Devika Bulchandani aims to inject a shot of vitality into Ogilvy
Bulchandani shares her global vision for the iconic WPP agency and her perspectives on talent, creativity, diversity and the agency business
Oct 18, 2022 08:04:00 AM | Article | Alison Weissbrot
Devika Bulchandani describes getting the top job at Ogilvy – and sitting in the same seat as advertising icon David Ogilvy – as a “pinch me” moment.
After nearly two decades at rival creative network McCann Worldgroup, where she was most recently president in North America, Bulchandani joined Ogilvy in November 2020 as North America CEO and global chair of advertising. Her departure came after a series of leadership successions at McCann, as CEO Harris Diamond retired and COO Bill Kolb took on his role.
Bulchandani was at Ogilvy for two years before getting the top job when global CEO Andy Main, who was based in Denver, announced his departure in September. She was one of Main’s first big hires after the longtime Deloitte exec joined Ogilvy in June 2020, installing a new era of leadership as CEO John Seifert, who was at Ogilvy since 1979, left following five years running the iconic agency’s worldwide operations.
Alongside Main, Bulchandani helped Ogilvy rebuild its global leadership team with a more female and diverse bench. Among the new top brass was Liz Taylor, global chief creative officer; Stacey Ryan Cornelius, global chief financial officer; Mick McCabe, global chief strategy officer; Kim Johnson, global CEO of Ogilvy Health; and Julianna Richter, global CEO of Ogilvy PR, among others.
Bulchandani declined to talk about Main’s departure but sees an advantage to being based in New York, where Ogilvy is headquartered and where she retains her duties as CEO of Ogilvy North America until a successor is named.
“I’m here everyday. I show up every day. Our clients come to this office,” she said.
‘Having capabilities is survival for agencies today’
Bulchandani worked closely with Main on Ogilvy’s global strategy and says not much will change. The goal is to offer best-in-class capabilities across its five areas – advertising, PR, experience, consulting and health – while making it all easy for clients to access.
“Having capabilities is survival today for any agency,” Bulchandani says. “Clients don’t come to agencies today needing an advertising or PR solution. They want the best of everything. They come with business problems.”
While Ogilvy has removed P&L barriers to deliver work at the intersection of its capabilities, complexity still exists. Success lies in the balance of maintaining deep specialist knowledge without “mushing everything together,” Bulchandani says.
“Specialisation is important because clients don’t come to us for mediocrity,” she adds. “They come for excellence, and we have to deliver that.”
Ogilvy is the only creative agency within WPP that hasn’t been merged with another newer, digital-focused sister shop under CEO Mark Read, who took the helm of the U.K-based holding company in 2018.
While adding new capabilities isn’t out of the question for Ogilvy (Bulchandani says she is “greedy as hell” when it comes to wanting more for clients), consolidation with another shop is not on the cards.
“There is no need to merge anything,” she says. “We have the capabilities. What we needed was a shot of vitality.”
‘Reinforcing talent expertise’
Nowhere did Ogilvy need that shot of vitality more than North America, the world’s largest advertising market. Over the past two years the network lost long-standing clients including Chanel and Philips and its 50-year relationship with American Express also came to an end.
For Bulchandani, rebuilding the talent bench in the region has been a critical first step. She has brought in notable new hires including Chris Beresford-Hill as president of advertising, Menno Kluin as chief creative officer and Anibal Casso as chief strategy officer.
Momentum may be building again under new leadership. In 2022 Ogilvy added H&R Block, Audi, SC Johnson and Michelin to its roster, supplementing 2021 wins including Absolut, Enterprise Holdings and TD Bank.
Ogilvy is also part of OpenX, the WPP team working on Coca-Cola.
“All of the investment we made [was] in making sure we were reinforcing this market with the talent from an expertise perspective,” Bulchandani says. “And we’re seeing the results. You’re going to see more work coming out of this market.”
‘Excellence, not presence’
Globally, Bulchandani still sees creativity as Ogilvy’s core differentiator. In addition to winning Network of the Year at Cannes, Ogilvy scooped 88 Lions across 38 countries, including the industry’s first-ever win from a team in Honduras.
“We don’t just have a presence in the markets where we are present, which tends to happen a lot when you think about globality,” she says. “Ogilvy has excellence, not presence. It is the depth of our global network, and then it’s being excellent where we are.”
