Devika Bulchandani must be a truly outstanding professional, else she would not have got the topmost job at the venerable Ogilvy. But it’s important to note that from a professional lens, she is pretty much a full time US cadre, with no genuine Indian occupational antecedent.
This honestly separates her from the other notables, growing yearly, who have headed global corporations like Reckitt, Starbucks, Bata, Mckinsey, Google, Microsoft and so many more. In some extraordinary cases, the actors played full-fledged India roles before being summoned to the highest planetary function while in certain other instances, the legendary engineering education of the home country was a serious game changer. While Devika left India to join the prestigious Annenberg School of Communications, University of Southern California, to pursue the American dream, like so many of that age cohort.
You may even wonder why this comparison is even relevant and merits a reasonable discussion, so let me unveil the logic. Which is that Media and Advertising continues to be the most racist industry in the civilised universe, insisting sternly on original ethnicity in leadership stakes, whether Western or Japanese and Korean. This is potentially a Watergate Scandal for motivated whistle-blowers, as unlike every notable domain, a culture of meritocracy has not sufficiently prevailed for international roles.
It is indeed rather strange in many senses, as the ‘client’ functions have been taken over in many formidable cases, by Indians and other Asians. I mentioned a few organisations and there are indeed many more (Mondelez, Pepsi, Coke, Diageo,MNC banks amongst others) whose senior profiles are filled with very suitable Indians, educated and empathetic. Quite obviously, their alien origins seem to be no bar for customer empathy, as most, if not all such industries rely enormously on local level insights.
But then, Advertising remains an inglorious exception, with a rather stern adherence to comforting roots being the decadent norm. A truth validated by the compelling absence of the India brigade in genuinely universal CXO suites, as a logical career graph and not a genius exception like Piyush Pandey. The issue is most certainly not merit and neither is it intellectual acumen or absolute creativity and the evidence is far too overwhelming to suggest as such, instead it seems to be undisguised prejudice of the Holding Companies.
But then, enough of finding fault and now it is time to seek a solution, as to how deeply qualified Indians can identify consistent borderless career paths, equally as a talent magnet story. For you see, unlike Banking or multiple businesses, the career graph of successful Indians is destined to terminate at home, only occasionally placated by a token posting as some ceremonial head of a mythical brand kingdom. I consider this to be a serious barrier for attracting talent to this otherwise fertile industry, as folks routinely bump into the Rosa Parks Ceiling, aspects of colour impeding much needed mobility.
Perhaps the CXOs of Indian origin can insist that their India partners graduate to foreign roles, to ensure a continuity in stock-pleasing continuity, and naturally the agency bosses will be hard pressed to deny such impositions. The businesses at large are justified to demand diversity in staffing, as a necessary condition for corporate citizenry, effective yet inclusive. Most valuably, the funding community, both equity and debt, can urge the necessity of genuine quality, to supersede and indeed succeed the hubris of yore,
I must confess, rather truthfully, that some of the Indian leaders who I have interacted with surpass the seeming abilities of the racially advantaged, and there is no space for debate. But yet, in an increasingly cross-cultural coliseum, the Advertising and Media industry still insists on Al Capone-like adherence to debilitating protocol, where only the Sicilians can justifiably thrive. While thinking as such is obsolete beyond comprehension and profitability, and there can clearly be no room for defensible debate.
On Devika, once again, she does deserve the finest accolades and adulation, for in spite of borrowed ethnicity, it must not have been easy to get the top job. She is an inspiration for labour-intensive Indians to go well beyond the brief and, like Indra Nooyi, go where no man has consciously dared to venture.
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