Archana Mahadevan found her main personality in Virginia (and in advertising)


Reinventions profiles people who have made great pivots. Archana Mahadevan started out in products at Google in India, but dreamed of working in advertising since she was a child. Today, she is Chief Strategy Officer at DDB Chicago and Industry Spokesperson for DEI.

What were you before?

I was working as a product expert in one of the biggest companies in the world (Google, India) but I was not happy. Although it was comfortable in every way for me, I felt like something was missing. I always dreamed of working in advertising, but I didn’t know where to start.

What triggered your reinvention(s)?

A quote from my favorite movie, The Holiday, says, “In movies, we have leading women, and we have the best friend. You, I can tell, are a leading woman, but for some reason whatever, you behave like the best friend.” In my unsatisfying but comfortable career trajectory, I didn’t feel like the leading lady.

I moved 8,000 miles to Richmond, Virginia, and finally felt like I was home. There I became the leading lady in my story. For most people around me, the decision to start over didn’t make sense. For me, it was crazy not to.

At first glance, it looked like a simple trip to an international graduate school. For me, it was a kind of rebirth. It gave me the chance to start over and become the person I always wanted to be, professionally and personally.

I chose VCU Brandcenter in Richmond because the school had a smart approach to breaking into all disciplines of advertising, not just creative. I left an unfulfilling but comfortable career trajectory and the comforts of home to claim my place in the world and do what I love most. I know it’s out of fashion to be obsessed with advertising, but I’m still in love and still as amazed as I was 20 years ago.

What were the first steps like?

The only way to do anything was to take the leap, without a plan B. When I left my job, I had absolutely no fallback options if things didn’t work out the way I wanted. However, it’s luck to find what you want with everything you have: it always ends up working.

What was a difficult obstacle to overcome?

The weight of your own judgment and your voice in your head. A big part of the journey is unlearning the voice in your head and making way for a new language to speak to you, equal parts self-aware and self-confident.

The voice in my head kept asking, “What if you fail?”

Guess what? It went well.

What was easier than you thought?

The transitions have been nice: going from having a job to not having a job. The transition from living in India to moving to another country. They were easier than I imagined. Isn’t it strange that we do something so big in our head, and then actually eliminate our fears so easily?

What did you learn along the way that others hoping to do something similar should know?

That no matter how difficult your journey, you will find your people. There will be friends, roommates, acquaintances, strangers on the train and on the planes, mentors, guides, well-wishers, bosses and all the others who will come and fit into your life as if they were always meant to be.

You just have to find your people.

Has anyone or anything inspired you along the way?

My parents. When I told them about my plan to leave the country to start over, they did not question my conviction; they supported me and supported me financially. Someone else’s belief in your belief is such a strength that I don’t take for granted.

What has this fundamentally changed for you?

This journey towards my own becoming made me understand my own privilege. Starting over, reinventing, pausing, reflecting and reassessing is a great privilege. It is this awareness of privilege that drives me to pay it forward.

Do you think you could go back/would you?

Absolutely not. I wouldn’t trade this life for anything. If I had to do it again, I would still like to end up here.

Tell us about your song of reinvention.

Whenever I question myself and my journey, I listen to this song. Freely translated, it says: “I fear nothing and I am inferior to no one.” This is my affirmation in difficult days.

How would you define yourself now?

I am VP, Director of Strategy at DDB Chicago, currently working on the US Army account. I am a passionate DEI advocate at DDB and in the industry. I am a feminist, mother of two adorable children, and I believe in leading with empathy.


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