Considered the most powerful woman on Madison Avenue, Manhattan, Shelly Lazarus oversees Ogilvy & Mather (O&M), one of the largest ad agencies in the world with billings of over $13 billion (Rs 65,000 crore) and more than 497 offices across 125 countries. She graduated from Smith College, Massachusetts, US, and did an MBA from Columbia Business School, one of only four women in her class. Lazarus started her career at Ogilvy when the legendary founder David Ogilvy was still personally involved with the agency’s operations and preached that the purpose of advertising was to build great brands. Lazarus’ leadership has been instrumental in attracting some of the world’s largest and most respected brands, including American Express, BP, Coca-Cola, Ford, IBM, Morgan Stanley and Unilever, among many others. Lazarus passes on the baton of CEO in January to Miles Young, O&M’s current Asia-Pacific Chief. Business Today’s Anusha Subramanian met Lazarus when she was in India recently to celebrate and felicitate Business Today’s Most Powerful Women in Indian Business. Excerpts:
Why did you choose advertising as a career?
I went to a business school without having any idea of what I was really interested in. I took up a course in marketing and really liked it. After my first year, I started my career at General Foods before taking up a full-time job as a Product Manager at Clairol (a personal care products division of Procter & Gamble). Later, I was headhunted by O&M and I joined them. I had decided that I will not spend more than two years in O&M. And here I am. I never left O&M. What do you think of the O&M brand then and now? The brand is exactly the same. It’s just that now it is expressed in different ways. I think the core principles that were at the heart of the company when I joined, are still the same, which is remarkable when you think that David Ogilvy started the company 60 years ago. He founded it with a vision to help create an image, build brands and cultivate customer relationships through advertising for global and local brands.
With the economic recession inevitable, how is the global advertising industry gearing up?
It is hard to say at this point. We have been tracking the situation. Marketers feel that nothing is going to get better by itself. What we have noticed is that this particular time, marketers are much more realistic about what they are facing and are, therefore, keen on cutting down their marketing budgets. It has always been seen that smart marketers gain market share during difficult times. We have had a good year so far but in this kind of environment, clients will start looking at whether they can pull back a bit. And we are starting to see it. There is panic now and reassuring the public is a very important role we can play as communicators.
In such turbulent times, do you think traditional advertising will take a back seat and new forms of advertising like digital gain prominence since it’s less expensive?
It is hard to say because I think the advertisers want to believe in the new forms of advertising like digital and online advertising but, at this point in time, they are not yet sure of the outcome of the investments they have already made. My guess is that things like instore advertising and other non traditional media will definitely see increased investments. But it remains to be seen how these investments will pan out in new media. Some companies say that their budgets are fine and are even up, and some others say that they are waiting and watching.
How do you view Indian advertising and India’s creative abilities?
One of the strongest creative agencies in the entire Ogilvy Network is Ogilvy India. India is very creative, imaginative and strong. We are running the worldwide Lenovo account out of Bangalore in India. We did some creative work for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing as Lenovo had a strong presence there. We put together a team of creative people from various places and it was a 29-year-old creative guy from Mumbai who came up with the TV commercial idea called ‘Sumo’. That was applauded by everyone around the world.
So, what are your expectations from O&M India and how do you see it contributing to the global market?
We need them to keep growing the way they have been growing over the years. They provide inspiration because of the quality of creative work they do and I also hope that we get to run more global accounts out of India.
What is the difference between ‘creative’ work made in the West and the ones being made in India?
I don’t think there is any difference at all. The world is waking up to the good quality creative work coming out of India. This is mainly because there is a global standard for creativity and everyone has to live up to it. I do not think India has had any trouble doing that.
What has been the most daunting challenge in your career so far and how have you dealt with it?
The biggest challenge I ever faced was when I was called to take over the advertising business of Ogilvy’s New York-based office in 1991. Until then, I was running Ogilvy’s direct marketing business. The NY office was in a complete mess. They were losing clients, employees were leaving and senior management was being fired. It was really hard for me initially as people there were so demotivated and demoralised. The most important thing that I had to do was to help them restore their faith in themselves and convince them that they could be successful. I handled the situation step by step. We worked on one assignment at a time and that helped us to turn the agency around. But until I was able to turn the agency around, it was a recurring nightmare for me. I would think what if one day when I wake up and go to the office, I have lost all the clients and people. What do I do (alone) then?
How do you think advertising has changed globally?
Globally, advertising is changing with equal or more focus on “360 degree branding”. Earlier, we never had Internet or instant messaging or search technology. But today, there are so many more ways to communicate. The notion of 360 degree branding has made agencies globally realise that the focus cannot be only on television, print and outdoor advertising and (they) have to move beyond it. Apart from TV commercials, we need to create communication for every point of contact with the consumer. Secondly, our view of our own vision as an agency has broadened so that we can deliver value to clients. Agencies have had to become more integrated in the way they work so that when we have to solve a problem for a client, all the important divisions within the agency give their inputs and try to solve the problem together. Finally, the agencies come up with the right solution for the client and execute it individually. Ogilvy India is a fine example of this as they are able to work together with any team as compared to some other offices in the western world.