Venkata Susmita Biswas

Ogilvy chair Hephzibah Pathak doubles down on fair pay and recognition for agencies

She took over as the executive chairperson of Ogilvy India in January 2024 and took charge from Piyush Pandey who has now moved into an advisory role.

To say you are the new chairperson of Ogilvy India, an organisation as classic as it comes to advertising agencies in India, is equal parts intimidating and thrilling.

To say you are the first woman to lead the company in India in the 95 years of its existence is quite a heavyweight statement. Hepzibah Pathak literally lives this statement every day after she was appointed to helm the WPP-owned agency.

She takes over at a time when Piyush Pandey, the face and mind of the agency for over four decades and one of ad land India's most famous names, moves into an advisory role.

In an overarching interview with afaqs!, Pathak speaks about the new road for Ogilvy India, issues about diversity and gender disparity, the agency model, and which areas the agency will look to farm, among other things.

Edited Excerpts

First, it is a complete delight that Ogilvy - a leading ad agency - has a woman helming it. Do you see this as a burden or a blessing? While the conversation about DE&I has begun in many spheres — there’s a lot of work to be done. 

I was the vice chairperson of the company before becoming the chairperson. During that time, I was already driving a lot of initiatives. So this new role felt like a natural next step. It is a big responsibility and a privilege to be the chief brand steward of brand Ogilvy in India and steer it during these dynamic times. 

But I must admit in the context of the issues about diversity and gender disparity, I wasn't as sensitive to gender issues then as I am now. I did a lot of work to understand it and subsequently undertook initiatives (Juno) to bring conscious intentionality to drive change. But being chairperson now, I have more of an opportunity. Young women need more role models because they see it, they can be it. So I think it's our job to enable, encourage and inspire women leaders.

"We need to do a better job to help more clients appreciate the value we bring. As an industry we need to be “better” recognised for the 'behaviour change' we drive (including loyalty through strong brands) and remunerated accordingly."
Hephzibah Pathak

While we have many examples of women leaders on the creative front, there are few business heads who are women — so have you had to dispel misconceptions that you too can steer a business?

 Not at all. I have led the Mumbai office, which is our flagship & biggest office for years, and drove business for global clients in my previous roles. In fact, I  was given many opportunities in the network too. So no misconception to dispel here or in the network. 

In fact, Ogilvy has had many women leaders in business roles at the office level in India before. Globally we had Shelly Lazarus our worldwide CEO– who had such a long fantastic run – at the worldwide level now, we now have Devika Bulchandani as our CEO, Liz Taylor as our creative head, Stacey as our finance head and many more who are all at the top of their game. So it doesn’t feel so rare here in Ogilvy.

But these misconceptions do exist, and we need to do the work at an organisational and people level to enable more women leaders to senior business roles because women leaders don’t push as hard as male leaders do. Often they are unable to even express their ambition.

Today we are proud – because 3/7 board members are women leaders. 

Ogilvy India carries the legacy of not just David Ogilvy but a more real and live person — Piyush Pandey. He has shaped Ogilvy India and his legacy defines what brands will receive when they work with Ogilvy. That said, with him moving into the role of a guide and mentor, how do you envision the new legacy that Ogilvy will go on to set beyond the warm shadow of Piyush Pandey?

Piyush’s impact has been incredible on both Ogilvy and the industry at large. But as Isaac Newton said, we will see further by standing on the shoulders of giants before us. He has been a giant leader. One who has built an amazing legacy and culture. He once said in an interview that the bench strength is now the strength of the team. 

The team and I now have the opportunity to be able to take the creative soul of this company into whole new territories. Our vision is to be the best creative platform, best creative partner and platform for growth and create immense impact for our clients.

And the important thing is we need to continuously evolve the way we solve problems. We leverage creative data and tech these days to create distinctive experiences for all our brands and our clients and drive impactful work across platforms. 

Our focus now will be to take the fantastic legacy forward and accelerate and scale the transformative efforts to drive a culture of innovation so that we continue to build an edge. 

In your 27-year-long tenure at Ogilvy, you have seen it all. Can you recall any campaign/interaction with a client where the client placed blind faith in what you and your team recommended?

