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Women to Watch 2007

Mary O'Keefe

Principal Financial Group

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NEXT: Julie Rieger

Many of the skills Mary O'Keefe gained during her previous career in social work -- including one stint as a suicide prevention counselor -- still come in handy.

Mary O'Keefe, senior VP-chief marketing officer, Principal Financial Group


No, she's not talking anyone off a ledge, "but the empathy and active listening skills you learn in social work are actually very useful in marketing," says the senior VP-chief marketing officer of Principal Financial Group.

From social work to CMO: It's quite a leap. Ms. O'Keefe, 50, is driven by the overarching goal of "keeping it fresh."

That mantra convinced Ms. O'Keefe that Principal needed to break through "the sea of sameness" in most financial-services marketing. She partnered with TBWA/Chiat/Day, Playa del Rey, Calif., to launch in 2005 "The Edge," a campaign featuring the animated character Eddie, who uses Principal -- and the financial edge it affords him -- to get around pecuniary pickles.

In one spot, Eddie, riding his bike along the side of a cliff, encounters the chasm between "work" and "retirement." So he turns Principal's triangular logo into a ramp, jumping across the two life stages with ease.

"When I first saw [the campaign's concept], I thought, 'It's either crazy or it's brilliant,'" says Ms. O'Keefe. After reviewing its strategic soundness, she banked on its brilliance.

J. Barry Griswell, Principal chairman-CEO, initially voiced his own reservations. "It was that kind of a make-or-break decision," he recalls. "And boy, was it a 'make' decision."

A year after the campaign's launch, awareness of Principal among employed individuals reached 76%, up 10 points from the previous year, according to researcher Millward Brown.

A mother of one son, Ms. O'Keefe is the seventh in a family of 11 children. "That's got to toughen you up pretty good," says Mr. Griswell, who describes Ms. O'Keefe as scrappy, savvy and "not afraid to tell you what you need to hear."

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