovation will continue to be important. And this is not innovation in creative storytelling, but innovation in product design, etc. So that would be the third area, which will be important.
And the fourth, which I believe agencies are going to probably spend a lot of time doing is, to know how to create and manage and unleash talent. So the one thing that the agency business has let atrophy a little bit over the last ten years—it hasn’t atrophied completely, but let atrophy a little bit—is its ability to attract, retain, and motivate world-class talent. And that’s going to grow important, because if you see a lot of people who work at these extraordinary companies like Facebook and Google and Amazon, you’re beginning to see that they have two really amazing benefits at those companies.
One of them tends to be compensation. You get paid better, especially if the company stock price does well. Most of them have. So that’s one thing. And the second thing that they have is, they get credentials. They learn skill sets, so they’re marketable elsewhere. However, if you actually look at the nature of the job that they do, most of them—not all of them, but most of them—the jobs aren’t that great because they are increasingly handmaidens or handmasters to machines. In these companies, the money, the fame, and the repute goes to the engineers, make no mistake.
But in the future, a lot of them think writing code, AI, machines, will do a lot of it. So what can you do in addition to the machines? And that will be about talent. And that is what certain companies like ours will be attracting, which is ours, meaning, everything in the media space will attract, because there are obviously different kinds of talent in different cultures.
And there’s a very different culture that operates inside Accenture than one that exists inside McKinsey than one that exists inside Goldman Sachs and one that exists inside Publicis. And let me assure you, I’m friends with and I’m close to all those four organizations. They’re different cultures. They’re amazing talented people, different cultures. And the culture that is going to be the most creative in both allocating to connect with people, with storytelling, and basically with innovation and coming up with these ideas, I truly believe will be the whole media ecosystem, creative agencies, media companies, et cetera.
But we have to get there, and we’ve got to stop basically doing two things. We’ve got to stop thinking we’re second class citizens. For some reason, we have self-flagellated ourselves, and we give ourselves away for free, which is pretty stupid. I mean, I’m different. I’m a starving wolf that went where other people shouldn’t. So that happens to be one.
And then the second one is, we should basically go out of our way to understand that we’re living in a world where there is a lot of capital, but talent is rare. Our industry should stop believing that talent is available easily and capital is rare. It’s exactly the opposite.
MB: Yeah. I love that last point. A big part of our community is in the video space kind of taking that same lens five to ten years. What do you think video advertising looks like? What is today’s predominant branding? Obviously, you’re getting into some more shoppable… What problem is your brand trying to solve?
RT: So if you think about it, what everyone is trying to do is, they’re trying to grow, and they’re trying to grow four different things. Obviously, they try to grow sales and revenue, which is number one. Number two is, they’re trying to grow relationships with end consumers, customers, people, human beings that have a certain emotional level to it, which math cannot break. Which is, we choose with our hearts, and we use numbers to justify what we just did. So how do we build that emotional connection? How do we grow that emotional engagement with the company is the second. Third is, they want to find a way to keep growing and attracting talent. So if you look at an organization, it should be thinking “grow my P&L, grow my relationships with my customers, grow my talent.” The fourth thing that they’re going to be doing a lot is growing how I am seen and my reputation with society, because I need to optimize for the citizen and not the consumer. So what is my purpose? Meaning value, modern ESG, et cetera. Those are what everybody at the heart of it wants to do. They do it at different levels, but those are the four things.
Television advertising? Well, I think television will continue to be very big. In 2003, I wrote a piece called “The Era of Visual Engagement,” which Jack Lewis still points out to me. We wrote it in 2003, which describes the world we live in today down to the T, right? And that’s what we were planning, the era of visual engagement. Visual engagement will continue to be very, very clear, but the difference right now is engagement. The word engagement is different today than it was when I first thought about it. Engagement in the old days was, can you get someone’s attention to want something and be moved by it?
Today that’s one part of engagement, but can you get people not to watch something and feel something, but do something, buy something, share something, forward something, talk about something? It’s very, very different. And as a result, I basically believe that the lines between what we consider to be video and audio, between messaging and e-commerce will all blur.
Hydrochloric acid is what digital is. It breaks through the barriers first of media, but now across everything else. So let’s give you an idea. Let’s look at TikTok. TikTok is the first social media that you cannot watch without the sound. You can’t do TikTok without sound. Try TikTok without sound. You can do Facebook without sound. You can do Twitter without sound. You can do Snap without sound. You can’t do TikTok without sound. So it’s already the first thing we’re beginning to see. Okay, is this social media? What is it?
Second is—and this is where people in the US should really pay attention—there’s a line from William Gibson, the writer, that basically said the future is already here, but it’s not evenly distributed. If you want to see the future, go to China. And if you’ve got an anti-China plan, don’t do that because it’s a billion-two people. Anti-India and anti-China, you shouldn’t be anti anything. You should be pro-everybody, and go learn.
