Olga O’Donnell: From Syracuse Univerisity to USA Today
Digital media and digital advertising is an ever-evolving space. From small blogs to the large news media corporations of the world, everyone in the industry is constantly adapting to the changing needs and behaviors of their users and consumers and the evolution and innovation in the digital media space.
Olga O’Donnell, Director of Sales Strategy & Client Services at USA Today, has been dealing with that change for almost two decades, and the SU alum recently sat down with a group of students to talk about her career, and the role of a Central New York university in shaping her success.
Meeting with students in the Fisher Center (Syracuse University’s New York City location) O’Donnell shared insights and lessons learned during her time as a student at the Newhouse School, and her time working in the media industry.
“…for publishers it’s no longer about which one platform to publish their content on, but how to adapt their product to all platforms where users choose to interact with it.”
O’Donnell always knew that she wanted to be in the communications industry, but she had no idea that her career would take her down the path of digital advertising. Her path began to take shape with a Teaching Assistantship she held as a graduate student at the Newhouse School.
“When I came to Syracuse to study advertising management, I was a Teacher’s Assistant for professor Stephen Masiclat—his first TA, actually. He was the one who introduced me to, and guided me in the direction of digital media specifically, which was in its nascency at that time (in 1995). He was also my thesis adviser, and when we discussed possible topics for the thesis, I thought it would be great to explore a topic related to digital advertising.”
Even before she had officially graduated, she landed a job at a new digital advertising startup called DoubleClick. That startup has since grown into the largest online ad server in the world, and was acquired by Google in 2007 for over 3 billion dollars. After spending years in the industry,O’Donnell can look back and see that her time at S.U. was a defining moment. “My year and a half at the Newhouse School was in fact pivotal for me, as it set me on a path of developing expertise in digital media and advertising before digital was big.”
This looks like simple good luck, a case of being in the right place at the right time, but her graduate adviser Steve Masiclat says that is a mistaken view.
“Olga decided to explore digital advertising at a time when very famous senior faculty were saying the internet was a fad and would never be a force in advertising. It took guts to be the first graduate student to do research in the field. She cut a path that the so-called experts said would never amount to anything.”
Twenty years on, O’Donnell is still exploring and researching. Most recently she’s been examining the changes in mobile media usage and guiding both USA Today and clients in how to reach 21st century audiences.
“People are consuming more and more media of multiple platforms, including digital, mobile, social, broadcast, paper and others. So for publishers it’s no longer about which one platform to publish their content on, but how to adapt their product to all platforms where users choose to interact with it” she says.
O’Donnell has been with USA Today for a few years now and has served in many different capacities, but she’s worked in many of the biggest New Media companies. Before joining USA Today, O’Donnell worked on the Advertising Strategy and Monetization team at MSN Microsoft and Advertising Solutions & Integrated Marketing at Yahoo. Because of her extensive experience in the digital advertising and digital media industry, O’Donnell has been a key player in the development of USA Today’s digital monetization strategy.
During her early years at USA Today, management brought on a new team to focus on the development of a new set of digital and mobile products. Regarding that change she noted the comprehensive approach that every media manager has to take: “I made sure we looked at everything we did, all the business rules and processes that we had in place to make sure we supported the new way we were going to market—packaging, pricing, sales negotiation support, remnant/programmatic strategy, video—all of it”
As any media professional would attest, it is not easy work to put together a functional and profitable digital monetization strategy, especially for a business with a rich traditional print legacy. O’Donnell reflected on the irony of her early years at USA Today by noting that a rich history forces completely new approaches. “My first year at USA TODAY was intense, but it was also fun and rewarding, as we were all working together to build something new nearly from scratch.”
There’s a lot to learn from Olga O’Donnell’s story. Digital media and other innovative industries are constantly changing reflecting the way we live, work and entertain ourselvs. The key to staying current is to commit to being a proactive learner—an eternal student. And perhaps to be fearless about exploring the new. Just to see where it might take you.