Rishad Tobaccowala, chief strategy and innovation officer, VivaKi
Indian-born adviser to Leo Burnett, colleagues navigates digital world
A sign in the office of Rishad Tobaccowala, VivaKi's chief strategy and innovation officer, was a gift he received after speaking to Facebook executives. He says it points to a professional responsibility he has for company talent and culture. (Chris Walker/ Chicago Tribune / February 18, 2013)
Tobaccowala, who has spent 30 years at Leo Burnett and affiliated agencies, described the $14 Chicago-style hot dog sold at the Allium restaurant inside the Four Seasons Hotel.
"Every single thing in that hot dog has been homemade," he says. "They make the ketchup, they make the mustard, they make the bread. But I don't think they tell us how they make the hot dog or the mustard or the bun."
His point is that consumers want transparency, but only to a point.
"They're looking for magic where they can feel and see the result without necessarily understanding how the hell it happened," Tobaccowala says. "Any technology that tries to explain how it's done is like a magician showing his trick. It doesn't work."
Analogies and metaphors are tools of the trade in the advertising world. But Tobaccowala doesn't aim to convey cute or clever messages to consumers. His audience, instead, is marketers and colleagues trying to understand how consumers will relate to media and advertising in the future.
His pioneering work in online advertising and ability to convey complex concepts in simpler terms has made Tobaccowala, a 53-year-old Indian-born executive, a go-to adviser among marketers and colleagues in a rapidly changing industry.
Unusual among advertising executives, he doesn't have any direct clients, nor does he run a business unit.
That relative freedom allows him to speak with refreshing candor, said Doug Moore, vice president of advertising and media at General Mills Inc., which uses Leo Burnett's sister agencies for advertising and media planning. Moore credits Tobaccowala for encouraging the company behind Cheerios and other wholesome brands to try bolder marketing, which led to a campaign using the Cheech and Chong comedy duo to promote Fiber One cereal.
"He's not pitching a particular agency or a particular project," Moore said. "He's very generous in how he puts our agenda first. That's very unusual in the advertising or consulting space."
Tobaccowala's role inside Publicis Groupe, the giant French advertising and marketing firm that owns Leo Burnett, is to be a student of culture, think deep thoughts and spot trends. His official title is chief strategy and innovation officer at Chicago-based VivaKi, which Publicis started in 2008 to accelerate the digital activities within its media and digital companies.
Tobaccowala is known for his linguistic flourishes and profanity, which he uses for dramatic effect rather than to express anger.
"He's a provocateur," said Andrew Swinand, the former president of Starcom MediaVest Group, a media agency owned by Publicis. "Part of Rishad's genius is to say you're doing everything wrong, but in a really polite and funny way that makes you feel good about it."
Right, left brain
Tobaccowala's dream job is a demanding one. He wakes every morning at 4:30, two hours before his wife. He spends the first hour reading, often dipping into several books at a time, usually fiction and nonfiction that has nothing to do with marketing or business. His current reads: "Sweet Tooth," a novel by Ian McEwan; the massive "Infinite Jest" by David Foster Wallace; and a book on contemporary architecture called "10 x 10."
His choice in books has a purpose.
"The nature of my job, which has to do with where the world is going, tends to be math-driven and very tech-driven and very digital and very science-driven," said Tobaccowala, who majored in mathematics at the University of Bombay. "It's a lot left brain."
The most successful companies, though, fuse left brain and right brain, or science and art, he says. Tobaccowala finds a lesson for marketers in this bit of truth. They are trying to motivate human beings, after all.