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Ogilvy CEO Devika Bulchandani: ‘When I started in advertising I was one of the few non-White people’

Devika Bulchandani, global CEO of Ogilvy, joins the club of Indian-origin business leaders at the helm of big multinational corporations.

By  Shibani GharatOct 5, 2022 3:39 PM
Ogilvy CEO Devika Bulchandani: ‘When I started in advertising I was one of the few non-White people’
Devika Bulchandani, "the fearless girl", was appointed as the Global CEO of ad giant Ogilvy last month. In her first conversation after taking charge as the top boss, Bulchandani shares career milestones and the battle against her "preordained destiny" to rise to the top of global advertising.

Devika Bulchandani, the newly appointed Global CEO of Ogilvy becomes the first-ever woman of color to run a global agency network. Born in Amritsar, schooled in Dehradun before moving to Mumbai, she thinks of herself as a Mumbaikar. She says when she moved to the US to join an advertising agency, her initial days went in getting to know a ‘new culture’ better. But after these initial challenges, she became the driving force behind many noteworthy campaigns including Mastercard’s long-running “Priceless” campaign and The “Fearless Girl” that challenged Wall Street’s symbol of the charging bull with a bronze statue of a young girl which became a symbol for gender diversity and equality.

Till recently, she served as Global President and CEO of Ogilvy North America and took the helm from Andy Main who is stepping down as Global CEO. In this Storyboard18 exclusive interview, we speak to the ‘Fearless Girl’ Devika Bulchandani.

Edited excerpts:

You have joined the elite club of Indian-origin global CEOs and not just that, you are one of the few women CEOs in the industry. How does that feel?

It feels very good but it also feels like it is a big responsibility. I have a really nice story from the other day, I was walking in the hallway here at Ogilvy in New York and a young girl walked up to me and said ‘You are Devika right?’ and I said ‘Yes’. After this she said, ‘I just want to tell you on behalf of all the ‘Desi Girls’ this means so much to me and looking at you gives me so much hope.’ And another woman walked in and she said ‘Devika, my parents are talking about you. They are calling me and saying ‘there is an Indian woman CEO and that means so much.’ Those things made me realize how powerful it is to be in this position and give people hope. Yes, it feels good at a personal level but it also feels really good when I think of the responsibility of it. And what it says to other Indian women and women of colour and people who don’t like a majority in any community.

You once said you are the “The Fearless Girl”, which has also been one of your unique campaigns. ‘The Fearless Girl’ statue, as we know, sends a message about workplace gender diversity. You are Amritsar-born, you went to school at Welham in Dehradun, and graduated from St Xavier’s in Mumbai. So share with us your journey so far in advertising? What according to you were the key milestones of this journey?

When I started in advertising I was one of the few Indian people and I would be one of the few non ‘White American’ or English / Australian people. This whole industry is dominated by those three cultures. And if you think about what we do in advertising we create culture. We tell stories about what’s happening in the world and how people want to evolve their lives, what it is that they need. And when I came here in my first few meetings I was like ‘I don’t know anything about American culture. I didn’t know what an Oreo cookie was. And you get to know about Coke’s famous Hilltop Ad and you hear about ‘Tiger in the Tank’ and these are sort of iconic advertising slogans and I realized, I don’t know any of that. I don’t know what it means, I don’t understand it, I don’t feel it. So it took me a really long time to actually feel I belong. And the only time I started to feel I belong is when I started to accept ‘American Culture’ as my own. And I have to say as Indians we have a bit of a chip on our shoulders when we come here we think ‘Indian culture, we are very proud of it, we know better ’. But it took a little humility to say I need to actually step out of all the things I am programmed to do and actually learn and have an open mind. And that was a very pivotal moment in my career when I acknowledged to myself that I needed to learn and that I needed to be open to another culture, which I wasn’t initially. I would say the first seven years I was very guarded.

Call me a delusional optimist or an intense pragmatist but this is our moment again.

The other pivotal moment was when in one meeting when I was a strategist in the agency, my CEO at McCann called me and he asked, ‘What do you want to do in life’. I didn’t understand what he meant by this. I was thinking whether it is an existential question. I said, “I don’t understand what you are asking’. Finally he said, 'You need to run something’. So that transition from being a strategist to actually running something, running a P&L, being responsible was a very important and pivotal moment. This is something that I have actually enjoyed. Because when you have the true responsibility and accountability for a business is when you can make true change and an impact.

