Women of Worth 2017

Quiet Flier

The shy and reserved Lara Balsara Vajifdar had big shoes to fill, but with her indefatigable approach she has taken Madison World to greater heights

You just have to broach the subject of the Mumbai suburban rail network to see the glint in Lara Balsara Vajifdar’s eyes. For five years, she religiously took the train at 7:05 AM from western Mumbai’s Jogeshwari to get to St Xavier’s College, a forty-minute ride. “We travelled as a group and that was a lot of fun,” she reminisces fondly. Sitting in her expansive living room, Vajifdar points to a building a couple of metres away. “That’s the house where I grew up. This is a Parsi colony and we all know each other quite well,” she says. Being the daughter of Sam Balsara, who set up Madison Communications in 1988, she had large shoes to fill and Vajifdar was acutely aware of that. At 36, she is the executive director of the now re-named firm, Madison World, which boasts of a client roster including the likes of Asian Paints, Marico and Levi’s. She has been involved in the diversification of the firm into newer areas such as digital, sports, entertainment and entry into overseas markets. 

The mad ad world
The initial tryst with Madison was not long after college in 2003. After acquiring a degree in economics, Vajifdar was still undecided about  her next move. She briefly enrolled for a masters degree at Mumbai University, but later decided to enroll for a masters abroad. She enrolled at Bristol University for a masters program in marketing.

Two months before flying out to the UK, she spent a fortnight at Madison as an intern. “I was exposed to media, creative and PR as part of my assignment. These departments were in different parts of the city and I had to travel around,” she recalls. That brief stint was devoid of mercy and she had to clock long hours, quite typical of the business. “I enjoyed the whole experience,” she says.

None of that surprised her though, since she had seen her father work. “When my sister and I were in school, we saw him only on Sundays. He was asleep when we left and he would always return way past our bedtime,” she says. The Sunday was, however, sacrosanct, and reserved for an outing to Juhu beach and occasionally, Essel World. 

Vajifdar thinks the Bristol stint did her a world of good since she had lived in a cocoon for the most part, until then. “I went to a bank for the first time and had to take care of things like cooking and cleaning,” she recalls. 

Left to her, she would have liked to work for a year in the UK before returning. A bout of chicken pox changed that plan and she was back home early. Once back in Mumbai, Madison was the obvious choice. “Working in any other agency would have been difficult, since everybody knew my father.” 

She joined Madison in 2004 as a management trainee and worked very closely with Balsara or as she says, “just followed him everywhere.”  But being the boss’ daughter didn’t get Vajifdar any special treatment. In fact, her dad gave her a rating of 2 out of a maximum of 5 in her first year of work, indicating the high expectations he had from his daughter. She didn’t disappoint him for too long, coming back with a 4+ rating the next year, as she quickly learnt the ropes of the business. “I would not have had a job otherwise,” she chuckles, “Seriously!”

 She then moved to client servicing in 2005 for close to two years. “It was a great phase, since the whole gamut of advertising was widening around that time. We were looking to diversify and that was the beginning of putting in place Madison World,” she says. 

Vajifdar was part of the firm’s forays into new areas such as events, analytics, mobile and sports entertainment. In 2007, she moved to the corporate office and focused on strategy, looking for avenues of growth for the firm in newer areas such as digital and brand consulting. Over the past seven-eight years, since she has fully taken up a corporate role, Madison’s gross billing has increased from Rs.2,500 crore to around Rs.4,000 crore. Vajifdar says, “It’s not just about how much billing has increased by. What is more important is the strategy, which has allowed Madison to venture into areas, where we have either not had a significant presence or no presence at all.” Today, the new business areas comprise 40% of Madison World’s revenues. 

For someone who is reserved, having a father as a mentor meant a quick and steep learning curve.  “I greatly admire my father’s thoroughness with the smallest of things,” she says, describing what all she had tried to imbibe from him. “He is a workaholic but is extremely passionate about what he does and enjoys it thoroughly. That’s so evident even now.” 

A world of equals
A confident ad professional who wears her work on her sleeve, Vajifdar does not buy the notion of gender bias. “My belief is that women need to focus on their job and not make excuses. It’s hard for any organisation to make things easy for you,” she says.

Of course, she admits that being a mother of two has softened that stance, somewhat. “I am definitely more sensitive when a female colleague says her child is unwell,” she says calmly. There is no doubt in her mind that a proper support system is at least half the battle won. “One has to create that, and focus on work when in office,” she says. To her mind, any organisation is constantly in the need of talent and will go the extra mile to ensure those folks stay back. “That is irrespective of gender or age and it is left to the person to demonstrate that level of competence. It’s a world that belongs to professionals and not to a man or a woman.” 

Speaking of a support system, having her parents in the vicinity has been a huge plus. “My mother takes care of dropping my daughter to school and bringing her back as well. But for her, things would have been extremely difficult,” she says candidly. “Even though Kaizad (her husband) is very supportive,” she adds. 

Kaizad Vajifdar, a pilot with Air India, largely flies overseas. The couple met through common friends. They married in early 2015 and have a daughter, who is a year-and-a-half; and a boy, who is threemonths-old. “The last two years have been only about babies,” she says with a laugh. “Kaizad is extremely hands-on at home and with the kids as well. With his schedule, we now plan life one-two weeks in advance. I guess when time is limited, you tend to manage things well.”

Vajifdar comes across as someone patient and not bossy. “I am not a micro manager and like to let people be,” she explains. Equally, she opens up on a limitation, which is about the need to develop strengths on the social side and building relationships. “It’s something I need to work on. I will get better at it,” says Vajifdar with quiet confidence.