Hats off to many of our brave clients, because great agencies are made by great clients. In my time it would be the Zoozoos and Vodafone. The campaign was for a high-impact platform like the Indian Premier League which is like the Super Bowl of India. We had the ambition to raise impact for the campaign on a platform like IPL and in the discussion we hit on an idea — what if we had one ad a day and created not one ad, but 30 pieces of commercials? 

We found a way to execute this. And I remember the client jumped up and said that's really crazy but was on board. Our creative head then, Rajiv Rao was excited because the concept now made him think differently and in some sense it was a “content” kind of approach. We did not use that word back then, but that is what 30 commercials feel like. That was when he came up with the Zoozoos — eggheads with stick-like arms and legs. 

And that was the idea for a platform like the IPL, cartoon-like figures that did not speak. The client took that as a leap of faith and trusted the agency’s recommendation. They also had belief in creativity. They believed that when you do something amazing, you can have a disproportionate impact; therefore it is a risk worth taking. And that is how the Zoozoos were born.

Further, any instance when you made a bad decision and what did you learn from it?

I think a few times when my mind has overruled my gut – I have made a wrong decision. Whether on people, or business or a campaign. I think  “feeling “ right is very important. Mistakes happen, we have to recognize them, and move fast to correct them quickly. We must accept that we will  fail,  but we hopefully shouldn’t be making the same mistake  – we need to fail forward.

The common refrain is that the agency model is broken. There are islands of specialisation, and while everyone boasts about their full-service solutions, few have been truly successful. Margins are only getting slimmer and remuneration remains a sore point. Can you identify the elements of the agency model that need to be reviewed? 

Creativity is the force multiplier, and our differentiator – if anything we need to double down on it even more. Without creativity, there is no innovation. But it needs to keep evolving as the platforms, and mediums change and that is happening continuously. The same with strategic planning, and account management — we have robust skills here and we need to keep developing, as the way we build brands changes and develops.

We have the structures and speciality to build brands in an end-to-end, integrated way, which is not something everyone can do – again we need to keep transforming and scaling new capabilities

We need to do a better job to help more clients appreciate the value we bring. As an industry we need to be “better” recognised for the 'behaviour change' we drive (including loyalty through strong brands) and remunerated accordingly.

We need to market and make this industry an exciting place to work in – and it is. But we need to be focused on building this narrative.

What are the categories of brands or types of work you are looking to farm next? 

Beyond the current play we are in, finding a way to farm 'start-ups' and 'social behaviour' change will be the next source of growth. 

The first needs different models of engagement as they have different metrics of evaluation because funding is sequential. We as agencies can play a role in their different stages of evolution and we need to build our business model to connect with that. The second is not about sales but making India a better place, as a society — could be health campaigns, gender equality or class respect. These could be driven by government or private bodies.

The way young people work and their needs and wants have transformed significantly over the last three decades. What have you learnt about Gen-Z as consumers that helps you prioritise their needs and wants as employees? 

We talk of consumers being experimentative, less brand loyal, more flirtatious, more risk-taking and constantly looking for excitement. This is true about employees too. Hence, while remuneration is important, we have to recognise and embrace the fact that they need more in terms of job content and opportunities and it’s our constant endeavour to build this for them. 

We have to manage differently than before. We were more wedded to the organisation, more like dogs. Today’s young talents are not necessarily that way, they are more like cats - we need to give them reasons to “stick”. They are more confident, and willing to take chances and we should be  more willing to take chances on them too.

In fact, we have four great young leaders doing big jobs for us — one is driving and building our content force, one leads partnership and influencer, one drives activation and one is building and scaling our creative tech practice. We have more young leaders in the mainline functions- servicing, planning and creative being empowered to take charge and run things. Our planning head in Bengaluru is under 40!

Considering how experimentative this new generation is, there is no interesting place like advertising. We need to make them see that, and work at making it more exciting for them — but at the core, they need to be passionate about this business and want to be a part of it because they can influence and contribute to culture and create impact for brands, people, and society. If that doesn’t turn them on, then they are in the wrong business.

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