Marketers need to remember the human touch and not solely rely on data as they build brands and respond to COVID-19 alike, according to Rishad Tobaccowala, a senior adviser to Publicis Groupe. Geoffrey Precourt, WARC’s US Editor, outlines further insights from the renowned industry leader.

Rishad Tobaccowala, Publicis Groupe’s chief growth officer, believes that the short- and long-term consequences of the Coronavirus pandemic must kickstart a necessary change in the way companies operate and bring their brands to market.

In addressing an Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) digital-webinar audience in a “Restoring the Soul of Business: Staying Human in the Age of Data” session, Tobaccowala called for a “Great Reinvention”.

And, he believes, it is a change long overdue.

“Over the last five to seven years,” Tobaccowala told the IAB THERE session, “we have basically tended to work ‘the spreadsheet’ – the data, the math, and the economics of the business – and have given short shrift to what I call ‘the story’ – the culture, the emotion, the values and the purpose of business.

“Businesses that combine the story and the spreadsheet … win in every sense of the word. Not only are they well respected, not only do they have very low turnover rates, but, not surprisingly, they are the companies with the highest stock price appreciation.”

Financial giant Wells Fargo, he offered, was a business that suffered because math dominated its management style. By contrast, software expert Adobe has successfully combined the spreadsheet and the story.

“One of the reasons Microsoft didn't do so well for a decade is they went all in to [the] math. Then [in 2014, CEO] Satya Nadella basically gave everybody a growth mindset and the stock price went up,” supporting Tobaccowala’s contention that “it's only poor leaders who basically say they use math to run their businesses.”

On balance, he did allow, “Data is critical. I have an advanced degree in math and I know a lot about data. I think it is really critical. But data is like electricity. You can't a run businesses without it. But tell me which business differentiates itself on the use of electricity. That's what most people are missing.”

Only a few companies – Amazon, Google, and Facebook – have been able to differentiate themselves primarily on the basis of data, he added. Nonetheless, most companies act as if they are “going from no electricity to electricity, which is why they're fixating so much on electricity. Electricity is not a [brand] differentiator.”

For those companies that want to change, he continued, “There are only two ways: You either upgrade your people or you upgrade their mindsets. Everything else is a press release.”

Different conditions mandate different spreadsheet/story mixes. And extraordinary times demand extraordinary measures. As the pandemic continues to affect both health and economic welfare, “decisions need to be less numerical,” Tobaccowala told the IAB There digital audience.

“Today, it's probably 70% human and 30% data. In fact, what we're doing as a society all over the world [needs to be] 95% human and 5% economic ... If you only believe the numbers, you should not be in marketing.

“No brand was ever built by numbers. People choose with their hearts. If you only make decisions using your numbers, not only will you be a failure, but you will be unemployed.”

Instead of decisions driven solely by data, the Publicis strategist continued, companies now need to learn more heavily on the humanity of the story. “I know I run away from math as fast as I can,” he said. “I don't want to compete with a machine. I want to work with the machine. And what do I do that a machine doesn't do? The other stuff.”

Human voices, he insisted, need to be rich, loud, and diverse. In the Coronavirus crisis – and during the recovery – Tobaccowala advised, “everything we're going to be doing will need to be human.”

Elaborating on this theme, he identified three emotions that almost every human around the world is feeling:

  • “They're anxious.”
  • “They're fearful.”
  • “They're uncertain.”

People are “uncertain because they don't know where it's going to end. They're fearful for their own health. They're fearful for their job. And it's a time of great anxiety.”

Recovery, he offered, will demand “a great reinvention” every bit as pervasive and powerful as from the Great Recession, with a focus on fragility. “What this [pandemic] has shown us is ... how we are fragile as human beings; how our companies are fragile; how our governments are fragile,” said Tobaccowala.

A case in point regarding the importance of humanity: Joseph Ianniello, the former CEO of media enterprise CES, received $125 million last year – of which $84.7 million was severance pay. In pandemic dollars, that’s the cost of thousands of emergency-care professionals.

Said Tobaccowala, “These are realities ... We have to look at the fragility of our organizations, fragility of our leadership, and we have to heal them.

“A lot of people say, ‘Well, we came back from 9/11 and that was not a big deal. Here's why [the Coronavirus epidemic] is different ... For one, it's happening to everybody in the world. It's happening all at the same time. And it's happening” for an extended period of time.

Basic psychology, he noted, has a simple lesson: “If you start or stop a habit for 60 days, it becomes a new habit.” And, as new habits become pervasive, “you begin to reinvent society and business as we know it.

“Hopefully for the better.”

One short-term outcome: “There is a sense of gratitude, looking at all the amazing people doing amazing things under major duress of jobs and income ... It's pretty remarkable how people continue to operate.”

The sense is gratitude, he continued, is an idea that translates to a longer-term goal: “How can I help other people?”

For the Publicis growth officer, there is a passionate point of connection: the Tobaccowala Foundation, a decade-old organization, has a mission “to help underwrite the health, education and welfare of the needy in India.” To date, its work has included engaging with 12,000 people “in a range of ways from underwriting eye surgery, helping cancer and diabetes patients, providing vocational training skills to electricians, plumbers and farmers, as well as providing education for poor as well as handicapped children.”

Under normal circumstances, the spring of 2020 would have been book-tour season for Tobaccowala: Restoring the Soul of Business: Staying Human in the Age of Data was published by HarperCollins Leadership in the last week of January.

Said the philanthropist/author/strategist, “The first words in the book are, ‘Time is the only thing we have.’ That’s now become very clear to everybody.”