These are the two learnings that will play a role when you take the reins of an agency with such diverse markets?

I have to now go and learn about 80 other cultures. And that sort of learning early on to say that you need to have an open mind and not impose your culture and your pre-existing perceptions is pivotal. By the way, also for us women, growing up in India, its preordained what you are going to do. And I talk about this a lot. It was preordained that I was going to have an arranged marriage and I was possibly going to become a housewife in a business family. And I didn’t want that preordained destiny for myself. And I think it is the same thing as a leader to say don’t assume people have to pre-ordain destiny. You need to have an open mind not just to learn about cultures but also to learn about people you lead. To figure out how you lead people where they can be themselves. And not become a version of me or some other leader Because I didn’t want that.

You are a career ad woman. In an era when this industry is losing talent to other sectors and industries, what made you stick with advertising for so long?

I love our industry with a very deep passion and god bless all those people who want to go to tech but we have something in this industry that no other industry has. One is creativity and the other is client relationship and platforms that span every other category. We talk about using the power of creativity to not just move the business forward but to actually be able to move the world forward. We have thousands of clients today at Ogilvy from clients that are changing the world, for example Dove with their stop the beauty test to the work that we are doing for Cadbury in India. If you think of those things we are actually changing the future of small business. Hopefully, we are going to change the way young girls look at themselves when they look at the mirror. I tell every single person that if you want scalable impact and if you have some passion for creativity there is no better industry than advertising. And by the way we get to use tech, we get to use data and we get to use all the tools.

I am a very good cocktail party guest because I can talk about any industry. But if you make me sit next to one single industry for dinner then it gets a bit complicated.

You have taken the reins of the most reputed agency of WPP at an extraordinary time. We are stepping out of the pandemic but businesses are facing inflationary headwinds, there is global currency fluctuation, geopolitical changes with ongoing wars, regime changes in many parts of the world. What do the next few months look like?

We don’t face anything that everybody else doesn’t. The beauty of what we do is I don’t make one particular thing so that the cost of goods goes up in my category. So when the things are in flux the power of creativity becomes even more important. Because it is the only variable that you can play with in a way that it doesn’t become more expensive that doesn’t have the same headwind that supply chain faces, that inflation faces, that the cost of goods face. So I always say these moments are really pivotal for us. And I tell all our clients about it, that it is more important for us to use creativity and creative thinking at this moment to solve problems for consumers, for human beings, for society and do it in a moment in time. Call me a delusional optimist or an intense pragmatist but this is our moment again.

Creativity and the power of it is a key focus for us, it is a part of our DNA.

What excites you about the next few months?

There are more problems today, great, bring it on! Because we can use creativity to solve these problems and make products have greater preference in the market place using creativity. So when times are tough what do I need as a client is I need preference for my brand. We can do that because creativity is a force multiplier. We need consumers to have more passion and loyalty for our products and services. We can help our clients do that using the power of creativity. We need policy to change, we need planet issues to be solved, etc. Again we can take those conversations, we can take those issues forward using the power of creativity.

What are the key focus areas for Ogilvy in the coming days?

Creativity and the power of it is a key focus for us, it is a part of our DNA. The second focus area will be relaunching the digital experience business. We have incredible assets in different parts of the world. In 2023 we are going to create awareness for them in the market place with our clients and we can help them solve those problems. Then we have an incredibly strong health business, I would like to see that scale from a global perspective. Health and wellness are key areas of issues for us as humanity. And when we think about the intersection of health or technology, you think of intersection of health and communication or health and storytelling so that people can take care of themselves better. So we want to see that scale which is going to be a massive area of focus for us. And how do we make sure that the kind of work and content that we create for clients becomes more agile, becomes more cost efficient and effective in the marketplace, being true to brand ideas. You are going to see more focus on content capabilities but not just content in the traditional sense that we talk about but the intersection of content and context using our global network to make sure that we can be efficient and effective.

First Published on Oct 4, 2022 10:25 AM