To succeed in today's digital marketplace, organizations must be fearless, fluid and forward-thinking. Those are the fundamental principles that Denuo CEO Rishad Tobaccowala tries to instill in his client companies. And in terms of staying nimble and constantly reassessing one's role within the marketing landscape, Tobaccowala practices what he preaches.
Despite the fact that Denuo was launched less than three years ago, the agency's mission has already evolved significantly. When Denuo launched in 2006, it was envisioned as a crystal ball for the digital marketing industry -- an agency dedicated exclusively to anticipating the rapidly changing digital, interactive and mobile communications environment. But, according to Tobaccowala, the needs of the firm's clients have changed. And thus, so has Denuo's business model.
"Clients' No. 1 question is no longer, 'What is happening and what should I do?'" Tobaccowala says. "The No. 1 question is, 'How do I do what I should do?'" Thus, what was initially conceived as a "futures" consulting group has shifted further into tangibility. Of course, the firm is still heavily focused on anticipating the future of digital. But now it's also heavily involved in designing the solutions that the future will demand.
That isn't to say that Denuo has crossed the line into technologies manufacturing. Far from it. Although the firm may envision the shape of a new solution, it leaves the production side to state-of-the-art technology developers. And it's something Tobaccowala recommends his clients do as well. "In a fast-changing world, why do you want to vertically integrate?" he says. "The internet is about eventually connecting the best of breed."
In a sense, Denuo's own transformation epitomizes the nimbleness that the agency tries to instill in its own clients. As the company has come to better understand what its clients want, and as its clients' needs have changed, it has evolved accordingly.
"We talk about being in Denuo 3.0," Tobaccowala says. "Usually what tends to happen is you go from 1.0 to 2.0 to 3.0 in software. You don't tend to go in organizations. Organizations don't change so fast. But we believe it's important for organizations to change fast because the only way to learn is by doing -- through iteration. You can't sit and read books about this stuff."
Facilitation trumps advertising
So, when Denuo executives look into their digital crystal balls, what do they see? Well, as you might assume, that depends on the client. But across the board, Tobaccowala says marketers can base their strategies on a couple of assumptions about the future. For one, there will be people in the future. And two, those people will want to communicate and connect.
The rest, he says, is all about facilitation. "We need to basically organize the facilitation," Tobaccowala says. "We need to have chief facilitation officers." Rather than spending their time crafting messages, marketers should be spending their time helping consumers gain access to companies and their resources -- thereby making it easy for consumers to market to themselves.
When it comes to connecting and communicating, people want three things, Tobaccowala says. First, they want access -- access to content and to people, at any time, in any place, on any device. Second, they want participation. And third, they want empowerment. And not just any old empowerment, Tobaccowala notes. They want to be like gods, limited by neither time nor space. Thus, he says, marketers must learn to live in the world of the omniscient consumer.
"Think about facilitation rather than marketing," Tobaccowala says. "Think about access, empowerment and participation. In this particular world, you have to take segmented marketing -- which is what we do today on television, where you start with the cow and you get yourself a steak -- and combine that with reaggregated marketing, like people do in search engines. It's one person at a time, but you need to reaggregate them into a large enough audience. It's like starting with a piece of mince and getting a hamburger."
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For marketers to successfully transition to the role of facilitators, they need to align their efforts with what people are actually doing -- not what brands want them to do, Tobaccowala says. A simple yet stellar example of such alignment is the Nestle Purina site Petcharts.com.
"There's this enormous amount of interest in cat and dog content online, but interestingly, none of the major [pet food] companies actually have lots of traffic that comes to their websites," Tobaccowala says. Although these companies put a lot of effort into trying to generate content of interest to their audience, they just can't compete with the myriad content-sharing sites out there.
So, instead of spending time and money trying to generate original content to garner the interest of pet owners, Purina partnered with multiple content providers, such as YouTube and Flickr, in order to aggregate pet-themed videos, stories and photos on a minimally branded site.
It's a simple concept, Tobaccowala says, but perhaps one so simple that it's often overlooked. "People are already doing something," he says. "Why don't you align with what people are doing rather than spending a whole bunch of money trying to create stuff? But do it in such a way that it is consistent with the brand."
