Born and brought up in India, Devika Seth Bulchandani today leads Ogilvy as its Global CEO. Bulchandani was the Global President and CEO of Ogilvy North America in the past.
Prior to Ogilvy, she spent over 26 years at McCann Worldgroup, and between 2017 to 2021 she also led the network as President, McCann Worldgroup.
On her maiden trip to India after taking over as the Global CEO at Ogilvy, BestMediaInfo.com had an unfiltered conversation with her about work, Ogilvy, the ad industry and her life.
She told BestMediaInfo.com that being an Indian gives her an added advantage of running a large team and making the impossible possible. She also spoke about how women should be outspoken about their feelings and ambitions in the workplace.
Bulchandani mentioned that Ogilvy India is like the jewel in the crown of Ogilvy Global. She also talked about how agencies can increase revenue and profit margins.
How would you express your feelings about visiting your native country after taking over as the global CEO of the world’s biggest creative agency?
Firstly, it’s overwhelming in a beautiful way. Secondly, it's also a reminder to myself that Indians can do anything because of the way we are all raised.
From the beginning, the family structures we grew up in have trained us to understand leadership and to ensure that a lot of people can follow the same direction. My father had seven siblings. My mother had six siblings and because of this, I have 38 first cousins. So, I had all the training in the world to deal with different kinds of people from a very young age and I think that is because of my Indian upbringing. There isn’t a day when I don’t actually think of how much my upbringing has helped me be what I am today.
I also think Indians are a very resourceful bunch of people. If somebody says no in India, it is not taken as a full sentence. On the contrary, it is understood as ‘that’s okay, we’ll see’. This makes us believe that anything is possible.
You were associated with McCann for over 26 years. How different is the work culture at Ogilvy from McCann? Also, 26 years is a long time to be associated with one agency, why this change now?
I absolutely love McCann and if I didn’t love it, I wouldn’t have stayed there for 26 years. But also being somewhere for 26 years, I thought it was time for me to prove to myself that I could be successful on a different stage.
When Covid-19 hit, I realised if I die people would have written that she worked at McCann. I needed a more interesting story.
Ogilvy was always meant to happen for me. I’ve always had a love affair with Ogilvy. I was offered jobs at Ogilvy twice in my life earlier. Once it was offered to me when I was very young. Secondly, in 2013. But McCann always kept me back. This is my third time lucky!
Personally, were you ever made to feel that you had to work harder than men to prove your mettle in the ad world?
Even now. We never get anything easy in this world. We have been wired to work harder and constantly prove our mettle. We are not allowed to fail. While exceptions are always there, in my broader and general opinion, men always have the ability to fail forward. Women haven’t reached the point where we can fail forward.
I have to work really hard to be successful because of the countless women who are looking up to me. Their hopes will go away if I fail. I think about that all the time.
In all these years, you must have got opportunities to wear the marketer’s hat. Why didn’t you ever shift sides?
I love what we do. I refute anybody who says advertising is dead or under threat. Creativity is the most important asset as businesses have become commoditised and lack USPs. Creativity becomes the force multiplier for business.
In one of the studies conducted by IBM with 1,500 CEOs, they were asked about the most important value they want in their employees and the number 1 value was creativity. Creativity doesn’t only mean an ad. Creative thinking is seeing a problem, using human imagination, tools, technologies and data that we have to solve the problem in new and different ways. Every business is trying to do that. I also love the fact that I get to have 20% knowledge of every industry.
If not advertising, then what else would you have been pursuing?
I would have been a broadcast journalist if I was not in advertising. But it wouldn’t have worked for a person with an accent when I moved to the US. Now, after working on several campaigns related to social causes, I would’ve also loved to be in the political arena. At the end of the day, to create real change, one needs policy change.
Do you find time for yourself other than advertising? What do you do after hours?
I love cooking. I have my family in the US, which is my husband and two kids. But I’ve also adopted others and I call them my American family. Now my kids have American grandparents and an American ‘maasi’. Spending time with my American family and my kids is very important to me.
How difficult is it to keep yourself calm amid all the pressure while handling 131 offices in 93 countries?
There are things under and beyond my control. I don’t stress about things which are under my control. I also don’t stress about things on which I don’t have any control. This philosophy serves me well. There are choices to make in our lives. I always choose delusional optimism. I choose it because being negative is exhausting.
I am also in love with what I do and I get my source of energy from there. If you don’t love what you do, then find some other sources of energy.
Your becoming the Global CEO at Ogilvy is a testament to gender equality at the agency. While India has been trying to reduce pay gaps and improve gender equality at agencies, people say that it is still a long journey. What should Indian women at agencies do so that they are equally heard, paid and not dropped off?
