Executive of the Year: Lisa Donohue

Starcom USA CEO spans the quantitative and creative divide

Jeremy Goldberg


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.

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