10 Branded Content Masters Who Make It OK to Love Marketing

Most marketers these days have become big believers in the power of branded content, but that's not to say many of them are very good at it. As part of Adweek's Creative 100—recognizing some of today's most innovative personalities in marketing, media and tech—we compiled a list of 10 branded content pros who are setting the bar for a new category of creativity.

1

Wil Tidman

Head of Production
GoPro

Most brands would be overjoyed to create content that makes you love their products. But then there's GoPro, whose content can even make you love the world. "Life is extraordinary. Extraordinarily beautiful, challenging and limitless," says Tidman, who plans and executes the camera brand's geographically limitless and soul-soaring videos.  "I am always looking to find and share the extraordinary moments in people's lives that cause one to take a breath and be emotionally engaged."

By curating customer contributions and planning original content that spans the entire globe, Tidman and his colleagues have made GoPro not just one of today's best content marketers, but also one of the best content creators. "The power of our content from a branding perspective is that it is branded content without the traditional branding," Tidman says. "Storytelling and producing inspiring films is a top priority for GoPro and our ability to use our products to capture and share these stories, without a heavy branded hand, drives our business in a uniquely powerful, authentic and meaningful way."

2

Melissa Rosenthal,

VP of Creative Services
BuzzFeed

At a time when native advertising can often feel forced, awkward or full-on embarrassing, BuzzFeed manages to make it look effortless and even (gasp) fun. From the Snacky Mouse Rumble game built for Temptations to an Avon-backed blog project to try using vintage beauty products for a week, BuzzFeed brings the same level of creativity to branded content that it does to all its other addictive fare. As the leader of the team building social content with brand partners, Rosenthal says she challenges the staff to re-imagine how technology can be used to tell stories. "Even if we can’t foresee a specific use for the tech we are experimenting with at that time," she says, "it is an incredibly useful process that helps us challenge and mold the way we think about how content is consumed and shared across different platforms."

3

David Beebe

VP of Content Marketing
Marriott International

Some brands talk a big game about branded content, but Marriott has quickly proven it's serious about becoming what Beebe describes as "the world's largest producer of travel-related content." The Marriott Content Studio has released two short films, French Kiss and Two Bellmen, which have a combined 11 million views on YouTube. The brand also partnered with Medium to create a fascinating hub for travel stories called Gone and inked category-exclusive deals with several popular YouTube personalities. In the process, Marriott has become a case study not only in travel marketing but also in the capabilities of brands to become creators of content truly worth sharing.

4

Ryan Rimsnider

Senior Manager of Social Strategy
Taco Bell

Whether you're talking Snapchat, Instagram or Periscope, Taco Bell has consistently proven its ability to embrace social channels in ways that feel fun and breezy while also being meticulously custom-tailored to each medium. Recently named to lead this channel-spanning strategy is Rimsnider, who honed his skills at Boost Mobile and Virgin Mobile.

"Given how fast things move today, you’re only as good as your last tweet, snap, pic or ad," he says, "so finding ways to continually break through becomes the biggest challenge." His secret for staying in tune with what's cool and what's next? "I frequently venture down the rabbit hole of hashtags in Instagram and am not ashamed to admit the occasional stalking, albeit casual, of random individuals and their followers," he admits. "Usually it’s less of the actual brands I like and more of the crafty folks that are behind them."

5

Catherine Patterson

Svp and Executive Producer
McCann NY

These days, the best advertising feels less like advertising and more like risky branded experiments. And few people take more joy in this new playground than Patterson, whose background includes helping R/GA create a customizable merchandise platform for Nike and helping NASA build awareness and support for its Phoenix Mars Lander. Today she's at McCann, where she led production of Nature Valley's detail-rich Trail View hub for National Parks and the brand's "Quietest Show on Earth" acoustic performance from Andrew Bird at a national park. She also worked with MasterCard to create its "priceless table" atop a Times Square billboard. "The biggest obstacle to creativity is banal and entrenched thinking and an unwillingness to break protocol or to 'not know' how things are going to work or come together successfully," she says. "This indicates a lack of faith in the creative process and in team work, two things I believe in deeply."

