Rishad Tobaccowala reflects on the changing face of communication.

Rishad Tobaccowala, a digital marketing guru and chief executive officer of Denuo, an interactive marketing consulting firm, admittedly knows nothing about fashion or luxury, but that doesn't stop him from predicting the future of the apparel business.

The Indian-born Tobaccowala knows a thing or two about soothsaying. He was right about the potential of the Internet, convincing Leo Burnett Worldwide to create a digital ad unit back in 1993 when dial-up was king and the Web was still called the 'Net. More recently, he beat his competitors to the punch when he lobbied SMG to form a division dedicated to video-game, word-of-mouth and mobile marketing. He also helped the industry mature in 2003 by spearheading the first upfronts for the Internet, allowing marketers to buy ad space on Yahoo and the like just as they buy time on the networks. His new media prognosticating skills have earned him the curious, if appropriate, title of chief innovation officer at Publicis Groupe Media, a position he fills in addition to his work at Denuo.

Tomorrow's marketing, he claimed, will "come from the slime." That's Tobaccowala's term for nameless, fameless masses that are online and shaping communication at a frenetic pace via Facebook, YouTube and the bottomless blogosphere. "Important people hang out with other important people in fancy hotels, but the future of marketing and ideas will come from unimportant people and places you didn't expect," Tobaccowala said.

And while the fashion business has generally acceded to the power of Internet marketing, Tobaccowala reiterated just how radically the Web has changed the game. Media consumption and ad dollars used to be consolidated within print, television and radio. Now they're scattered across thousands of Web pages that cater to niche audiences. Instead of editors deciding what's important, said Tobaccowala, content today is edited by "the wisdom of crowds," as users, like those commenting on, say, TripAdvisor.com, decide what services and products are good.The Web has also revolutionized the distribution model — anything can be posted online now — which in turn makes content, and not a slot in prime time, the primary factor. Lastly, where marketers used to think of advertising in terms of space (billboards, ad pages, the sides of buses), new media is organized into audience — for example, a Gucci page on MySpace or a Google search for Christian Louboutin.

So in this changed environment, how can the apparel industry use new media to its advantage? The success of a new media campaign begins with content that is free and transmittable.

"I just told this to The New York Times and I'll tell you, that if it's not free, no one can find you," said the marketing specialist of the video, pictures and links that make up the Web's currency. "Users find content through search, social networks and blogs, and if it's not pointed to, or able to be embedded, no one will find it."

From a design perspective, less is more. Make it simple and elegant to use, he said, citing Apple's iPod as the perfect fusion of function and design. He compared that with Microsoft's Zune, which he described, in his typically direct fashion, as "horrible" and "sucky."

On the subject of reinvention, Tobaccowala suggested looking critically at your staff and business model. "I always take my clients out to drinks," he said, "because I like to ask a question that requires two or three [cocktails]. The question is this: What's really bothering you in your work? And the answer is often that even if they knew what to do, their people or organization would get in the way."

To fix that, he recommended thinking of your business like a software company that releases new versions every year, such as Microsoft's often-changing operating systems, like Windows 2000 or Vista. The new version of a business should be better equipped to tackle the operation's largest challenges.

The key to success in the Internet age, according to Tobaccowala, is staying fluid and collaborating, something he says the apparel industry — with its complex array of licensees, manufacturers and marketers — already does. Still, he advises his clients to imagine a competitor that would destroy their company. "Then I tell them to build that [imaginary competitor]."The new media leader closed with a final forecast on the global trends that will shape marketing in years to come. First is voyeurism. "We like to watch," he said, pointing to the rising popularity of social networking sites like Facebook, reality television shows like "Survivor" and Zillow.com, which lets users look up real estate values of their neighbors' homes.

Related to voyeurism is the democratization of fame. Is Andy Warhol's prediction that in the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes coming true? Tobaccowala referenced a startling study that found that 40 percent of 15-year-olds said they expect to be famous in the next five years. "Of course, their sense of fame is different, smaller," he said, noting fame could be tied to a popular video on YouTube or a blog.

Marketers' roles, in the future, will also change to one of facilitation. Tobaccowala noted consumers today are increasingly in control. They self-diagnose on WebMD.com, go to the doctor and say, "Here's what's wrong with me. I need this prescription." Or they rate and choose their vacations on Expedia.com or TripAdvisor.com. Marketing will be less about convincing consumers, Tobaccowala said, and more about making products easier to self-serve. "Every [chief marketing officer] should change their title to chief facilitation officer," he said.

Most alluring was Tobaccowala's suggestion that the Web has given consumers a God-like control over information. "We are no longer constrained by time, place or body," he said. Beyond access is the growing power of the Web to shape identity. People now live out dreams, and alternate realities in online worlds like Second Life, or the combat game Halo, where users play with other gamers around the globe. Virtual space is having a greater impact on everyday life. "The Web is now a place of dream-making," Tobaccowala said. The marketer's role in the new media is to help make those dreams a reality.

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