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Rishad Tobaccowala, ’82, is an author, advisor, and visionary: a company of one after nearly 40 years in advertising, where he last served as chief strategist and chief growth officer at Publicis Groupe, one of the largest and oldest marketing and communications firms in the world, with around 80,000 employees and headquarters in Paris. 

His 2020 book, Restoring the Soul of Business: Staying Human in the Age of Data, came out at a time when many books sat unshipped, airports were empty, and events went virtual. The “change or die” guru found himself in an existential dilemma. How could he get in front of business leaders when no one was at work? 

First, he worked with publisher HarperCollins to create an electronic version of his book that could be emailed. Second, he sought virtual gigs—his speaking style (no notes, no PowerPoints) is a natural fit for Zoom. Third, he launched a weekly Substack email newsletter, now read by more than 25,000 people—of which hundreds are CEOs. Now his book has sold 30,000 copies.

“I reach more CEOs than the major business magazines,” he says, and chuckles, “So now who’s the media company?” 

I went to Chicago because my father, the late Akhtarali H. Tobaccowala, ’52, studied there. I grew up in Mumbai, where I studied mathematics. I came to Booth in 1980. I studied marketing with Harry Davis. In his lab class, we worked with major companies such as Kraft Foods and SC Johnson. We also worked with advertising company J. Walter Thompson, which set me on my path.

Chicago grabbed my attention because we would not solely do hyperspecific case studies.
We would learn how to think, which served us in any industry. We learned to look at things from different perspectives—to hold contrary ideas in mind, to build an opposing case. We learned the value of being wrong. I still use these skills to drive change. It’s difficult to change; we don’t like it. The key is to manage change. Break it down. I just published a newsletter on career advice that’s a five-minute read. It’s clear and actionable. 

Return-to-office mandates don’t make sense unless you’re a dentist or assembling a car.
Managers in their big corner offices checking on your work? That’s not cool anymore. The pandemic proved how easy it is to work outside the office. With technology, the traditional office space hasn’t been necessary for years. Do people need to learn to work with others? Maybe younger ones, new hires. But there will be fewer days in the office, fewer flights. The goal is not physical presence, but connectedness. To thrive, organizations must rewire the architecture of connectedness.

This is a time of opportunity. To be a better person, leader, family.
We got a mulligan. With the pandemic pause, we got a chance to say “What can I do differently?” I’m calling it the Great Reinvention. Globalization offers the biggest opportunities and challenges. Now is the time to rethink.

“The goal is not physical presence, but connectedness. To thrive, organizations must rewire the architecture of connectedness.”

— Rishad Tobaccowala, ’82

We’re entering the third great age of the internet. The first was a time of discovery and transaction—search and e-commerce. The second, which we’re still in, is a period of constant connectivity—social and mobile. The third connected age will be truly revolutionary. We will connect faster due to 5G, and connect in new ways by utilizing artificial and virtual reality. We will benefit from advanced machine learning and A.I., and there will be new, trustable connections through the blockchain. When we look back at the present 10 years from now, we’ll laugh at how rudimentary today’s technologies were. 

Demographic shifts will change whom we market to, and how.
In the US, the youngest generation is multiethnic. They’ve experienced the arrival of Black Lives Matter. They grew up differently than the rest of us. About 10,000 Americans turn 65 every day; and 65 percent of all wealth is owned by Americans over the age of 55. They’re living longer. They have 20 years of spending still. A third group isn’t even a group: it’s urban versus rural, the coastal elite versus the rest of the country. If you’re a CMO, where will you spend? How will you break through?

Business matters. Making money matters. But people matter most.
People work together toward a common goal when they’re properly trained and incentivized. Why is it good for them? Walmart hikes up its minimum wage. Dove works to represent new forms of beauty. On the flip side, Facebook insiders are challenging its leaders. Amazon workers are forming unions. Workers are saying, “This is our company, not yours.” Leaders should take the time to study their net promoter score: How happy are your customers, your employees? Are your customers satisfied? Are your workers meaningfully employed?

“People work together toward a common goal when they’re properly trained and incentivized.”

— Rishad Tobaccowala, ’82

Media is mongrelized. Fewer people watch the Super Bowl than scroll the social media feeds of the Kardashian sisters. If you watch something on TikTok in a Target store, is that online or offline? The days of the purebred media buy are over. Out-of-home is the future of what’s possible. Think stadiums and concert venues. Think Times Square and its enormous screen. I’m bullish on media’s impact, as long as we can change and reinvent ourselves.

International House was my home at the university.
Its residents were from all over the world. I liked Chicago. I liked exploring. I liked finding places to watch films. I did not like the food. Bland, no heat. I did not like the cold. But I knew I was getting an amazing education, both in class and outside of it. Hyde Park became our home. It’s a true multiethnic community. It prepared me for the world.

I’m married to a woman I’ve known since I was 12.
We have two adult daughters. Spending time with my three ladies is fun. I run and swim. I relax at the Peninsula Hotel spa. I consume culture: film, technology, food, and drink. The definition of success is having the freedom to spend time in a way that brings you joy. For some that means fishing. For others, it’s earning $1 billion. For me, it’s creating and figuring things out, writing and reading. From that, I’ve built my next career.