Rishad Tobaccowala on navigating a changed world

"What most business people don’t know is they lost so much credibility."

  
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Happy holidays. I’m wrapping up the year with a final podcast and then, on Wednesday, I’ll send out the second annual Rebooting Awards. In the meantime, my final podcast of the year is with Rishad Tobaccowala, a longtime advertising executive who is now also publishing his own newsletter, The Future Does Not Fit In The Containers Of The Past. If you enjoy The Rebooting Show, please leave a rating and review on Apple Podcasts – or share it with others. But first, a message from this week’s sponsor, Mediaocean.

Next week many are heading to Vegas for CES, the annual confab of the tech, media and advertising worlds. I know some of you will be skipping the action this year, but that doesn’t mean you have to miss out. Mediaocean has set up a livestream of its programming of the Mediaocean Retreat so you can still enjoy the thought leadership the Retreat will feature from an array of top executives, including Twitter chief customer officer Sarah Personette, Cadillac CMO Melissa Grady and S4 Capital CEO Martin Sorrell, not to mention my podcast guest this week, Rishad Tobaccowala. The programming will run Jan. 5 and Jan. 6 from 12pmPST to 4pmPST. Check out the agenda and register now. Be sure to tick the box for virtual and you’ll receive access links. Also, the recordings will be available on demand following the event.

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Rishad Tobaccowala has long been known in the advertising industry for his sage view of the need to embrace change – “Change sucks. Irrelevance worse.” – often delivered through pithy phrases and neatly numbered lists of points. For the final episode of 2021, I wanted to speak to Rishad to take stock of where we are and where we’re going as we come up on two years into the pandemic era.

For Rishad, the pandemic is a marker of a profound shift, part of what he calls the Great Reinvention. The pandemic is not a singular crisis like previous shocks such as the Financial Crisis, but is instead a polycrisis affecting health, the economy and society. That is leading many to reassess their approaches to life – just see the rise of the so-called anti-work movement. As he put it at the start of the crisis: 

“We had not just a financial crisis, not just a social crisis, not just a health crisis but all three, occurring not just to some people but to all people, not just for a short period of time. If you take the entire world and put them through a financial, social and health crisis for two years and expect things to be the same, you should not be in business and should resign immediately.”

Below are highlights from our conversation.

The unbundling of media

One impact of the rise of Substack and other newsletter platforms is they have given a convenient outlet for people to share their expertise in their fields. Rishad is one of them, starting a Substack back in August 2020 to “remain relevant and keep learning new things.” It became much more, serving as the basis for a new phase of his career.

“It allowed an individual to separate themselves from a media company. I thought this was intriguing that you could separate yourself and monetize your own craft without having to monetize an institution.”

A framework for thinking through the pandemic

The Covid era for me is reminiscent of the 1990s era of “news magazine” TV shows that would go to hotel rooms with a black light in order to find all manner of bacteria lurking on bedsheets and furniture. Viewers were disgusted but unsurprised – we just chose not to focus on the unpleasant details until we couldn’t ignore them. For Rishad, the pandemic is defined by three aspects: fragility, resilience and (hopefully!) resurrection.

“What was very clear was the fragility of business and of society. What most business people don’t know is they lost so much credibility. At one point, [businesses] decided to close everything down. They had money but paid it to themselves in the form of dividends. Look at the airline business, an up-and-down business that didn’t plan for an up-and-down business. As Professor Galloway says, we’re capitalists on the way up and socialists on the way down.”

Resetting of minds

The pandemic has upended lives in tangible ways. For the most fortunate, the changed circumstances, along with more time spent at home, has caused them to rethink how they want to live their lives. The fight over the return to office – and the Great Resignation – is an aftereffect of this process.

“Spiritually you end up different. Emotionally you end up different. Physically you end up different. Financially you are different. People are asking how to get back to the office. Nobody is going back. The only people who want to go back are the zookeepers. The zookeeping is what justified your job and your corner office. The animals are not going back to their cages. The question isn’t how we go back to the office, but what does the future of work look like. 20% of the people working from home at a full-time job have a side hustle.”

The case for optimism

The spread of Omicron, political deadlock and persistent inflation can lead even Dr. Pangloss to wonder if the world keeps getting worse. Yet in the longer view, there’s still hope that lasting change will come from the pandemic, if not as sweeping as some would hope.

“If you look back 20 years from any point in time, you’re better off than you were 20 years ago. Life gets better but the headlines say it’s getting worse. We’re at the cusp of some of the most dramatic breakthroughs in technology, and not just Web3 and internet stuff, in the real world. There are downsides to the connected world, but the connected world has given opportunities to billions of people who have not had them before. Covid is a tragedy, but what it did was shine the light on everything and made people say what’s important and what’s not important. We’re beginning to address those important issues and people are speaking up. We’re now paying attention to what’s important in a world where more people have a voice and with significant technology breakthroughs in a world that’s improved over time.”

Thanks for reading and listening this week. Shoot me a note with any feedback and possible destinations for Ben Simmons that will net the Sixers a legitimate star so they do not waste Joel’s prime years. My email is bmorrissey@gmail.com.