Jana O'Brien

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Jana O'Brien recalls having a list of dream clients while in graduate school at Michigan State University in 1980: McDonald's Corp., Hallmark Cards, Coca-Cola Co. and General Motors Corp.

She managed to work on all their accounts except GM during 19 years at Publicis Groupe's Leo Burnett USA and sibling Starcom Media- Vest Group, Chicago. Finally in July 2000, the Indianapolis native and daughter of a GM product engineer got the automaker as a client. Ms. O'Brien was on Starcom's 10-person team that won the $2 billion spender's first consolidated, media planning account. Before becoming exec VP-executive director, strategic research, at GM Planworks at 43, she was Starcom's exec VP-managing planning director.

The successful pitch, Ms. O'Brien says, married account planning, media research and strategic planning. Commuting from Chicago to Planworks' Detroit headquarters weekly, she uses proprietary metrics to measure the strengths of media brands among consumer groups and consumers' vehicle brand preferences.

"I love dissecting how consumers make choices," Ms. O'Brien says, adding her group dives deeper than only likability. "I've got the best petri dish in the world." she says. Few planners are handling the process this way, though it's starting to catch on.

Ms. O'Brien credits the out-of-the-box vision for the GM pitch to Jack Klues, CEO of Starcom MediaVest, whom she met in 1989 on their successful Nintendo of America pitch.

For Nintendo's 1990 Game Boy ad campaign, Ms. O'Brien recalls "a ton of media insights ended up driving the creative." To reach the target of adults on airplanes and in waiting rooms, it developed an all-print push; sales ended up exceeding Nintendo's expectations.

Her star started to rise when working on the McDonald's Corp. account at Burnett. Ms. O'Brien developed a twice-annual "What's Hot Among Kids"research booklet for 12 years starting in 1984. The internal document was shared globally within the agency, reaching a circulation of several thousand in its maturity.

Ms. O'Brien today oversees a dozen people, in charge of what she describes as the nation's largest group of its kind focused on one client. "This piece [of media planning] is in its infancy, and the sky is totally the limit."