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How I Got to Where I Am Today: Advertising Account Director

By Diane Hess

While her junior-high friends papered their rooms with Bruce Springsteen posters, Sara O'Mara taped ads cut from magazines to her bedroom wall. These days, she's still clipping. But now, as an account director at Leo Burnett Worldwide in Chicago, she gets paid for it.

Few people land a job at their dream employer on their first try, but Ms. O'Mara, 28 years old, began her career at Leo Burnett, which she says she regarded, having grown up in Chicago, as "a larger-than-life icon."

"I did not think there was a chance I would ever get hired there," she says. (Leo Burnett Worldwide is the second-largest advertising brand in the U.S. in core advertising revenue, behind No. 1 firm JWT, according to Advertising Age, a New York-based trade magazine.)

But a few months before graduation, Ms. O'Mara took a chance and contacted Leo Burnett's human-resources department. It was the only ad agency she considered. "I sent a handful of letters and made calls to the company," she says.

After two rounds of interviews, which included nine separate meetings with hiring managers at the firm, she was hired as an associate in its general account-management training program.

It was the first of many challenges she's met through her career at the firm, and her success has been rewarded with steady advancement.

She initially was assigned to the firm's Hispanic-focused subsidiary, Lapiz. "Given my background, they thought it was a good fit," she says. As a student at Bates College in Maine, Ms. O'Mara majored in Spanish literature. She'd studied at the University of Spain in Salamanca for a semester as a junior, and her senior thesis examined questions of feminine identity in Puerto Rican literature. "I was studying identities," she says. "And advertising is all about the expression of identities."

Her first project was to develop a grassroots campaign for Tampax for the Hispanic market. "We sat with women from the community," she says. It was difficult at first to get them to talk about feminine hygiene, she says, "but ultimately we created an environment where they could."

Her next big career test came two years later, when she was given an opportunity to work for Leo Burnett in Brazil. She was the only American in an office of about 150 people. "I didn't know anyone or even how to speak the language," she says. She took Portuguese lessons and learned the nuances of office culture in Sao Paolo as she helped launch a Pepto-Bismol campaign. "I was thirsty for this kind of international experience," she says. "It was daunting, but I forced myself beyond the fear."

After four months, she returned to the U.S. and was promoted to account executive. She worked on H.J. Heinz Co.'s green-ketchup campaign. She was "a junior person on a senior team," she says, responsible for communication with the client and management of the campaign. "My goal was to do good work and not let them down," she says. That was 2000.

In 2001, she was promoted again, this time to senior account executive, and she participated in a pilot program that explored nontraditional account management. It was a year of adjusting to a new way of doing things, she says. "It meant letting go of old roles and picking up new ones," she says.

One year later, she moved to the Altoids account, she says, in part to help in the brand's expansion beyond mints, and she faced a new challenge of making an already successful campaign even better. "There was a lot of pressure," she says.

Throughout her career, Ms. O'Mara says that she has had to deal with the fear of failure. "Every day we have to bring original thinking to clients who already know their businesses very well," she says. But she has succeeded, she says, by finding simple solutions to complex problems, setting priorities and building strong teams.

"One thing that makes her so successful is that she is a wonderful collaborator," says Jamie King, a former account director at Leo Burnett and now senior vice president, brand integration at Publicis & Hal Riney, an advertising agency in San Francisco. (Both Leo Burnett Worldwide and Publicis & Hal Riney are owned by the Publicis Groupe.)

Six months ago, Ms. O'Mara was promoted to account director. These days, she's still on the Altoids account. Colleagues at the agency borrow from the Altoids slogan and fondly call her the "curiously strong" account director. Looking ahead, she says she is eager to be challenged as she has been in the past. "I'm excited for the next thing that will make me nervous," she says.

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-- Ms. Hess is a free-lance writer in New York.

Article from CareerJournal Today – July 2005