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On his way to becoming a professor 20 years ago, Jack Hanrahan landed what he thought would be a three-year job in the media department of Leo Burnett Co., Chicago. He never left.

As senior VP-director of out-of-home media, Mr. Hanrahan oversees the largest outdoor account-Philip Morris USA cigarettes ($47 million in 1994, according to Competitive Media Reporting)-at Burnett, the top-spending agency in outdoor media ($125.8 million in 1994).

In that role, he's been a major force behind one of the most challenging innovations the industry has experienced to date: square boards, as opposed to the traditional, horizontal boards.

"Jack is a media authority," says Ron Ipjian, president-general manager of Gannett Outdoor's Chicago division. "He has a research background that [allows him] to think analytically, and he's also a creative thinker."

New 24-feet-by-26-feet square boards are being rolled out nationwide for Philip Morris' Marlboro brand. The concept might seem simple, but the process of pulling off the effort was complex, Mr. Hanrahan says, and some outdoor companies initially were reluctant to take on such a huge project.

The boards had to be built, for one. And, the zoning and building codes that vary remarkably from town to town nationwide represented a hornet's nest of bureaucratic paperwork.

Burnett's clout in outdoor spending and Mr. Hanrahan's drive helped make the idea for square boards a reality in just a few months, however.

"When a job has to be done," Mr. Ipjian says of Mr. Hanrahan, "he'll exhaust every opportunity to get it done."

Even as an undergrad studying political science at Boston College, Mr. Hanrahan had always been fascinated by the media choices people made. So he went to Indiana University and got an MBA and a master's degree and PhD in radio-TV communications. He joined Burnett's media research department to get some real-world experience before becoming a professor, and there he found his match.

"Here was a job where I could get paid to follow what Americans were watching, reading, listening to," he says.

Being the outdoor point person at the biggest outdoor agency has created enjoyable challenges.

"I don't turn our size into arrogance, but when you're the biggest buyer of outdoor, you can push the industry to show it what's capable of being done," Mr. Hanrahan says.

Among today's major challenges: how to handle proposed new regulations on tobacco advertising.

"On a personal level, [the Clinton administration proposals] are alarming," says Mr. Hanrahan, a non-smoker. "Before I ever joined Burnett, I was a strong believer in free speech."

He sees package goods brands that currently are heavy users of spot TV as the next frontier for the outdoor ad industry. And he feels the new square boards should help lasso them, since they're the same shape as many product packages.

"I just have to convince people to give me the money that would be spent on spot TV," he says.

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