Ad Club Industry Legend Rishad Tobaccowala on why the next 10 years will be the best


Interview by  for The DRUM

After more than 40 years in the industry, Rishad Tobaccowala has seen it all – or at least most of it. Upon being named Industry Legend by the Ad Club, Tobaccowala shares some advice for those starting out, as well as a prediction for where the industry is headed.

If you’ve been in or around advertising for the past four decades, you’ve probably heard the name Rishad Tobaccowala. Throughout that time, he has served at the upper echelons of Publicis Groupe as chief strategist and growth officer and chairman of Digitas and Razorfish. Today, he is a speaker, teacher, advisor and author of Restoring the Soul of the Business: Staying Human in the Age of Data.

He is a trusted advisor to Publicis Groupe as well as executives at Fortune 500 and 100 companies and private equity organizations. And now he is the recipient of the Ad Club Industry Legend honor. Always the mentor, Tobaccowala shares some crucial advice for all of us.


What is the biggest professional accomplishment that put you on the road to this achievement?

The biggest moment was, in the mid-1990s, convincing the ad agency Leo Burnett to do two things that were relatively dramatic for them. One was to start a new company focused on a new area where we had no clients – a business called interactive marketing. And second was, in order for it to be credible and world class, to take the name off the door, to not call it Leo Burnett. We called it Giant Step. It’s 1993-1994 so that was a differentiator.

Until then I was one of many account people. Right? But then there was this crazy account person [with these radical ideas.] More importantly, I aligned myself with a rising force, which was digital. That was the seminal moment. It ended up being a giant step. I became known for looking to the future, digital and the next generation.


All that stuff seemed to have worked out. In light of that, what would be some advice that you give the next generation of marketing and advertising professionals looking to follow in your footsteps?

The first piece of advice is that successful careers are built on a combination of luck, mentorship and aligning with the right trend. And yes, hard work is important, but everybody works hard. My basic belief on mentorship is to find the best bosses or best people you can find to guide you. In the case of aligning with the trend, try to understand something that will grow over the next 10-15 years. And with regard to luck, the way to maximize luck is say yes to as many opportunities as you can, even if they seem a stretch.

The second piece of advice is to never stop learning. The day you stop being a student is the beginning of the end of your career. It doesn’t matter how senior you are or how powerful you are. The world is changing so much that even at this stage I spend an hour-and-a-half a day learning. Invest in continuous learning and education, because otherwise you will find yourself growing increasingly irrelevant.

The third piece of advice is: eventually when you become truly successful, your success will be built on a very benign form of a Ponzi scheme. What I mean is you will soon be successful because the people around you are successful. And you will basically be given some sort of credit for the people around you. Therefore, make sure that you really, really invest in the people around you because that is investing in yourself in everything, from training to relationships to looking after them. You can’t succeed, especially as you get more, unless you do that.

The last thing is never take yourself too seriously. Be humble. Laugh at yourself and when people say you’re full of shit, you probably are.


What is your source of inspiration?

What inspires me is an intense optimism about where we are relative to the state of two things. The state of technology is one. Broadly, we’re at the cusp of one of the most radical and positive changes in technology. And it isn’t necessarily just digital technology – it’s everything from biotechnology to all of the rest. The second one is that I believe that all of us are good people, more than the newspapers claim we are. Especially if you look at the younger generations. They have the right set of values. Take those combined with the next generation of technologies and I believe we’re going to have a step change.


With that, what’s your biggest prediction for the future?

I have two types of predictions. One is that the next 10 years will be really good for people all over the world. Not for every single person, but the world will be better off in the next 10 years than it is today because of a combination of artificial intelligence, biotechnology and the next generation of the internet – which is everything from blockchain to AR to VR to 5G. Number two is I believe that we will look back at the way we used to be working in 2019 and in 2029 wonder how anybody actually worked that way. We’re about to see the most radical rethinking of work, workers and workspaces ever.

It is certainly an odd transition right now. Speak of odd transitions, what is something that would surprise people about you?

What would probably surprise people is that I am addicted to working out. A lot of people know I like learning new things and that I’m a photographer, but it is working out that is very important to me to a point where if I don’t do it, I’m not in a good mood. Like today, because I had very early meetings, and then I had to do another presentation, I actually went for a swim at 10 o’clock in the morning, which is late for me. I usually get it done first thing in the morning or I run. So it’s this weird thing, which is supposedly this person who likes to be thinking is addicted to doing something that’s physical.

For more about the Advertising People of the Year awards, click here.