But there’s a company in China—obviously, people have heard of WeChat. They’ve heard of Alibaba. But the fastest growing company in China is a company called Pinduoduo. In the last five, six years, it’s taken China by storm. And it’s hard for me to describe what it is. Is it basically a video channel? Is it a gaming channel? Is it a group mass buying channel? It all collapses. It all completely collapses. And so my basic belief is, if you’re in the video business, try to figure out how you integrate commerce into it? How do you basically become malleable? Right?
And do not, for God’s sake, do not think you’re going back to the old days. Like I gave up on movie theaters a long time ago. Movie theaters are done. Traditional broadcast television is toast. It isn’t coming back. Explain to me why someone would go to a movie theater to spend more money than they could buy every single streaming service in the United States for that month. Two people going to a movie theater for a movie and some snacks cost more than the top seven or eight movie streaming services for that month. You got to drive a car, you got to move your physical space in there. It’s more expensive, less safe, more inconvenient, just because AMC shareholders have to do well. Forget it. Nobody cares.
Nobody cares. Right now, the reality of it is, I’m sitting there. I was just looking, because I subscribed to all of this. I was playing around with Paramount Plus. It’s got amazing stuff. I’m watching all the old Star Trek stuff. Obviously, you could see it in other places, but I’m seeing it in only one place. But the reality of it is, we’re moving into a world of streaming. The reality of it is, people have God-like power. Anybody in a boardroom, anybody in a video or a company that believes they have control should be banished immediately. This is what many of the media companies miss. Nobody cares about your P&L. Nobody cares about your legacy costs. And nobody cares about your bonus. I just care about God-like power as a customer. I want it now on my side: fast, convenient, and cheap. And if you can’t give it to me, thank you. Someone else will, somewhere in the world. If not you, somewhere else. You block something, I’m going to use a VPN.
And that’s what people don’t realize, that the power has gone completely to the end user. And it does not exist in the boardroom. These boardrooms need to basically be blown to smithereens, because they don’t know what’s going to hit them. And most of these boardrooms, you know what they say? Well, we have a junior board that visits us. I said, why shouldn’t the junior board be your board? And you should work for the junior board at some stage. I’m not saying it has anything to do with age, right? It’s not age, and age is how many years you are, but do you have a young mindset? One of the lines I simply ask people is, “What have you learned lately?” And if they say we haven’t learned anything lately, I say, “Then you’ve started to die.”
And this is the big step, which is, the more senior you get, you stop learning. So I get up every morning for an hour and a half, and I learn, because otherwise, I won’t know what the hell is going on even less than I now know. That’s number one.
Number two is, are you surrounded by jesters who tell you you’re a fool? Well, I happen to be a company of one, so I’m surrounded by everybody who tells me I’m a fool. That’s okay. But even when you’re senior, do you have people who can come in and call you out as they call the turd on the table? Like, what are you talking about? But usually, senior management, either because they’re surrounded by other people or they’re so scary, they are given only positive feedback. And so they start to believe that their flatulence smells like Chanel 5. It doesn’t. It’s a fart. It’s a boardroom fart, which they all think is a Chanel 5. It doesn’t work that way.
And the third thing is “Do.” All these people talk about all this modern stuff. I say, “How come you aren’t using any of it? When social media came, where were you? Why weren’t you on Twitter? Why weren’t you on Pinterest? Now there’s this new thing. Why aren’t you on SubStack? What are you talking about? If you aren’t doing, how do I believe you? How does anybody of talent work with someone who’s not a practitioner?”
So I remind them once upon a time in a place far away, you were a star. Please find that inside yourself and revive that because that’s the only way these people who are senior in companies got there. By the way, they’re amazing people. But somewhere along the way, either because of what they surrounded themselves with, or some god-dammed BS they get from their friends, they have decided that they have to wait until they retire. No, don’t do that. You’re not gonna retire until 70, 75, or this is not for real. And my whole thing is you were a star then, you can be a star now. Why don’t you hustle again?
MB: Absolutely. Well, I could talk to you for hours here. I’ve got two more questions, and then I should wrap up. First, going back to your book. As a father of an eight-year-old girl, who’s a budding filmmaker, I think my favorite story was the day you spent with your daughter while she was making a film. And I’ve got two parts to this question, two parts that really had an impact on me. First, you talked about how, for roughly $15,000, you had the output of what would have previously cost someone nearly a million dollars; and second, the initiative and leadership that it took to execute a project like that. First, that is inspiring, but also, I try to think about the types of organizations that could execute that are larger than a startup. Would you mind talking more about this experience?
