Media Strategist All Star: Rishad Tobaccowala, Chief Innovation Officer, Publicis Groupe Media; President, SMG Next

Rishad Tobaccowala isn't a nine-to-fiver. As president of SMG Next, an idea incubator within Starcom MediaVest Group, and chief innovation officer of Publicis Groupe Media, Tobacco- wala lives and breathes work every minute of the day, no matter where he is, whom he's with, or what he's doing. His job? Tobaccowala predicts the future, or at least attempts to, and people depend on his visionary and analytical abilities. He doesn't pick lotto numbers or determine who's going to win a football game. But he is the go-to guy at smg and throughout Publicis Groupe when clients and agency people want to know how people are going to use and interact with digital media in the future.

"I'm really the challenge-the-status-quo guy," Tobaccowala says. "I ask, 'How do we improve, break, and create new models?' My job brings in the outside perspective -- the disgruntled perspective." Jack Klues, CEO of Starcom MediaVest Group, handpicked Tobaccowala seven years ago to start a digital division (Starcom IP). "Rishad is provocative. He challenges us and our clients daily. He never lets us get comfortable, and therefore reminds us that we live in an industry where change is not only expected but constant," he says. Two years ago, Klues turned to Tobaccowala again when he saw the need for an idea incubator and futurist group.

"If you ask marketers, agency folks, and media buyers who they feel sees the media future with as much clarity as is available, it all points to Rishad," says Bill Gossman, CEO of Revenue Science, on whose board Tobaccowala sits. "He is brilliant, eloquent, and incredibly funny. When you meet and start working with him, you understand why he is as successful as he is. He makes stuff happen when other people quite often can't."

To stay on top of trends, Tobaccowala reads four daily newspapers, a dozen magazines, and several RSS feeds customized just for him. "He is curious. He lives in a world that doesn't stand still. Nothing is ever new for long. He looks at everything, but he has a rare talent for sorting what is a fleeting fad versus what is potentially a critical game-changer," Klues says.

Tobaccowala also passionately observes clients, partners, staffers, and even his wife and two daughters. "I'm surrounded by a lot of talented people, and they constantly tell me what I should be thinking about," he explains. For instance, "I'm all thumbs on gaming, so once every six or eight weeks, I sit and have dinner with our games specialists and watch them play."

He experiments with new technologies to understand how they affect consumer behavior. "Any time I see a new technology, I try to buy it and use it myself. I'm on my fifth iPod, and I have five digital video recorders and six computers."

"He is always looking out onto the horizon to see how Starcom can participate in the changing market," says Joanne Bradford, chief media revenue officer for Microsoft's MSN.

Tobaccowala's ability to turn vision into reality has resulted in the launch of several successful practices within SMG, including Play, set up to understand gaming; Digits, a wireless marketing practice; and Reverb, which focuses on word-of-mouth marketing. SMG's TV 2.0 initiative focuses on how consumers will engage with myriad forms of digital video and the next generation of television. SMG Next is a cross-company unit. "Where it makes sense, we find people who are change agents. We have clusters of people working on those areas while doing their normal job," he notes. Like Tobaccowala's chief-innovation-officer role, Next cuts a wide swath across the company. "It makes certain enterprisewide decisions based on where the future is going," he explains.

"People here know me. If I come up with a harebrained scheme, I'm an insider and I have a track record." Tobaccowala's been with SMG, formerly a part of Leo Burnett Media, for 25 years. But, he notes, "I've had more career changes than anybody. I spend 150 days traveling all over the world, so I think it's a combination of roots and wings. You have to have really good roots if you want really strong wings."

"When I first met him, I thought, 'If anyone can change the world, he can,'" says Wenda Harris Millard, chief sales officer at Yahoo!. "One of his best qualities is his genuine belief that digital marketing can solve marketers' problems in an effective way."

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