On a warm September day in Chicago, Rishad Tobaccowala counseled a roomful of Leo Burnett executives on how to sell high-tech gadgets -- told in terms of hot dogs.
Tobaccowala, who has spent 30 years at Leo Burnett and affiliated agencies, described the $14 Chicago-style hot dog sold at the Allium restaurant inside the Four Seasons Hotel.
"Every single thing in that hot dog has been homemade," he says. "They make the ketchup, they make the mustard, they make the bread. But I don't think they tell us how they make the hot dog or the mustard or the bun."
His point is that consumers want transparency, but only to a point.
"They're looking for magic where they can feel and see the result without necessarily understanding how the hell it happened," Tobaccowala says. "Any technology that tries to explain how it's done is like a magician showing his trick. It doesn't work."
Analogies and metaphors are tools of the trade in the advertising world. But Tobaccowala doesn't aim to convey cute or clever messages to consumers. His audience, instead, is marketers and colleagues trying to understand how consumers will relate to media and advertising in the future.
His pioneering work in online advertising and ability to convey complex concepts in simpler terms has made Tobaccowala, a 53-year-old Indian-born executive, a go-to adviser among marketers and colleagues in a rapidly changing industry.
Unusual among advertising executives, he doesn't have any direct clients, nor does he run a business unit.
That relative freedom allows him to speak with refreshing candor, said Doug Moore, vice president of advertising and media at General Mills Inc., which uses Leo Burnett's sister agencies for advertising and media planning. Moore credits Tobaccowala for encouraging the company behind Cheerios and other wholesome brands to try bolder marketing, which led to a campaign using the Cheech and Chong comedy duo to promote Fiber One cereal.
"He's not pitching a particular agency or a particular project," Moore said. "He's very generous in how he puts our agenda first. That's very unusual in the advertising or consulting space."
Tobaccowala's role inside Publicis Groupe, the giant French advertising and marketing firm that owns Leo Burnett, is to be a student of culture, think deep thoughts and spot trends. His official title is chief strategy and innovation officer at Chicago-based VivaKi, which Publicis started in 2008 to accelerate the digital activities within its media and digital companies.
Tobaccowala is known for his linguistic flourishes and profanity, which he uses for dramatic effect rather than to express anger.
"He's a provocateur," said Andrew Swinand, the former president of Starcom MediaVest Group, a media agency owned by Publicis. "Part of Rishad's genius is to say you're doing everything wrong, but in a really polite and funny way that makes you feel good about it."
Right, left brain
Tobaccowala's dream job is a demanding one. He wakes every morning at 4:30, two hours before his wife. He spends the first hour reading, often dipping into several books at a time, usually fiction and nonfiction that has nothing to do with marketing or business. His current reads: "Sweet Tooth," a novel by Ian McEwan; the massive "Infinite Jest" by David Foster Wallace; and a book on contemporary architecture called "10 x 10."
His choice in books has a purpose.
"The nature of my job, which has to do with where the world is going, tends to be math-driven and very tech-driven and very digital and very science-driven," said Tobaccowala, who majored in mathematics at the University of Bombay. "It's a lot left brain."
The most successful companies, though, fuse left brain and right brain, or science and art, he says. Tobaccowala finds a lesson for marketers in this bit of truth. They are trying to motivate human beings, after all.
"Marketers who basically believe this all about technology are mistaken," he said. "They think we are computing agents. Silicon chips compute, and carbon forms dream."
His belief in stimulating both halves of his brain extends to his writing in two distinct blogs. One is called "Re-imagining," where he posts news and musings about the arts, music and literature. He addresses marketing and workplace culture in his left-brained blog, "Re-inventing."
In a recent post, he wrote about how business people, particularly in meetings, "hide reality within layers of protocol, diplomacy and dazzling multimedia shows." He inelegantly calls the uncomfortable truth "the turd on the table."
Tobaccowala's morning routine also includes a run on a treadmill in the gym of the Peninsula Hotel or his Lake Shore Drive condo he shares with his wife of 28 years. To stay on top of trends, he reads four daily newspapers on his iPad: The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, the Financial Times and the Chicago Tribune, or another local paper when he's traveling to another city.
In addition to scanning headlines, he likes to peruse lists of most-viewed or most-emailed stories. "It's the way people read online," he said.
He usually walks to his office on the 32nd floor of the Leo Burnett Building at 35 W. Wacker Drive His office, like his study at home, is a clutter of books. Most are business or marketing tomes that he dismisses as fluff. "You can figure out the book just by reading the first chapter," he said.
Signs of his influence hang on a hook near his door: dozens of name tags from speaking engagements all over the world. On this morning, he gets a call from a pharmaceutical trade group asking him to be a keynote speaker.
A sign on his wall challenges: "What would you do if you weren't afraid?" He received it as a gift after speaking to a room full of Facebook executives. The sign speaks to his third professional responsibility, for talent and culture in the company. He says they are directly tied to strategy and innovation.
"We have to innovate by giving clients new ideas," Tobaccowala said. "We have to innovate by showing them stuff that inspires them, that stretches their imagination. But in order to do that we ourselves have to be inspired and have to stretch our minds."
Sounds cliche, right?
But clients and peers pay attention because of Tobaccowala's reputation for forward thinking along with a wealth of experience spanning years in which Internet ad revenues in the U.S. have grown from nearly nothing to $17 billion in the first half of 2012.