RT: Sure. Our daughter, who prior to that had spent five years at Google, decided she wanted to be a filmmaker. So she went to NYU Tisch. She also did an MBA at NYU Stern and this was her second film. She basically put together a plan. She raised some money on GoFundMe or the equivalent of that. They found location places using Airbnbs. The chauffeur service to the middle of Brooklyn or Queens or wherever they were shooting was basically Ubers that came at three in the morning. And then they looked at each other as friends and they built a network. And she also happened to have her dad and mom and sister come and help her.
So I was like the key grip, but the big news for me was that somewhere in the movie, I got promoted to best boy because I was doing such a good job. What a key grip does is basically carry the camera in the U-Haul truck. That’s what I did.
And as a result, the thing that was amazing about this movie was, what were they using? They were basically using networks. They were using platforms to raise money. They were using networks, or companies using networks like Airbnb and Uber. The reason the movie turned out good was all of those things enabled it. And the reason the movie turned out good was because of the talent. The thing I tried to remind people is it wasn’t the $15,000, but it was the multimillion dollars’ worth of platforms working for them, for which they were paying fifty dollars, a hundred dollars.
They were renting and leasing things. They were doing all kinds of incredible stuff. They were basically thinking within a constrained budget, but it was always about talent. And so it just started expressing a different way.
The sequel to that story occurred earlier this week, which is kind of interesting. So that movie found itself being selected for the Tribeca Film Festival, and it had its premiere on HBO this Monday. So a $15,000 film, a fourteen-minute film premiere on HBO, and for anybody who has HBO Max can go to HBO Max and type in Shadows. And you can see what $15,000 gets you.
MB: That’s amazing. So the platforms, that part of the process kind of became invisible and allowed your daughter to really focus on the talent, which back to your story, is the most important thing.
RT: Well, the talent, the storytelling, everything else, and all of that, but it came about so naturally. I mean, even for someone like me, who from time to time, I think I know what I’m talking about, which is very rare, but I didn’t understand half the stuff she was telling me to go do. Like she says, “We’re going to look at this app. We’re going to look at that thing.” And my point is like, “How do you do all this for a little money?” She says, “Okay. We plug in here. We borrow this for two hours. We do this for three hours.” And that is why I keep reminding people that all of us, every senior management person, every middle management person who’s listening to this, let me tell you, you are middle management and senior management because of nothing. You’re there because you actually are good.
You’re absolutely amazingly talented. I truly believe everybody has talent. What sometimes happens is, the world changes on us and we forgot how to revamp the talent and reboot the talent and re-invent the talent, but we are talented. And my whole point is hustle, people, hustle. Hustle is a good thing. And middle to senior management, especially senior management? We don’t hustle that much—and we should.
MB: Absolutely. Well, for my last question, we ask all our guests if you could have everyone read one book right now, obviously, in addition to your own, what book would you recommend?
RT: So if there is a book that I would recommend, if there’s one book, it’s a book by The New York Times writer, Michiko Kakutani. Michelle Kakutani. She was for many years a reviewer. And the book is called Ex Libris. It’s a beautiful book. And the reason it’s a beautiful book is because it encapsulates the wisdom and knowledge of a hundred books in one book. And these are fiction books, non-fiction books, global books, books that were written a hundred years ago. So she has an entire three pages on Mohammed Ali, which are the three books that explain what Mohammed Ali did. She has books about immigration. She has books about science, but it’s an amazing portal into every other book you may want to read for the rest of your life.
MB: Excellent. I’m going to add that one to the reading list, for sure. Rishad, I’m so grateful for your time.
RT: Thank you.
MB: I know our community is going to love this conversation. But I just can’t thank you enough.
RT: Well, thank you. And for people who want more of this, Rishad.substack.com is my weekly nonsense that I write.
MB: Oh, absolutely. It’s a must-read.
See the rest of the Screen Wars Thought Leader Interview series here!
Rishad Tobaccowala is a Senior Advisor to the Publicis Groupe where he has spent his entire 37 career, most recently serving as the Chief Growth Officer and Chief Strategist of the Groupe. Tobaccowala was named by BusinessWeek as one of the top business leaders for his pioneering innovation and TIME magazine dubbed him one of five “Marketing Innovators. He is in the Ad Age Interactive Hall of Fame and has received a lifetime achievement silver medal award from the Chicago Ad Federation Rishad is also the author of “Restoring the Soul of Business: Staying Human in The Age of Data” which helps people think, feel and see differently about how to grow their companies, their teams and themselves to remain relevant in transformational times. Rishad is also the Chairman of The Tobaccowala Foundation which helps 10,000 people in India gain better healthcare and education. Rishad has a BS in Mathematics from the University of Bombay and an MBA from the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago.
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