Executive of the Year: Lisa Donohue

Starcom USA CEO spans the quantitative and creative divide

If the future of the media business is not just numbers, but ideas, then Starcom USA CEO Lisa Donohue is the industry's new authority.

On first meeting Donohue, you'll see telltale signs of an unusual affinity for the creative side of the agency divide, from her silver-and-black nail polish to the blue aviator sunglasses perched atop her head. An executive who controls $9.1 billion in annual billings, she has transformed Starcom from a stodgy numbers-crunching conglomerate into a taproot of innovation. Since assuming her role in June 2009, she invested in bleeding-edge analytics tools, bolstered the company's entrepreneurial culture with internal social networks and events, and hammered home her message of "experience planning," a term that sounds strikingly similar to the language creative agencies speak.

Donohue also wrangled a number of creative types into leadership roles, including Mark Pavia, formerly of The Martin Agency, as Starcom USA's new digital leader, and Chad Maxwell, formerly of Razorfish, to a new position, research intelligence director. "You really want to be surrounded by people who are fun and creative, and will push hard and push back and have a strong point of view," Donohue says. Most recently, she brought in Jonathan Hoffman, former chief creative officer of Campbell Mithun, to another new position, chief experience officer. In that role, Hoffman says, he's not doing media planning, he's building integrated experiences.

In other words, at Starcom USA, traditional lines are blurring. And so is the look of a typical media agency office: The Chicago-headquartered company's new digs in New York feature squiggly, neon green wall art and bright orange carpet reminiscent of a tech startup.

Starcom even has its own Facebook-Quora hybrid, a social network called Yammer, which has opened up communication among parent company Starcom's 6,700 employees (1,122 of whom work for Starcom USA). Donohue also encourages sharing through SOS (Starcom Open Source), a crowdsourced problem-solving mechanism, and through her quarterly interview series, The Exchange, which is streamed live and features conversations with guests like Pandora founder Tim Westergren and Fareed Zakaria, host of CNN's Fareed Zakaria GPS.

The efforts are all part of a media planning sea change that Donohue knows she must stay in front of. When she became CEO, Starcom USA was doing just fine, with billings up 6.7 percent and revenue up 10 percent year to year, despite recessionary woes.

"But to just keep doing what you're doing is no longer good enough," she says. Her reshaping of Starcom USA into an entrepreneurial organization filled with creative thinkers is what she considers her greatest accomplishment. Since taking charge, she says employees are more willing to take risks, experiment, and seek outside perspectives.

"So much of Lisa's accomplishments stem from her finding new alternatives to old problems, and all of them are rooted in a combination of human experience and new technologies," says Laura Desmond, CEO, Starcom MediaVest Group. "Her embracing the business's art and science is what makes her stand out."

Her approach has paid off. In the past year, Donohue's team has a stack of new client wins, including Microsoft's $500 million account, Burger King ($308 million), Groupon ($98 million), Universal Theme Parks ($71 million), and Bon-Ton ($25 million). The most recent: the planning and research portion of Anheuser-Busch's $1.36 billion account, previously an in-house operation.

Donohue attributes the win, in part, to Hoffman and his creative staff. Hoffman says, "There was a ton of passion, amplified by the fact that the ideas were awesome." Anheuser-Busch was also attracted to Starcom EQ, the company's emerging data product. Starcom EQ is a Donohue production. In the past year, she's invested between $350,000 to $400,000 in the tool, which is a map of a consumer's motives and "emotional need states" at the point of media consumption. It translates information from more than 20,000 consumers into 17 moods. "The emotional need state I fulfill when I sit down and watch Mad Men, versus when I sit on my couch and read The Wall Street Journal, versus when I look at TMZ online, are all different," says Donohue. Ad data can be ridiculously complex; Starcom uses this product and others to simplify the allocation process.

But allocation is just a part of Starcom's business. Many of its notable 2011 campaigns (Chevrolet's Super Bowl spot featuring the cast of Glee, or Barely There bras' peel-off sticker ads in Lucky magazine) originated with the media agency and were executed by a creative shop, and not the other way around. Starcom nabbed Adweek Media Planner of the Year awards for for those campaigns, as well as Orbit gum's Dirty Shorts branded Web series, which it developed in collaboration with BBDO. 

Quite simply, Starcom takes advantage of its solid relationships with publishers, and the result is media planning that drives creativity. "We have access to the media companies [which gets us] to the content creators," Donohue says. And "in the case of our digital ads, we get right in there with the Google engineers or the Facebook engineers. The more we can connect directly with them, then we've got a greater ability to design really rich experiences."

That probably explains how Starcom clients comprised three of the first five advertisers on the iPad. Or how 17 of the company's clients participated in this year's online video upfront, more than tripling their spend over last year. Or how several of Starcom's clients were launch partners for Hulu Plus.

"In the past, everything was quantitative, all about the numbers. It was right or wrong and very black and white," says Donohue. "Now we've moved to a world that's very gray." Her team at Starcom USA is increasingly comfortable with a gray world requiring creative solutions, she says. And silver and black and neon green and orange–they're cool with those, too.