We have a group in Ogilvy India called Juno. It’s a group of women leaders in Ogilvy trying to bring about change and deal with issues that plague women. We work together in a very constructive manner to discuss and solve issues related to the challenges women face at work. While the system needs to do a lot of work, the biggest piece of advice that I can give women is to do some of the work ourselves.
There are so many moments when we get nervous and scared and end up lying because we don’t know how people will react. But we must find the right moment to speak the truth and speak up for ourselves.
For example, when a woman gets cranky at work during periods, all of a sudden she’s not allowed to talk about it. If I’m not even allowed to address it at the workplace, I will lie about it and make up stories. Instead, we must address it and tell people how we feel and want to be treated with the dignity that we deserve. The workplace isn’t built for a woman's body. The workplace is actually built for a man’s body and for their psyche. That’s why we say, don’t wear your emotions on your sleeves and don’t cry at work. Why? Why should I not?
Women should not just stick to saying ‘I want to be successful’. Instead, why can’t you say ‘I want to be a CEO’? Once, in a room, I asked who wants to be a CEO and nobody wanted to speak. There was this one girl who shivered while saying ‘I’. I made her stand up and asked her to say it aloud.
The first thing that we need to do is our own work and break through our own internal barriers where we’ve been programmed. Then, of course, the system has to do a lot of work. We carry so much in ourselves. Let’s start shedding the fear. If 10 women stand up and say they want to be CEO and need training for doing it, I promise it will happen faster.
We are seeing increased spending by brands on martech and adtech. In such a scenario, how do you see creative agencies, which have historically been known for creating storytelling and engaging narratives, surviving and maintaining their revenue?
The reality to me is that the industry is still growing. Ad-tech and mar-tech have a big role to play and the main challenge to all of us is how we infuse creativity into it. Clients want value addition in martech and adtech through creativity in the consumer journey. Ogilvy wants to be a leader in doing so.
What else can ad agencies do to improve their revenue and profits?
From a revenue perspective, I think we need to evolve at the speed of change. There is so much change that is happening constantly. Digital acceleration today is at a mind-boggling pace. We need to keep pace with the change to be able to capture more revenue.
From a margin perspective, we need to become more efficient and create systems and processes. The creative process is fundamentally chaotic. I don’t know if I’m going to get a good idea in one day, or in 10 days. But there are methodologies and systems we can create that'll help us be more profitable.
Where do you place Ogilvy India on the Ogilvy global map?
It’s the crown jewel of the Ogilvy system. Look at the performance of Ogilvy India, not just in the Indian market but on the global stage. During the two days I spent with the team, I just had to sit back and enjoy the show because not only are they at the top of their game, but I have never seen such a group of people. All thanks to Piyush Pandey, the Ogilvy India team is so restless, and the rate of evolution of what they are doing is mind-boggling to me. I’d like to take some of the spirit, capabilities and way they think about continually evolving and take it with me to the rest of the world.
From acquisition to retaining talent, the advertising industry is increasingly facing a dearth of the right talent. How have you prioritised this issue in your tasks as the global CEO and what is your vision to tackle this challenge?
Firstly, talent comes and stays for different reasons today than 20 years ago. We must be clear about our mission so that people can align with it. People no longer want to do just jobs, but meaningful work and find their purpose in life. People who share the same values and visions will align.
Secondly, we also have to start looking at talent as an audience. As organisations, we must do things to attract that audience into our world.
Thirdly, people come to get paid. So make sure that they get a fair wage.
Some ask for a pitch fee, some ask for IPR on ideas even if the client has paid for it. I mean the wishlist of creative agencies is quite long for brands. What are your expectations from brands in the current scenario?
This is a seven-hour conversation on how pitching should evolve. Pitching for free is penalising the agency world a lot. No other industry does spec work the way that we have to. That’s a whole different conversation on how we need to sort of think about pitching.
To me it’s not about the ownership of ideas, it’s about credit. This is also a business for us and ideas are our product. To grow our business, we deserve to be able to talk about the product, to get credit for what we do.
So many times, I’ve noticed that most of the work that wins from India at the international level depicts India in a way that makes us look backwards, poor, dirty and fighting for rights. There are hardly a few campaigns that win on the basis of pure brand work and by selling the brand. In fact, so many campaigns are made for awards' sake. What do you think about this? How can we push for more pure brand work to win awards and stop making campaigns for only awards?
You are making a distinction between purpose-led work and brand-led work. In my personal experience, the two absolutely align. So, it's not that purpose-led work doesn’t work for the business. It is the role of businesses to actually improve people’s lives. Businesses don’t exist just to make money; they exist so that something in your life gets better. So, addressing those issues is actually a good thing.