Another example of strategic alignment is Champion's Homestyle Sports YouTube channel, which allows everyday Joes and Jills to upload their own sports-themed videos. People are creating these videos anyway, Tobaccowala points out. So it makes sense for a brand -- especially one that markets itself as the sports brand for your everyday athlete -- to align itself with that content.
Ignore the silly things
It probably comes as no surprise to marketers that social media channels represent key ways in which companies can align themselves with the interests and activities of their consumers. But not every channel is for every brand, and the urge to play in every social media application is one that brands must resist, Tobaccowala says.
"Notice, nowhere have I said, 'Go do a viral campaign.' Nowhere have I said, 'Go do Facebook'" he says. "Because those are silly things. All of those things make sense only if they actually align with the client's overall objective.
"A big part of what [Denuo does] is tell clients what not to waste their good old time on," Tobaccowala adds. "Today, clients are wasting lots of time and lots of money on things that might not make sense for their brands."
If companies want good word of mouth, Tobaccowala says all they need to do are two things: have a superior product and have excellent customer service. "Do those two things, and that is what's going to give you positive word of mouth -- not viral campaigns, not Facebook, not anything else," he says.
That's not to say that marketers should abandon emerging media opportunities. But they should be creative and thoughtful in how they approach them. And Tobaccowala should know -- innovation is built into his job title. In addition to his role at Denuo, Tobaccowala serves on the board of directors of VivaKi, an initiative launched in June of this year that leverages the combined scale of four Publicis agencies: Denuo, Digitas, Starcom MediaVest and ZenithOptimedia. Tobaccowala is the top innovation leader across all four agency brands.
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Look beyond Facebook and MySpace
According to Tobaccowala, brands need to seriously consider why consumers would ever want to interface with them on a Facebook or MySpace page. For many brands, it just doesn't make sense. Just because your demographic is on Facebook or MySpace doesn't mean they want to see you there.
"I'm a big believer in what MySpace and Facebook do," Tobaccowala says. "I believe in social media, and Facebook and MySpace just happen to be small components of social media. Social media is much broader than MySpace and Facebook.
"When people say they want to do a Facebook widget, we say, 'What is that and why?'" he adds. "If they say they want to figure out a way to leverage social media, we say, 'Yes. And Facebook may be a part of the solution.'"
Technology for its own sake will lead you into some really bogus places, Tobaccowala says. And your obsession with being on MySpace may distract you from focusing where you really need to focus. "We believe it is very important that clients have a Wikipedia strategy," Tobaccowala says. "They have to realize that usually the No. 1 listing in natural search when people type in their company or brand name happens to be a Wikipedia entry. So they should be aware of that. Think less about your MySpace profile, and think more about what's in your Wikipedia entry."
Just as MySpace and Facebook might be receiving a little too much attention from marketers, the world of gaming is not receiving enough, Tobaccowala says. "Our basic belief is that brands should leverage gaming because gaming is already bigger than the movie industry," he says. "For some categories -- such as telecommunications, fast food, automobiles -- gaming is a component that people need to do. Why do virtual worlds? Why not gaming? Gaming has social media attached to it because, increasingly, gaming is online. Gaming has a virtual component, but gaming already has scale and you can do interesting things."
A prime example of a brand aligning with its audience in the gaming world is the campaign GM developed in conjunction with Xbox 360's Project Gotham Racing. Within the context of the game, players can download three Cadillac models for free and race them. Those players that do exceptionally well can gain access to a special level of the game. The campaign, Tobaccowala says, was tremendously successful, not only in terms of how many people downloaded and raced the cars, but also according to anecdotal evidence of people walking into dealerships to check out real-life versions of the cars. The campaign also received significant positive press and gave GM a first-mover advantage in the space.
In the end, whether it's via gaming, Facebook, MySpace or some other perhaps yet-unseen platform, successful marketing boils down to finding the right fit and making creative use of marketing dollars.
"Clients need to recognize that they need to be much more imaginative in how they put programs together," Tobaccowala says. "As much as people might say that media is the new creative, I want to tell you that creative is the new media. I've always believed that the future doesn't fit in the containers of the past."
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Lori Luechtefeld is editor of iMedia Connection.
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