Through the Looking Glass: Sameer Tobaccowala, CEO, Shobiz Experiential Communications


When you joined Shobiz back in 1990, what was your role?

Well, I actually joined as a production manager and we were a staging company at that time. My father (Rehmatali Tobaccowala) started the brand Shobiz in 1982 and we were basically a set-making company. I joined the company to learn how to make sets and spent about two years in the carpentry workshop and then took it from there.

So, at that time was it just about joining the family business?

I thought I was joining my father’s company. I was just about 18 years old and had started my under-graduation. My college used to run from 7 to 10 in the morning and it was like let’s do something after that. It was quite exciting to get up and say I’m going to be at my father’s office... and have a Thums Up and sit and enjoy. Obviously it turned out to be very different because he made me sit in the workshop for two whole years. In the hot... in the heat... learning the business. The expectation was to have fun but it turned out to be very hard work. Many a time it was like what am I doing! But it got exciting over time and I thank my father today for putting me through that process because it really helped me understand the business.

As a kid growing up were you aware of your father’s achievements?

I think I was very aware. He was such a larger than life figure in this business. From the big weddings of the Ambanis to the Mahindras to the who’s who of Mumbai. In 1956 he had done the wedding of Dilip Kumar and Saira Banu! You can imagine his history. Plus his association with theatre... Alyque (Padamsee) used to come over to the house, sit and talk about his new productions! So, I was very much aware of the great work he was doing. I remember in the 1980s all the Filmfares (award ceremonies) he used to do. The first time they moved out of the Shanmukhananda Hall and did it at the Centaur... I think it was in the late 80s and I hadn’t joined the organisation then... and he had built the entire stage over the swimming pool of the hotel!

What changes did you bring in as you grew in the company?

I was the first employee that my father had from an executive point of view. He always worked with the labourers and the carpenters... people who used to make things. I think what I did - through learning of the basic business and then obviously wanting to do more (which is always a good thing when a young person joins the organisation) - was to get into the equipment rental business, where I started to take in a few people. And then in the mid 1990s I started employing more executives in the organisation. Boys who could help me do more shows at one time. Multi-city things had started coming into the picture. In 1997, we moved from a partnership to a private limited company and that’s when I took over as the CEO of the organisation. And then I started thinking what more. We opened in Delhi, we opened in Bangalore and we started moving to other places and by the end of the 1990s we started changing the face of the company from a stage management to an event management company.

Through all this change has the ethos behind Shobiz remained the same?

We were always taught that when it’s 6 o’clock in the evening things have to go right. And that you cannot say no to clients. It’s very important to deliver what we do. You cannot get into discussions about pricing later on into a project with your clients. We were taught all this and that has really helped us along the journey. Say with Unilever, now that’s a company Mr Rehmatali has been working with since 1973, with the launch of Rexona when Alyque was the CEO of Lintas. And I’m sure there’s a Unilever show happening right now in the organisation. We have lived these relationships. I think one of the reasons behind the big success story for our brand for 31 years is the fact that we have been able to live up to our original ethos of being able to deliver what we’ve promised on paper.

Your motto has been to be the best and to be the biggest. If you can elaborate on this...

Being the best is very important. Especially in our industry where you are as good as your last event. Unfortunately or fortunately, whichever way you look at it. If something goes wrong, they don’t think of what you have done for the last 20 years. You have to really work hard to keep your reputation up. And Murphy’s Law hits every one of us. I cannot possibly say that any of us have never had a problematic show. It happens... at home you’re wanting to watch a movie and that day your DVD will not work. But yes being the best is very important to be able to sustain in this industry. And it’s also important that your clients feel that you are giving them the best. About being the biggest, it’s just happened over time to be able to grow the company to what it is today. It is a large organisation without a doubt and it’s been a good journey.

You said somewhere that Shobiz has been into experiential marketing long before the term came into vogue. Tell us about that...

You know, it’s very strange... recently we were into this EEMA (Event & Entertainment Management Association) meeting a week or two weeks back and everybody started saying that we should now be called the experience industry. And I changed my name from Shobiz Events Management to Shobiz Experiential Communications about five-six-seven years back. I think over time and a little bit exposure to the world, I did realise that one of the biggest things our industry is doing is providing experiences to the audience that comes and providing experience to our clients’ clients, who are basically the final users. A lot of our thinking has been as to how we can provide a great memory, a great experience rather than a great event to the audience.

Do you think it’s time that experiential marketing became the essential element of mainstream marketing in India?

It is a very important part which has been accepted by a large amount of clients. Any kind of 1-on-1 communication has become very important. People do waive a little depending on whether the economy is going up or down. Some times when there is less money to spend, some industries go back to mass communication in a larger way because it’s still trusted in their minds. Like last year when automotive got hit a little bit, a lot of money moved back from experiential communication to big ads of launches, etc. So it fluctuates but one thing is for sure that marketing people have now started adding the experiential part of it to their marketing mix. That’s a positive sign and it’s happened many years back in the western countries.

What has been your favourite experiential marketing events from Shobiz?

The Nano Superdrive was very good. We also won an international award for that. That was a good campaign we did. Generally for many of our IT client campaigns that we do, we catch the audience very early into the space and we are able to add microsite work to that, digital work to that, EDMs to that. And we have been running these campaigns for year-on-year.

You are getting into social media in a major way. Is that where the future of marketing lies?

I think social media is there in a combined way. One is that the clients are looking at social media for their own brands and are using the digital agencies to do that. But what is happening is that in many, many pitches that we do is bring the social media part of it into the thinking process. What clients are positively looking at agencies like our’s is to come up with thought-process campaigns for their launch or event space in a larger 360 degrees. They ask us to add things like radio. Yes, social media is becoming a very important part of it. If it’s anything that needs to go out to mass, it is one of the larger ways of going out and you know the response is much faster than whether someone saw an ad in the papers or not.

Finally, where do you see Shobiz in the next five or ten years?

You know in our industry it’s very tough to project five or ten years down the line but you know, we have grown internationally now. We’ve got offices in Singapore and Dubai. I’d probably look at opening a few more offices around the world without a doubt. India seems to be on the right track. IT, automotive, FMCG, pharmaceuticals... we are into lots of industries and I’m sure we can add more industries in the time to come. You can get up and say that there are too many fluctuations but it’s been 23 years for me personally and I can say there are always ups and downs. There are a lot of new players in the industry and that always adds to the interesting mix of how you are going to go about the future of the larger organisation. But I don’t see a major hurdle down the line.

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experiential Sameer Tobaccowala Shobiz

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