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Jana O’Brien Brings Context to SMV

May 9, 2007  •  Post A Comment

Two friends from Michigan State University arrived at Leo Burnett the same day.
One, Jayne Zenaty Spittler, was going into media research and would go on to be managing director of global research for Burnett’s media department, which became Starcom.
The other, Jana O’Brien, was going into advertising research and account planning.
The fact that they already knew each other “made me aware what she did for a living and it made her aware of what I did for a living and we said many times since, that had we not landed that day together, we might not have had any interaction for 10 years because those two functions didn’t really connect,” said Ms. O’Brien, who was named chief consumer officer at Starcom MediaVest Group last month.
Nineteen years later, Ms. O’Brien moved to the media side when SMV pitched the General Motors planning account. In addition to looking for an agency that would spend its money efficiently, the automaker wanted a new kind of consumer insight approach for its media.
And it was a good fit for Ms. O’Brien. “I grew up a GM brat,” she said, because her father was a GM engineer for 40 years.
Ms. O’Brien’s approach to research is called consumer context planning.
In explaining it, Ms. O’Brien, who had been executive director of strategic research at GM Planworks, starts with the assumption that the idea that all impressions are created equal just isn’t true. Take the same drawing by Picasso and put it in the Chicago Art Institute, a downtown art gallery, a shopping mall gallery and a yard sale. “What would you think that painting is worth in each of those contexts?” she said. In each place, there’s an exposure, and the message is the same, but “if you didn’t know it was a Picasso, the context tells you something about the value of the painting.”
More precisely, “you need a person on the media side that really understands how the consumer engages in media and takes what the brand is trying to do and what it stands for, and finds the appropriate context for when the consumer is in the right mindset, in the right level of receptivity, where the message won’t interrupt or derail the media experience, but kind of rides with it,” she said.
Working with GM, she helped develop many innovative ways of looking at context because of the company’s willingness to fund media research. That has led to GM taking an increasingly integrated approach to its TV advertising, and buying a smaller proportion of 30-second spots with its ad dollars.
Ms. O’Brien was originally asked to work on GM for a few years, and then bring the new approach to the entire SMG Network. “A few years on GM became nearly seven,” she said. In her new position, she’ll still have some engagement with the GM account, but will be more involved in making sure Starcom keeps the consumers in the center of its thinking. She’s also going to make sure that people who are going into consumer context planning find an appropriate career path at the agency.
Ms. O’Brien originally wanted to be a music teacher, but in college decided that music would be her avocation rather than her vocation because life as a music major offered few interesting elective courses. While looking for a new major, her mother suggested taking a public relations course. She discovered Michigan State’s advertising program and communications school. “It was the perfect major for me,” she said.
While in school she taught advertising (including media) and after getting her masters in advertising, she turned down a research job at Burnett to become an assistant account executive at N.W. Ayer in New York. “I saw research through the eyes of the client service person. It made me a better research person, more practical and strategic.”
But after a year she returned to the Midwest and to Burnett, where she was reunited with her old classmate.
These days, Ms. O’Brien does her singing in a church choir in Lincoln Park. She also does strategic planning for the music programs for local school systems. “I am a huge believer in the role music plays in student success,” she said.
Her kids are now old enough so that she has time to read again. She just finished “Eat, Pray, Love” by Elizabeth Gilbert, which was given to her by SMV CEO Renatta McCann. She also recently finished “The Professor and the Madman” by Simon Winchester, about the creation of the Oxford English dictionary.
She has two stepdaughters, Jessica, 26, who is about to become an elementary school teacher, and Nancy, 21, a junior at the University of Illinois. Son Evan, 17, is going to Penn State. She says he plays trumpet and has a great voice but won’t sing. Her other son, Colin, 13, is a reluctant trombone player who just wants to be Derek Jeter.
Her husband trades grain futures. “He works in commodities and I work in brands. We think it’s a great marriage,” she said.
WHO KNEW: “My family has a knack for going to high school with famous people,” Ms. O’Brien said. “My father went to high school with the late, great Kurt Vonnegut.” Her brother went to high school with Joyce DeWitt, co-star of “Three’s Company.” As for herself, her classmate was Madonna, and they sang in the choir together.
Back then, Madonna would adopt a new persona every year or two, something she still does successfully. “I don’t think there’s anybody out there who’s a better intuitive marketer than Madonna Ciccone,” she said. “She repositions and re-launches herself every two to three years, and it just works.”

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