By Lucia Moses
As the daughter of an engineer dad and arty mom, Karen Umeki grew up steeped in both numbers and creativity—gifts parlayed into a fast-rising media career.
Umeki, 27, cut her teeth out of college at a boutique firm in L.A., Round 2 Communications, where she did planning and buying for Ketel One Vodka and Crystal Cruises. Starcom took note, and in 2007, she returned to her hometown of Chicago to join Brenda White's publishing activation team. She's moved fast ever since. At a time when buying still tended to be efficiency driven, Umeki saw the importance of starting with the client's goal—a process that she applied to client Kashi and which became a template that White's team would adopt. "She always thought about things a little bit differently," says White, Starcom USA's svp, publishing activation director. "When I was talking about print as a brand, she was one of the first to catch on to that."
Umeki would soon add high-profile responsibilities as she took on print strategy for Wrigley's Orbit. The chewing gum brand was part of key new business Starcom had recently won, and a particularly challenging one, says Robyn Stellmach, associate media director and Umeki's current boss. "We knew whatever we did had to be new and never-been-done before," she says.
Orbit was trying to get customers to think about its product as an accessory with a new package that, when torn off, would reveal different patterns underneath. Working with Rolling Stone, Umeki helped come up with a peel-off ad on the title's cover that would reveal the new packaging on the peel's flip side.
"The rationale was, what is the experience the consumer will go through when they open the pack, and how can we mimic the experience?" Umeki says.
The peel was risky. Orbit had no idea what cover image its ad would appear opposite. Rolling Stone, for its part, couldn't appear as if it were selling out its iconic real estate to an advertiser.
To Orbit's pleasant surprise, Rolling Stone ended up using the peel for a reveal of its own: the top of the peel showed a scowling Jay-Z, but when readers pulled it back, they saw a rare shot of the artist smiling.
"What we loved was the way the dual covers mirrored the way the gum packaging worked," says Melinda Lewis, then senior marketing manager for Orbit, who adds that Umeki's execution didn't just boost awareness; customers genuinely enjoyed it.
The peel effort was a months-long process that involved Umeki doing lots of cajoling, convincing and coordinating between all the parties—a thing Umeki says she can do because of a special affinity for magazines.
"It's the fact that it's tangible and it's something you can pick up and hold," she says. "They're one of your friends. If you start to feel your trusted friend selling out to advertisers, it doesn't have the reliability and cachet that is most important to the space."
Karen Umeki photographed by Rudy Archuleta
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