Identify areas of wastage and investments to mitigate bottom-line challenges: Babita Baruah

In her first interview with the media after assuming the role of CEO at VML India, Baruah discussed her vision for VML India, the challenges associated with the merger, her goals, strategies for managing profitability, women in leadership, and much more

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Babita Barua

Babita Baruah

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Delhi: Starting her career as a management trainee at JWT and now serving as the CEO at VML India, Babita Baruah's professional journey has come full circle within WPP.

In her first interview with the media after assuming the role of CEO at VML India, Baruah shared with BestMediaInfo.com her sense of pride, gratitude, and optimism. "I feel a sense of pride, gratitude, and optimism. Starting as a trainee and eventually becoming the CEO within the same company demonstrates WPP's recognition of talent," she added.

Earlier this year, WPP entrusted Baruah, a seasoned professional, to lead VML in India, the newly merged entity of Wunderman Thompson and VMLY&R.

After completing 1.5 months in her new role at VML India, Baruah's primary focus is on the seamless integration of Wunderman Thompson with VMLY&R, alongside fostering strong relationships with both employees and clients, as she told BestMediaInfo.com.

In the interview, Baruah discussed her vision for VML India, the challenges associated with the merger, her goals, strategies for managing profitability, women in leadership, and much more.

Excerpts: 

As you took over as CEO of the merged entity, what were your immediate focus areas?

My foremost priorities have always been people and clients, as one cannot thrive without the other. To retain top talent, we must drive exceptional business results, and to achieve sustainable business growth, we must cultivate a talented team.

Secondly, my assumption of the role of CEO at VML India coincided with the amalgamation of Wunderman Thompson with VMLY&R, resulting in the formation of VML India. Since then, my primary focus has been on integrating both agencies seamlessly.

Thirdly, I am committed to structuring a team at VML India that excels in delivering seamless brand experiences, customer experiences, and commerce solutions for the connected brands of today.

Wunderman Thompson focused on brand building and strategy, while VMLY&R specialised in modern marketing. The merger of these two entities has significantly enhanced VML India’s offerings. We have started off on a positive note. Having completed my first month in the new role, I am confident that we can walk the talk. However, the true measure of our success will only be evident with time, as the proof of the pudding is in the eating.

How are you ensuring people from Wunderman Thompson feel at home at the new entity, VML India? 

It's not like Wunderman Thompson has moved into a VMLY&R culture. VML India is entirely a new entity. It is a culture that is an amalgamation of the strengths of both. In the professional world, culture is closely tied to productivity. VML India strives to foster a culture of honesty, transparency, curiosity, and imagination. It's a culture that promotes continuous learning, collective vision, and prepares us for the market.

What does it mean to be in the driving seat at one of India's largest full-service agencies?

I am very excited. When you are in the driver's seat, the responsibility that comes to you is huge. With responsibility comes accountability. The vision that I have for VML India is to make it the preferred destination for clients and talent in the country.



To achieve this goal, we need alignment among our people, purpose, the proposition we bring to the table, and the passion and commitment we instil in our teams as part of VML India. In today's world, India plays a significant role. We have the opportunity to shape the future of the industry from here, provided we do things the right way.

In one of the previous interviews with BestMediaInfo.com, you said, "She needed a hero. So she became one." Wasn’t that statement a strong resolution for you?

That's not originally my line, by the way. I just liked it so much that I ended up using it on multiple forums. While many of us seek inspiration from the outside world, it's important to recognise our own achievements in our journeys. Personally, I still haven't become a hero in my own eyes. There's still a long way to go, and it's all part of an ongoing evolution. However, I stand by that line every day. Whenever I see it, I'm reminded that ultimately, if we can be our own greatest inspiration, our own heroes, then we can cultivate a strong sense of self-confidence. While I believe this sentiment is particularly empowering for women, it's not limited to gender—it applies to everyone.

What short- and long-term goals have you set for the agency?

VML India represents the amalgamation of two formidable agencies. My short-term goal is to establish an integrated structure. Currently, we are in the process of ensuring roles are not duplicated, upskilling our team members, and fostering effective client engagements at all levels. Our long-term goal is to drive brand experience, customer experience, and commerce. To achieve this, we are actively seeking talent that aligns with our long-term objectives.

Have you largely overcome the challenges of the merger in India, or is it still a work in progress?

