It’s just over a month since Babita Baruah took charge as the CEO of VML India. For Baruah, who was leading WPP’s Ford business for several international markets and serving as executive director of VMLY&R, Thailand, out of Bangkok, the return to Mumbai has been a homecoming of sorts. She has seen all the avatars of VML — having joined HTA in 1996 and seen it through the JWT, Wunderman Thompson phases, and grown and thrived in the WPP ecosystem.

A champion of gender diversity and inclusivity, Baruah has a warm, approachable and pleasing presence on social media where she showcases her Assamese heritage proudly in a stunning selection of sarees. She says the first 30 days have been a mix of observation, learning and some action. Excerpts from an interview with brandline:


How did your advertising journey start and what have been the key highlights?

I was fresh out of business school in Assam and I wanted to step out of my home State. I had done my MBA in marketing and finance and went to a leading bank in Kolkata for a job. The CMO of the bank told me that I would do very well in advertising, and asked me to talk to HTA and he gave me the lead. And so that was how my journey started. When I told my mom that I had joined advertising, she said, but that is modelling, are you sure? In those days advertising was equal to what you see in magazines or television. I could not explain to her what my job was!

I would call my journey — “a long way home”. It started off with four cities – with Kolkata, then Mumbai, on to Gurgaon and then I moved to Bangkok. Every city brought in some learnings for me, adding to the experience. Whether it was to be innovative or learning to have patience and resilience or to have a never say never attitude. The right amount of assertiveness versus aggression; and as a woman leader, how to be heard. Finally, the multicultural role in WPP when I was in Thailand. I look at the journey as one of experience and learnings and that will help me in the role I have to play here.


You have been with the agency throughout — from its HTA days to JWT to Wunderman Thompson to now VML, which is rare in advertising, where hopping is the norm.

I have always been with the agency but I have moved within the same group, have moved cities and worked on different categories. For me there has always been change, but it has been within the larger ecosystem and largely same agency. Very few people move cities like I have done. It was a mix of professional and personal. But I have gained from it.

I have been lucky that opportunities have come my way. Having set up integrated units to bring in the best of WPP for clients and business, it has now become table stakes because today the world is all about collaboration and integration. But because I have that experience in three cities out of four (Kolkata I was too young) of drawing out the best of what WPP partners have to offer as solutions, while being with one OpCo (operating company), it’s been valuable.


When VML was created, the release said it was to make the agency business simpler. But people — even clients — have expressed a sense of sadness at the Thompson name dropping off. How are you going to address all this?

I look at it as an opportunity when clients and the market have a lot of affinity and equity for one of our OpCos. When it comes to the unification of Wunderman and VMLY&R, that unification is not to kill anything but to take the strength of two OpCos and bring them back as a simplified, seamless, end-to-end journey — which is the need for today.

Therefore, if you look at VML, what is our core proposition? We are bringing in what we call a three pronged strategy — BX (brand experience), CX (customer experience) and commerce.

In today’s world, it is all about brand, it is about customer experience and commerce. The unification has brought together all the strengths of all the OpCoS. Earlier when you walked into a client office, the journey had to stop at a point and move on to someone else, either within WPP or beyond. Now when you walk into a client office as VML, the entire journey stays with us.

The second is seamless experience between brand and creativity with technology. Technology brings solutions, efficiency, connectivity and scale. We are actively bringing all these to the table.

Third is how we walk the talk. These are all propositions. But we have to walk the talk. Along with other VML leaders, it is about how we tailor-make solutions with BX, CX and commerce for the business needs of clients.


What have the first 30 days in VML India been like?

The advertising girl in me (though we are no longer called advertising agencies but growth partners ) thinks in slogans. And the one that comes to mind is — Aligning people, purpose and passions. There is a profit also to it, but we won’t talk about finance now.

The first month has been a mix of observation, learning and also some action. The action has been about integration — How can we align teams, people, purpose and passions. Because, at the end of the day, we are about people. If we are to have one shared vision — #WeAreVML — how do we do that? That first month has been about this vision and it has been exciting.

It has led me to a lot of introspection as well, on how soon can we get the plan of action going. The ambition is to make VML the preferred agency for our clients and talent in India, and that is what I am working towards.


It’s interesting that you refer to advertising as a growth partner business. Advertising has seen so many shifts. How are you addressing competition coming from new companies now ?

If you look at who is really eating into what we were about — smaller agencies and tech companies — then we do need to do a reset, a mindset reset. Sometimes we are used to doing things — strategy, creativity — a certain way, which worked for a while. But we are clear that at VML it is about growth partnerships. All our solutions have to have an outcome. That outcome is about business. Do we love brand buzz? Of course we do. But it has to create a shift in the needle for businesses.

When it comes to technology, VML has been an industry leader in the space of generative AI. From creative output to augmenting workforce, to ideation and accelerating, technology is fundamental to our business now. It is no longer creativity in isolation. I see a differentiation we have, that should put us right up there.


You have championed gender diversity a lot — I remember your She Hour initiative at JWT. Have you seen a shift in how the industry treats women now?

Yes, even at WPP, we have got a lot of women leaders. Not just VML, but Grey, Ogilvy. Things have changed. Not just from the industry or market. But from women themselves who have not dropped off and earned these roles. It’s about merit, who is experienced enough and who has earned it.

She Hour is something that I had started when I was with JWT India. It was just one hour every month. Then it became more frequent as people did not want to wait four weeks. It was one hour when we dropped our designations and connected as women. We spoke about opportunities. We spoke about Network, and having each other’s back. We extended it to other OpCos too. Today, we are part of many other initiatives.

One is Women’s ERG (Employee Resource Group). It’s a collective of people who identify as women, non binary, allies. It is a support system, a forum for mentorship and impacting policy. It’s much more systematised and organised.

Then we have WPP Stella women’s network in India, I am one of the super mentors. It’s a strong mentorship initiative for current and future leaders. I am very happy to be part of these initiatives that help more women to complete the career journey.


In your own journey was the balance difficult?

I have stopped looking for balance. Becauseevery day is an imbalance and those imbalances collectively becomes a perfect balance. There are times when personal issues take priority, in others work does. If you look for that balance always, you will get disillusioned. For me, all the imbalances add up to perfect balance.