Executive of the Year: Lisa Donohue

Starcom USA CEO spans the quantitative and creative divide

"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.