6

Katrina Craigwell

Director of Global Content and Programming
General Electric

Not since Epcot circa 1986 has a company made science as geekily fascinating as General Electric is managing right now with its wide array of digital content. With a dynamic and highly visual presence on Instagram and Tumblr, GE constantly serves up interesting images and facts from its diverse divisions around the world. To lead this effort, Craigwell has to know a little of everything about the manufacturer, its operations in 175 countries and the science driving its innovations. Her motivation each day is to go beyond marketing and create a real connection with audiences. "I always imagine the emotional impact that an experience will have on someone," she says. "When I can help give someone an experience that they’ll never forget, and connect with them around a love of science, technology and the future, I truly feel the magic of my job."

7

James Percelay and Michael Krivicka

Co-Founders
Thinkmodo

If you're strolling about town and happen to run across a demonic baby, telekinetic coffee shop patron or really any sort of supernatural oddity, there's a good chance you've wandered into a Thinkmodo prank. After the viral agency's 2013 "telekinetic coffee shop surprise" stunt for the Carrie movie remake exploded into a YouTube juggernaut (current view count: 63 million), Thinkmodo became an industry leader in unexpected promotional experiences.

With a background largely in TV, including a stint as line producer for SNL's commercial parodies, Percelay says he finds a surprising amount of inspiration by visiting salvage yards. "I love mechanical things, and learn from seeing them deconstructed," he says. For Krivicka, creativity is the result, not the fuel, of his agency's work: "Creativity is something that happens," he says. "I don't have to bring new levels of it to work. It's just a matter of being able to focus and having enough freedom for it. Creativity evolves on its own."

8

Tina Cervera

Svp and Executive Creative Director
VaynerMedia

While the exuberantly enthusiastic Gary Vaynerchuk is still the best known personality at the agency he founded with his brother, several key creative leaders have emerged at the shop as well. Cervera oversees a creative team of 165 writers, designers, animators and content creators across offices in four U.S. cities. You might know her team's work from when they tricked Brooklyn beer lovers into trying (and praising) Budweiser, or from their Emoji Science project with G.E. Cervera says she's proud of the agency's ability to embrace trends and technology quickly and cleverly. "Being first movers on emerging technologies and social media platforms is one of our core products," she says. "Activating quickly and with creative integrity is a practice we mine, discuss, test in myriad ways and generally obsess over."

9

Chris Lindland

Founder and CEO
Betabrand

Sure, the premise of Betabrand is interesting enough: Prototypes for the site's new apparel are vetted via crowdfunding before becoming part of the collection. But what's truly fascinating are all the weird and wonderful ways Lindland's found to promote it all. For one spring collection, each model had a Ph.D. The site fought retail's dreaded "Christmas creep" by creating a video game called Santa Sleighs Halloween. Then there was the time Betabrand released its own research proving that ads featuring male crotches outperform just about all other ads. Lindland says the site's fresh ideas come from challenging the staff to create "portfolio-worthy work" at least once a month. Another key is keeping a close eye on feedback and design concepts submitted by customers. "They experience our products and brand in ways our staff doesn't," he says. 

10

Joe Chernov

VP of Content
HubSpot

When your software company's whole purpose is to help brands drive more Web traffic and sales through compelling content, it helps to be pretty damn good at your own content. And HubSpot is one of the best, not just in the b-to-b sector but pretty much anywhere. HubSpot's blogs and eBooks are helpful, smart, well-written and eminently shareable. All these content outlets (along with a podcast and research operation) are run by Chernov, who admits it can be a struggle to be consistently creative, especially when your team has a reputation for always being a step ahead. The secret, he says, is simply paying attention to what catches people's interest, regardless of where or why. "If there is something that has piqued my interest, or that I overhear friends and colleagues discussing," he says, "even if on the surface it doesn't appear to have anything to do with the products we market, I know that if we shake the topic vigorously, an idea will spill out."

11

More of Adweek’s Creative 100:

Check out all the honorees by category:

30 Copywriters, Art Directors and Creative Directors
10 Chief Creative Officers
10 Digital Innovators
10 Branded Content Creators
10 Viral Content Creators
10 Commercial Directors
10 Visual Artists
10 Celebrities and Influencers

You can also browse the full list alphabetically or follow the entire Creative 100 on Twitter.

This story first appeared in the July 20 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.