A strategist herself, Bulchandani has worked on iconic campaigns such as State Street’s Fearless Girl and Mastercard’s Priceless. While she believes big ideas are still core to solving complex business problems, and she has “eternal optimism” about the power of creativity, she admits the discipline has evolved – and Ogilvy must keep up.
“The question is: how are we continuously evolving our capabilities and keeping up with the pace of change?” she asks.
She points to work the agency recently released for Citizens Bank, an immersive experience in the Flatiron neighborhood of New York that created a “living portrait” of the city and its residents using AI, data and technology.
“To me, that’s modern creativity – where you can’t put an idea into a bucket the way we all like to define it,” she says. “In a commoditized world, the differentiator for any client is creativity – not the data or the technology, because all of that becomes table stakes. It’s what you do with that.”
‘Clients are not throwing in the towel’
Bulchandani takes the helm of Ogilvy as the world faces inflation and a looming recession.
But she says all the agency’s practice areas are seeing “healthy growth,” and nods to Ogilvy Health, which is growing revenues double digits. Ogilvy declined to break out growth figures for the network or its practice areas, citing WPP’s financial disclosure policy.
She maintains clients are not yet “throwing in the towel” when it comes to spending on marketing, despite an unclear economic outlook.
“The mindset of our clients is actually, let’s keep going until we don’t; until we have to pivot,” she says. “I wonder if this resilience and sense of not giving in is a little bit of COVID. We just came out of it, so it’s like, we’re not going to give in again.”
Still, the creative business is notoriously tough on margins, and as a global network within a public holding company, Ogilvy must always be adapting to operate more efficiently.
“We also have commercial realities. There are pricing pressures from clients, there is no question about that,” Bulchandani says. “The business is complex and hard. Everything is doable though.”
‘People want to be in places where they see themselves’
As a Desi Indian woman leading an iconic global advertising network, Bulchandani feels it's a personal responsibility to use her platform to advocate for underrepresented talent – and make an impact on reversing inequalities beyond the ad industry.
She sees leading a network with 15,000 employees spanning 131 global offices as an opportunity to do so.
“Where else do you get the ability to have an impact on people, from an employer perspective, and then if I take all of the clients we have, the collective impact that can make to me is, like, unreal,” she says.
Bulchandani is proud of the work Ogilvy has done to diversify its leadership team. Women now lead three out five of Ogilvy’s capability areas as well as three of its regional teams.
But she admits there is work to do when it comes to reaching racial parity. Ogilvy declined to share figures on the representative makeup of its staff.
“What we’ve been doing as an industry is starting at the bottom, but then people fall off because they don’t see themselves,” she says, recounting instances of two South East Asian women personally thanking her for inspiring them by being in her role. “People want to be in places where they see themselves.”
“As a woman of colour, I know exactly how it feels to be the only one in the room,” she continues. “I know how it feels when I’m in my seat and I see other young men and women come to me and say ‘you represent us.’ It actually is a bigger responsibility, because it’s personal.”
While sexism and racism still “absolutely exist” in the advertising industry, Bulchandani says she is at the stage of her career where she has the confidence to call things out and “to be able to not give a shit sometimes.”
“The biggest thing in these moments is knowing it’s not about you, it’s about the other person, which is so hard to do,” she says. “Your lack of information, knowledge and awareness is not about me. When that happens, to say it’s really not about me anymore, it’s about somebody else, is a very liberating thing.”
‘Better, faster, laughter’
While some argue the agency world has lost some of its allure for young talent during the pandemic, Bulchandani believes creatives still want to work at big agencies such as Ogilvy – so long as they're producing really great creative work.
“[People] want to come work at a place that has a sense of momentum, where great work is happening, where you feel like you’re part of a winning team,” she says.
Bulchandani is back in the office with staffers at Ogilvy’s New York headquarters in Flatiron. The network is taking a varied approach to returning to the office around the globe, staff in New York come in two to three days per week. Bulchandani is in at least three days per week.
When it comes to the hybrid work debate, “extremes never work,” she says.
“It’s an apprenticeship business. It's important for young people to learn. It’s a relationship business. You don’t form relationships over Zoom,” she adds. “You form relationships because you’re sitting together early in the morning, late at night, midday, trying to crack a problem, sweating it, laughing in between.”
“When our teams are coming in for two to three days per week, everybody goes back laughing and they always say, ‘I’m so glad we came together because I got this done faster.’ Our work is better, we’re doing it faster and we’re laughing doing it.”
(This article first appeared on CampaignLive.com.)