Will The Agency Business Survive? Look To ‘Flying Cockroaches’ As The Model

Rishad Tobaccowala at 4a'sIf you’re attending an ad industry conference, it’s a safe bet you’re going to hear a lot of cheerleadering and hyperbole about how great things are. And while there are any number of ardent defenders for the ad agency model out there, few could muster a level of encouragement as spirited as the one laid out by Rishad Tobaccowala, Chief Strategy and Innovation Officer at Publicis’ VivaKi, in a presentation at the 4A’s Transformation: The Idea Effect conference in New Orleans.

Commenting on the sometimes negative portrayal of the state of ad agencies today, versus the so-called Mad Men era of bold creativity and even bolder behavior, “It makes you want to shoot yourself. You come away reading these things thinking no one will want to join us. Google will eat our lunch,” Tobaccowala said, pacing the stage. “Bull—-! The last I looked, we had not been disrupted. If you invested in four holding companies, you would be better off than investing in Apple, Google, or Facebook. Wall street has realized that our growth has just begun. And there are plenty of reasons why.”

Among other things, automation will help the ad industry thrive, not kill it off, as had been feared. Secondly, he stressed a collaborative atmosphere among agencies, rejecting WPP CEO Martin Sorrell’s famous reference to Google and other potential disrupters and partners as “Frenemies.” And lastly, he suggested that agencies think of themselves as certain insects known for their survival skills, as opposed to repeatedly fretting about becoming dinosaurs.

While the title of his presentation was that “the future does not fit into the containers of the past,” Tobaccowala talked about his personal distaste for change, but the necessity of making it work. After all, there’s little choice.

“Automation is not bad,” he said, speaking about the fears of programmatic tools undermining the traditional media negotiation and creative processes. The companies who some expected would “replace carbon with silicon” will not come into this business, primarily because advertising at its heart will always be about storytelling. Storytellers can use technology to build out their stories and make them more effective. The technology providers can’t employ storytellers as well as the storytellers can employ suppliers of tech.

Though he studied advanced mathematics and eventually got his degree in it, he was particularly impressed with a book called The Principles of Marketing, which covered the basics of understanding and meeting customer requirements. “At some point, I realized we as an industry weren’t doing that at all,” Tobaccowala said. “The consumer wasn’t empowered. We were making money through logistics and ancillary things like that. Then, the connection engine entered the process – the Internet happened.”

And with it came greater tools for automating the ad buying, planning and placement processes.

“So the core of our business is storytelling and the five elements are: words, pictures, video, audio and place,” he said. “Now we have mobility, which will prove that where someone is is more important than who they are. We have participation  — and I’m not talking about social media. I’m talking APIs, which gives all of us the ability to plug into what other people and companies are doing in real-time. We are being given more colors to play with. Why would we be scared?”

Tobaccowala then went about rehabilitating the profile of the lowly and loathed cockroach. “People could crush us, make fun of us, but we scurry around,” he said. “But we’re not dinosaurs. When I look at all the companies that were going to crush us 10 years ago, all but two are owned by Publicis. So what does that tell you?”

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