Special Report: Rising Star

Nicole Hayes is far from a naughty girl. In conversation, she is, as a matter of fact, intelligent, polite, poised and articulate. So, one finds it very hard to believe she was instrumental in one of the most risqué media executions in recent memory: the racy campaign in support of Unilever’s Axe deodorant.

Just shy of her 30th birthday, Hayes, this year’s Media All-Star Rising Star, has already reached the lofty perch of group planning director in MindShare’s Chicago office, overseeing Unilever brands Axe, Degree and Dove.

Among those brands, each with its unique market niche, it is Axe, a European line of young-male-targeted fragrances and deodorant introduced in the U.S. in 2002, that stands out. The brand, after all, famously markets the “Axe effect,” which “turns nice girls naughty.”

On the Axe Web site, actor David Spade presides over a user-generated video contest. “We want people to have as much sexy, dirty fun as they can so that we can wash it all away with Axe shower gel,” Spade intones in a voiceover.

With creative that provocative, finding the right media platform can be a challenge, Hayes admits.

“Sometimes it’s difficult with Axe, because we often find ourselves in controversial or uncharted water,” she says. “In those cases, the approach we use with Unilever has been very helpful, because we’re able to have an open dialogue across disciplines to figure out what will work and what won’t. That way we don’t have public relations or creative or media working in silos. We all know what the end goal is.”

As a director of the Unilever business, Hayes is charged with plotting the course of the award-winning Degree account as well as Axe, which has enjoyed incredible success, growing to a business in excess of $100 million since it hit the U.S. market.

It is Hayes’ job to manage the overall direction of the media plan while staying on the lookout for media innovations for current and future product extensions. Her abilities played out particularly well on Axe, which Hayes helped launch and which won a 2006 Clio Award for Advertiser of the Year.

Sam Chadha, director of marketing, deodorant at Unilever North America, says the successes of Axe, as well as Degree and Dove, owe much to “the supreme targeting that’s done by Nicole and her team. She’s been a great partner for the business.”

He adds that Hayes “is able to look at the big picture with me from a holistic perspective. On a strategic level, she’s been invaluable. And on all the brands, MindShare in general and Nicole in particular have really helped us laser in on the right opportunities and leverage our media dollars.”

Chadha singles out the partnership Hayes put together between the Fox TV hit 24 and Unilever’s Degree last season. For Degree, MindShare created a microsite featuring an online series in which the narrative was tied to the show’s season-ending cliffhanger.

“That was the standout media plan for me,” Chadha says. “Nicole has been able to help us broker some amazing marketing/media relationships.”

Hayes was instrumental in putting together an integrated campaign for Degree, in which Degree for Men was a sponsor of ESPN’s World Series of Poker and U.S. Poker Championship. The TV element put the brand front and center whenever a player put his chips on the line, a maneuver dubbed the “Degree All In Moment.”

For the online component, MindShare and ESPN.com developed an “advergame” in which high rollers played for a seat at the World Series of Poker. The promotion not only hit the mark with the brand’s demographic, but it was also named Mediaweek’s Media Plan of the Year in the $10 million-$25 million category.

Hayes’ blending of traditional and nontraditional media also plays out for Dove. One Dove promotion grew out of Unilever research revealing that only 8 percent of women felt beautiful while wearing sleeveless shirts. Hayes and Co. persuaded celebrities such as Tyra Banks, Queen Latifah and Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson to design sleeveless t-shirts that later were put up for auction on Dove’s Web site, with proceeds going to self-esteem programs.

As for Hayes’ own self-esteem, despite her obvious accomplishments, she often shies away from taking credit, choosing to pass props to a colleague or client. To wit: When asked whether she sees herself as a “rising star” in the media world, she, characteristically, turns the conversation away from herself.

“I definitely have had some great advantages in my career so far because I’ve been able to work with some very forward-thinking people, both here and outside the company,” she says. “MindShare has been fantastic in that the company really champions great ideas and being creative.”

Hayes adds, “I’ve not only landed at a great company, but I’ve also been very fortunate with the clients I’ve worked with, particularly Unilever, because they’ve been extremely open and receptive to creative media approaches.”

At Mindshare, Hayes is described as an outspoken leader unafraid to voice her opinion when a certain idea or execution is not on target. In addition to her high professional standards, her strong work ethic has acted as a motivator of those working around her.

Jill Langan, a strategic planning director at MindShare and, until recently, Hayes’ supervisor, says she “demonstrates the insight and foresight of someone with many more years of experience than her résumé would indicate.”

Langan calls Hayes “the ultimate team player who gives those on her staff plenty of opportunities to shine,” adding that she connects with clients because “she is constantly looking for new and never-been-done-before opportunities for Unilever, and then she makes them happen.”

All of which, despite the runaway success of Axe and its “dirty” approach, seems much more nice than naughty.