I wouldn't call them challenges; it's more of an evolving journey. We have established the leadership team and identified the right talent and roles for them. However, it's not something that can be accomplished in just one or two months. It's a process that perfects itself as we progress further on this journey. While business operations continue as usual, there is a lot of activity taking place across all floors and offices of VML India.

Besides the integration of capabilities, mergers are also aimed at restructuring or pruning resources to ensure better EBITDA. VML doesn’t seem to have any such objective! Because almost all the leadership across both agencies is retained in more or less similar roles.

We don’t approach it in that manner. Our initial focus was to establish the right integrated structure and identify the most suitable talent for it. In fact, we have not even put names first. We have looked at the structure and the roles that are required in the structure. And then we looked at names. It's the start of the journey. As we progress, we aim to ensure that each team member adds value and aligns with the vision of the new setup, which emphasises brand experience, customer experience, and commerce. Having said that, we can't predict the fallout in the future. People always look for better opportunities. I always feel people should go with your good wishes. 

How are clients reacting to the new capabilities (creative and tech) under the combined entity?

So far, we have received positive feedback. I have personally met with all the clients. I am known for my client-centric approach. Understanding a client's business is essential; without it, you cannot truly become a growth partner.

What is your approach to client meetings? Traditionally, agency heads meet clients only once a year, typically at the beginning or end of a contract.

We have teams, client leads, and individuals working with me on the executive committee. Each person has their own designated role, and it's important to respect that. However, I will always remain actively engaged with clients.

Clients are no longer attracted to legacy agencies. In such a scenario, what will help agencies remain the top choice for clients? Does this change in clients’ mindset bother you?

Instead of referring to them as legacies, let's call them bigger agencies. The question should revolve around clients choosing between smaller setups and larger agencies. Smaller setups often provide focused solutions, while larger agencies offer end-to-end solutions. We don't view this as a threat; in fact, we sometimes see it as an opportunity to collaborate if necessary. 

It's never an either-or situation. Every industry has room for coexistence and healthy competition. Occasionally, agencies may compete for business or territory, but ultimately, there is balance and harmony. Every agency has the right to exist and can coexist peacefully. The key is for agencies to focus on the value they bring to the table. When clients recognise this value, they will remain loyal.

As client ad spends rise, there's a growing number of individuals and organisations competing for a slice of that advertising pie. How do you deal with this challenge?

Any fragmentation means everyone has a smaller share of the power. It's a matter of choice, and one cannot resist the array of options available to a business. However, there are two effective strategies to navigate this situation. Firstly, ensure that you bring significant value to the table. Secondly, embrace collaboration.

How do you intend to deal with bottom-line and profitability challenges?

Although some details are confidential, I can share the overall principle. By identifying areas of wastage and those that add value, we can achieve the right level of efficiency. Examples of wastage include duplicate roles or individuals not placed in the appropriate positions. Additionally, we must assess areas requiring investment, such as tools, personnel, software, and technology.

While clients appreciate the value-added services offered by advertising networks as they compete with the Big 5 consulting firms, they are still focused on reducing agency commissions. What is your strategy to overcome these commercial terms and compete with consulting firms?

The success of a proposal largely hinges on its formulation. Agencies need to reassess how they align their proposals with the specific needs of the client or business. If agencies can deliver solutions that significantly impact their clients' businesses, they can justify charging an increment over the regular remuneration model.

Do you believe it's time for the Indian marketing and advertising fraternity to establish its own self-regulatory guidelines or rules regarding the usage of AI?

Yes, but we still need to adhere to government guidance and regulatory frameworks. Without them, I'm not confident that we would have enough understanding to adequately protect our clients and businesses.

What are the things that bother you as a creative agency in India?

I don't have any specific concerns, but I do contemplate whether we are effectively inspiring talent to harness the full potential of communication. We possess the ability to shape consumer behaviours, and we mustn't lose sight of the fundamentals of our work. We are a passionate group of individuals who wake up each day excited about the impact we can make, as we are creating something that influences behaviour and drives business. Personally, I make an effort to mentor many young people within the agency and at colleges, wherever I go.

How does a proud woman agency head see the future of the Indian advertising industry?

The Indian advertising industry is currently and will continue to play a significant role in India's growth story. We possess the power to influence both culture and consumer behaviour. Technology will only serve to enhance our capabilities.

Babita Barua
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