ad:tech Chicago: Hard Knocks in Social, Starring Rishad Tobaccowala


I admit it: I was eavesdropping.

Me and a crew of other bloggers invaded the press room early today. We were setting up our things, chatting about nothing, when I overheard something really interesting.

I looked up just as the guy was finishing his surmise: "In the future," he was saying, "I think people are going to wonder what the need was for keyboards. Or why we needed dial-up to access the internet. It will be free, and everywhere, like air."

This struck me as simple but inspired. I put my glasses on, checked out his tag: Rishad Tobaccowala, CEO, Denuo. It hits me: Hey! This is the guy who's doing the first keynote!

So I sit and futz with my thumbs for awhile, and finally I get up and walk over.

"Excuse me," I say. "I'm a journalist. Just wanted to catch you before your talk. Do you think I'd be able to interview you this afternoon? It'd just be a couple of minutes."

He looks politely iffy. "Actually I have to go back to my office after the talk," he says. "Maybe we can do something by phone."

"Sure," I say.

"Great." He passes me his card. "Set something up with my secretary."

And I leave, feeling really really crappy.

It wasn't an out-of-ordinary exchange. All right, I get it, dude's busy. But there was something about the way he tossed that in -- "set something up with my secretary" -- that left me feeling sorry I asked in the first place.

Moments later he was gone, and I followed his footsteps toward the Grand Ballroom, where ad:tech's Drew Ianni was introducing the first keynote: Advertising 3.0: Thriving in the Age of Chaos. After leaving us with a provocative, if unsettling, snapshot of today's industry -- that it's TRENCH WARFARE! -- he made way for the arrival of Mr. Tobaccowala himself, who perched close to the edge of the stage and tackled Ianni's questions with studied modesty.

I livetweeted the talk, but here are some highlights (not written to scale):

On what's top of mind

Tobaccowala: "Social is going to be the big tsunami to overcome marketing in the next decade. Bigger than Search" (another biggie). These two are followed by Mobility -- of which the mobile phone is only one component.

He explains that in search, "The consumer gets more info, marketers get intent-based targeting and the industry gets a scalable mathematical model." Speaking of scale, social is scaling so much faster than search -- and marketing in this arena must involve people, ideas.

Ianni interrupts the grok for another Q: Where does the marketer fit in if, in social, you're being sold both scale and niche? How do you find niche?

This makes for an excellent Tobaccowala Segue into mobile, and how it's going to be great for retailers. (To note: Amazon's already experimented with mobile search and e-commerce conversion. It ain't perfect, but it's the perfect way to nail the price-comparer and impulse-buyer.)

On managing in social

With regard to clients that ask, hands all clammy, for a "Facebook strategy," Tobaccowala profoundly proclaims, "In the days of TV I never heard you ask for an NBC strategy."

He emphasizes focusing on a great product and service experience. "You've got to recognize there is a reason -- besides network effects -- iPhone and Google are as dominant as they are. They just make great products," he preaches.

"A brand gets built on ... desire, culture, performance and intrigue." Three of those things -- I'll leave you to guess which three -- have nothing to do with data.

Also, deal kindly with detractors, which are more likely to WOM it up than people that like you. (Sidenote: "The single most effective form of media has tended to be ... television. Only one thing is higher: word of mouth.")

In short, don't be a generic client seeking the "best of breed with minimum drama" -- run your service company like a software release, with integrations and changes every year. Sometimes, you'll find your service has ceased to be relevant. Gotta own that too.

On what he looks for in talent

"People that can laugh at themselves. You cannot be successful in this busines unless you fall down often."

Also: a high degree of energy, because, without exception, you're just gonna have to work. A lot.

Finally -- and the hardest thing to find -- integrity. Have that, and in social media, my friend, you have all. (This is my view, not something Tobaccowala said.)

Something that resonated with me: "Employee politics are going to be less and less important in a transparent world" -- which is exactly what social media brings you.

On Twitter

"It's actually better than search. But you have to know how to use it."

On staying on top

Newspapers, serving on boards outside your arena, talking to clients, and letting yourself be educated by people that are better than you at what you want to learn.


That about wrapped up the keynote for me. The one thing I struggled with over the course of the hour was that I agree with Tobaccowala's positions; I'm even tempted to say he's one of those unicorns we try to find when we pursue an industry icon to idolize: The Real Dealâ„¢, whatever that is.

So how do I relegate those feelings to the ones I was left with during that off-putting exchange in the press room? Guess it comes down to something else he said: in the end, people are analog. "Analog" means they operate primarily by feelings.

It's hard to say this, but the "feel" you have for a person, that thing that ultimately spurs your conviction that this guy is or isn't cool, is always going to be something we struggle with, even in a "transparent" environment where merits rise more readily to the top.

That's not to say this is a bad instinct; it's to say we should be aware of it. For all that high-tech gabbing, we're still fleshbags of feeling.


Update: In a surprisingly cockles-warming turn of events, Rishad Tobaccowala emailed with an apology and a phone number. He also agreed to do an interview after all. This gave me a day-long glow.

by Angela Natividad    Sep- 1-09   Click to Comment   
Topic: Creative Commentary, Events, Industry Events   

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