Rishad Tobaccowala has kept busy during the pandemic.
Since leaving his post as Publicis Groupe’s chief strategy officer in March, he’s been dabbling in various passion projects and advising CEOs and Fortune 5000 companies, including Publicis. Most recently, in August, he joined the advisory board of ad tech company LoopMe.
Tobaccowala also released a book in August titled “Restoring the Soul of Business: Staying Human in the Age of Data,” which presciently covers topics such as the remote workforce and dealing with organizational change under pressure.
People ask Tobaccowala if he wrote the book having foreseen the impacts of COVID-19, but he says he had already finished writing it last summer.
On top of everything, Tobaccowala has participated in 52 Zoom webinars since mid-March, he’s publishing a newsletter on Substack with musings on a range of topics from art to science and he’s developed an online learning package that combines material from his book with webinar sessions on change, leadership and the future.
His most sage piece of advice: “You better get good at Zoom for the rest of your career.”
Tobaccowala caught up with AdExchanger.
AdExchanger: What’s the biggest change to your routine since the pandemic started?
RISHAD TOBACCOWALA: I used to travel 140 times a year. This year, I’ve been to the airport twice: to pick up my daughters when they came home and to drop them off when they left.
You’ve spoken out about the power of the big platforms. What’s your biggest concern today?
The relationship companies have with the platforms has become a board-level discussion. Large companies have lost all leverage over these platforms. They are asking tougher questions. I’m [hearing] people in boardrooms say, “We have to have alternatives. We need supply chain resiliency.”
If all of your interactions with customers are on two or three platforms, you don't have customer resiliency. You need optionality. You have to think strategically, and not just [go with] the cheapest choice.
You see what Google did to the travel industry. That was their biggest advertiser. It’s like giving more money to your dealer to get you more addicted.
What’s the future of targeted advertising?
This privacy thing is a huge deal and will continue to be. You have to integrate that into your DNA. Some larger companies have to correct these issues.
Some [ad tech] companies are doing well, but many have ended up just being a feature, or they are cookie-based. You have an undifferentiated feature making a complicated sell to a buyer that has no time to listen to it and who already has an easy solution [with] the big platforms.
The future will be about how you harness first-party data.
The holding companies have struggled during COVID-19. How will that model change?
Agencies are trying to evolve from being advertising-centric to marketing-driven. I believe many will succeed, but some won’t. If they evolve beyond TV and display, they can be valuable. There’s clearly a demand, but they have to remain relevant as needs change.
There’s only so much [clients] can take in house. Also, clients can’t fire themselves. Some have built in-house agencies and with COVID-19 they’re saying, “What do we do with these people?” With an agency you can just be out, and not have to pay severance.
I don’t underestimate the holding companies. If they take a smaller share of a bigger market, they might be in a better position.
What role will remote work play in the services world post-COVID?
People who do full-time at home don’t like it, but they also don’t want to go back [to the office] five days a week. Companies will reduce [office] space and make it [available] for client and collaborative meetings. The rest of the time, people will work from home.
This will allow agencies to attract diverse talent, such as someone who doesn’t live in a major city, or is looking after a kid or a parent, or is handicapped. It will eliminate a lot of unhelpful political behavior. I find I get faster access to CEOs than I’ve ever gotten before.
What factors go into your decision to advise a company?
I have a broad thesis of where marketing is going. There are three trends that I tell CEOs not to forget. The first is that globalization is unstoppable. The second is demographics are shifting. And the third is that the population is getting older. Most people don’t have enough saved for retirement, so they have to keep working. We have to watch out for ageism.
I’m trying to figure out which companies are lined up with these things.
How do technology and automation fit into your theory for the future?
We’re entering the third connected era. The first was built around search and commerce. The second [came with] social media and smart phones.
The next connected age is data connecting to data through AI, machine learning and voice technology, as well as faster communication through 5G, with everything connected to the god in the sky: the cloud. This will change how we interact with devices.
Which startups are interesting to you right now?
In advertising and marketing, we have not paid enough attention to the poetry that goes through the plumbing. The plumbing is how to find the right person at the right time for the cheapest cost. But what are you going to tell them?
I joined the board of Dumbstruck, a company that can look at a video and [analyze] how people [watching it] feel using facial recognition and facial and eye movement [tracking]. It brings together AI with messaging and creativity.
Another company called Crisp Thinking [helps clients] manage risk by letting them know if they have a problem anywhere in the world of media within 30 minutes.
I’m also I’m fascinated by influencers. Not only do these people have artistic skills, but also followers. How do we leverage those?
This interview has been edited and condensed.