Don’t know why scale gets vilified: Devika Seth Bulchandani

Ogilvy's global chief executive officer chats with Campaign India about a variety of topics including agility, scale, competition with start-ups, and more...

Oct 20, 2022 09:36:00 AM | Article | Raahil Chopra

Devika Seth Bulchandani was in Mumbai this week, for the first time after being appointed as global chief executive officer of Ogilvy. Campaign India caught up with her to learn why she’s here, whether the emotional connection with India will make the market get more prominence in the global scope of things, agility and its importance for agencies, and more…
 
Edited excerpts:
 
What brings you to India and how have your two days in the country been so far? Full of press meetings, I gather?
 
Yes, and I’m very happy to do them. I realised that it’s important for our industry and India to have no American, Australian or English person coming in as a global CEO. This industry is dominated by those three Anglo-Saxon cultures.
 
Other than the interviews with the press, I’ve been in office understanding our business here. I met with the team and one of our clients, Mondelez. It was important for me that my first visit as global CEO was to India. The sweetest advice I got was from Mark Read (CEO, WPP) who said ‘get to India’.
 
How important is the Indian market in the global scheme? Do you think your Indian-origins will give it more importance? 
 
I would be lying if I said I wouldn’t have an emotional connection with the country which could lead to it getting more importance.
 
From a business and professional perspective, India is a crown jewel. For modern creativity, India is the hottest market on the global stage. Look at what happened at the London International Awards (Ogilvy won a Grand Prix and 5 Gold LIAs among others).
 
Along with the crown jewel creative operation here, we also have a tech operation. I’ll be back in the next few months to spend time with the tech team to see how we can bring things closer together and accelerate the team.
 
The perception is that when clients are looking at tech solutions, boutiques or specialist agencies are top of mind for marketers. Would this be an incorrect perception to have? 
 
The perception is incorrect.
 
But any brand that’s been around for a while has a certain perception. The only way you can change perception is to start evolving the business you’re in and your products. That’s our advice to clients too and that’s what we are doing too. It takes a while and we’re trying that. If you look at the work Ogilvy is working on, we are using the most advanced tech. We are using AI/AR/VR for campaigns.
 
Those campaigns are with tech partners, right? For instance, Rephraise.AI worked with Ogilvy for the Cadbury Celebrations campaign...
 
Yes, we will always have tech partners just like we will always have production partners. They are the ones that helped us produce. That’s the world and the ecosystem of agencies.
 
Having tech partners doesn’t mean we don’t have the tech. Even from a martech perspective, the tech belongs to the likes of Salesforce and Adobe, but consultancies implement it and add value.
 
Tech alone is meaningless without creativity.
 
Could the perception be because the agency hasn’t got strong leadership from the tech space, compared to some of the competition, especially the start-ups? The start-up founders have domain expertise in digital...
 
We have three creative technologist heads right now. What we need to do is bring them in front of the press. The head of the team joined us from a start-up three years ago. 
 
This happens in all industries though. The people who are only creating digital work are going to say that the traditional agency didn’t do the piece of work or can't create one.
 
Let’s get to the truth of it. What agencies do is come up with ideas to solve business problems for clients and grow their businesses. We have historically used partners and will continue to do so to make those ideas come to life. I haven’t seen an agency right now that’s coming up with the tech. Even digital agencies use tech partners.
 
Our core business is using data, technology and whatever we have to connect brands to consumers. We have people that form partnerships and know how to make things alive.
 
In chats with several founders of agencies, some of whom have left the likes of Ogilvy, we’ve been told that they’re looking to be agile, something that they couldn’t do while at the agency because of its sheer size. Would you agree?
 
Yes, scale does add a level of complexity, but I don’t know anybody who says that 'I’d like to be small all my life'. That’s my challenge to all the small agencies. Everybody aspires to grow and have scale.
 
A scaled organisation does need to find ways to be more agile. 
 
But I don’t know why scale gets vilified. 
 
As an industry, we’re growing double digits and Ogilvy has had an incredible two years too. India is growing in double digits too, so there are some things we’re doing right.
 