The Internet wasn't a factor when he arrived in the U.S. in 1980 as a student at the University of Chicago graduate business school, where his father studied.
After earning his MBA, Tobaccowala joined Leo Burnett in part because it was willing hire him even though he didn't have a green card. He also realized that, there, he would be exposed to blue-chip U.S. companies, such as McDonald's, General Motors and Procter & Gamble.
He started as an account manager and later moved into media buying, research and direct marketing.
In 1993, he persuaded his bosses to start an interactive marketing unit. The idea was ahead of its time, coming before the rise of the World Wide Web.
Tobaccowala has always had an interest in technology. His first personal computer was an Apple Macintosh with 512K of memory, introduced in 1984. He also was familiar with CompuServe, the first major commercial online service.
On America Online, Tobaccowala helped launched a nightly celebrity talk show sponsored by Oldsmobile, a Leo Burnett client looking to reinvent itself. In order to get into the chat room, AOL users first saw a virtual showroom of cars on their computer screens. The sponsorship was an attempt to reconnect Oldsmobile with younger consumers, though the General Motors brand eventually disappeared.
Tobaccowala's group also took McMom's, a direct-mail program run by McDonald's to target advertising to mothers, and shifted it to AOL.
But selling clients on a new medium wasn't easy. His pitch: "A lot of people say if you move first there will be arrows in your back. Our idea was if you move first, you'll be a trailblazer and get the first look at new ideas."
Those initial forays into online advertising were the beginnings of his evolution into a leading digital strategist. Leo Burnett repeatedly turned to him to launch new digital ventures in both advertising and media. He became president of Starcom IP, the Internet media unit of Starcom MediaVest Group, which helps clients decide where to spend advertising dollars.
Tobaccowala later helped incubate SMG's video-gaming unit, Play, and another unit dedicated to Internet searches. In 2006, Publicis created Denuo -- "anew" in Latin, dedicated to spotting the latest media and marketing technologies -- and put Tobaccowala in charge. The venture included specialists in mobile advertising and viral marketing, the practice of using social media and other technologies to create buzz.
"Rishad has a tremendous appetite for the next thing in marketing," said Jack Klues, VivaKi's chief executive officer, who has known Tobaccowala for 30 years. "He never allows me to look back for a minute on what got accomplished. He's always insisting on leaning forward."
VivaKi said last week that Klues will retire at year's end. Chief Financial Officer Frank Voris will succeed Klues and work closely with Tobaccowala.
Despite the decline of traditional media, Tobaccowala said he believes advertising is entering a golden age. Brands are growing more important in an era of information overload, and technology allows marketers to target their audiences and measure returns like never before.
But technology can't be allowed to overshadow the emotional side of advertising, Tobaccowala said.
"Advertising is still about people," he said. "And we like to be told stories."
That's why he's not sold on mobile advertising yet. Banner ads, he believes, clutter screens or even creep people out because of privacy concerns.
That message is not something David Petersen wants to hear. The CEO of Sense Networks, a startup mobile advertising platform, called Tobaccowala one afternoon to get feedback about his business.
Tobaccowala told Petersen he believes the future of mobile is marketing utilities and services rather than advertising. As an example, Tobaccowala touted a Walgreen app that allows him to refill a prescription in seconds.
"The stem of your business is the idea to find people," Tobaccowala told Petersen. "One of the flowers of your business is display advertising. See what other flowers bloom."
The irony about Tobaccowala is that while he preaches change, he has a lot of stability in his life. He has worked for Klues for 13 years, lived in Hyde Park for 24 years before moving downtown in 2005, and has known his wife, Rekha, for 41 years, since growing up in the same apartment building in Bombay, now Mumbai.
Tobaccowala's parents were progressive for their generation in India. His father was a Muslim and his mother was Hindu. His father was in management at the Tata Group, one of India's largest conglomerates. The family's surname indicates his father's family's roots in the tobacco business. "Wala" or "Wallah" in Hindi means one who performs a specific task.
When Tobaccowala moved to Chicago, Rekha was studying journalism at the University of Georgia.
"He would religiously write me every day," Rekha said. "He would write poems and send me songs."
They were married in 1984 and settled in Hyde Park, where they raised two daughters. Rekha, 53, taught at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools before retiring last year to travel with her husband and focus on philanthropy.
After Tobaccowala's father died in 2010, the couple started a foundation to help the poor in India. One of the first gifts they made was a $1 million donation to the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business to establish a scholarship for students from India.
Tobaccowala takes the scholars under his wing, giving them a hand that he didn't have when he was a young immigrant looking to make his way in a foreign land.
"Rishad was very determined to make it on his own," said Rekha. "If we were in India, he would have been known as 'Mr. Tobaccowala's son.' "
Title: Chief strategy and innovation officer, VivaKi, a digital and media agency network.
Education: Bachelor's degree in mathematics from the University of Bombay; MBA from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.
Family: Lives in Chicago with his wife, Rekha. They have two daughters: Ria, 24, graduated from Harvard University and works for Google Inc. Rohini, 21, is a senior at Boston University.
Twitter followers: 9,070 as of press time @Rishadt.
Recent tweet: "Wisdom: 1. Find something/somebody to admire. 2. Be open. Be Flexible. 3. Modern methods but ancient values. 4. Become who you are"