You joined the agency in the middle of the pandemic in November 2020 and now are the global CEO. How different have these last two years been versus the rest of your career at McCann?
 
This was the third time I’ve interviewed with Ogilvy. I’ve had two offers before that I had accepted and then went back on them. I thought I’ll never get to work with Ogilvy. I’ve never looked at any other agency. It kind of felt that it was always meant to be. I don’t know how to put it in words, but when I walked into the agency, I felt like I belonged and this was always my agency.
 
In a recent chat with Campaign (USA), you mentioned sexism and racism in the advertising industry still exist. What can we do to get rid of it?
 
It’s not just in our industry, it continues to be a problem for the world across industries.
 
I’ve seen three things that happened to me from a gender or race perspective. I’m not a white-American man, but I did have a man that bet on me – Harris Diamond (former chief executive officer, McCann Worldgroup). He systematically prepared me for the last eight years. So, we have to bet on people as an industry. Give people a shot and hire for potential. We have always hired for experience. If you keep hiring for experience, we’ll be in a silo.
 
I had another man who believed in me, and I started believing in myself more so because of that. This was Rob Reilly (former global creative chairperson, McCann Worldgroup). So we have to believe in people too. I believe that we don’t talk about the softer side of people. That takes work.
 
You also have to give people the platform. It has to be systematic in mind. It’s hard to hire for potential. Then you have to make someone you hire for potential successful. And that’s our job as leaders.
 
What we are doing is that we’re playing a bit of the numbers game for representation for the first bit. I want to start doing the second bit. I want to see 20 other people having the same journey that I did.
 
With regards to diversity, are we seeing Ogilvy achieve the set goals? 
 
I think we’ve been really good on a global stage when it comes to gender diversity. We have Liz Taylor, global chief creative officer, Ogilvy. So the global CEO and CCO are women and one of them isn’t white (me). Our global CFO is Stacey Ryan Cornelius, who is a black woman. Our global head of talent is a woman too. Our global CEOs for consulting, health and PR are also women.
 
We also have racial diversity with Stacey and me. But I’m not completely happy though. When I think about racial diversity, we have a lot of work to do.
 
In India too, we have Hephzibah Pathak (vice chairperson), Kainaz Karmakar (chief creative officer), Tithi Ghosh (president, South India), and Ritu Sharda (chief creative officer). A lot of progress has been made.
 
I follow this philosophy that if we want perfection in five months, it comes in the way of progress. It stalls everything else. Progress is the most important thing in this game. We want every office to be representative of the community that it lives in.
 
You mentioned it was a 'pinch-me' moment sitting on the same chair as David Ogilvy and now an honour to be beside Piyush Pandey. Is it all sinking in now or still overwhelming?
 
When I said it was overwhelming, I meant it’s emotionally recognising the gravity and importance of the seat I sit in.
 
After the last two days, one thing that’s sinking in the most for me is the role I play for every young woman. I’ve had so many women stop me over the last two days to say it’s so good to see me. I knew it intellectually but forgot it so many times. The overwhelming part is when you become a symbol of hope for others. It’s a real honour and responsibility and I need to fulfil it. It’s not just about getting more women, it’s about being the right role model.
 
 
Does that put more pressure on you?
 
No. I don’t look at it as pressure at all. I’ve been a girl that’s wanted to fight stereotypes. Boys were supposed to be fearless and I was supposed to be a good girl. But, I wanted to be fearless and have been. We are going to show the world a different way to do things!
 
The three biggest challenges in the advertising business?
 
Keeping up with the speed of change. It’s not a challenge for our industry alone, it’s a challenge for businesses. The pandemic accelerated digital transformation for all our clients. So keeping up with the speed of change is a challenge.
 
Secondly, it’s talent. Due to the rapid change, talent has many options that are shiny and want to experience those. We all work for money, and the remuneration other jobs offer could be attractive.
 
Thirdly, it’s about sustaining cultures. Organisations need cultures. People come to work for value alignment and the work they want to do as opposed to their jobs. This is very hard but very important for businesses to be successful.