The idea that brands could create compelling and even artistic content used to sound laughable, but many skeptics have been won over—thanks largely to the work of a few elite talents who’ve taken corporate creativity to a new level.
Whether it’s quick and savvy responses on Twitter or gorgeous long-form videos, today’s best branded content can impress and inspire—oh and hopefully sell, too. This year’s Adweek Creative 100 features a blend of the industry’s big names and behind-the-scenes stars.
Here are Adweek’s 10 branded content honorees in the 2017 Creative 100:
Vp, Executive Editorial Director, T Brand Studio
Three years since launching T Brand Studio, the brand marketing unit of the The New York Times, the team has grown from just five staffers to 150.
That’s a testament to what Aston calls “an ambition for innovation at The Times that I haven’t experienced anywhere else.”
The journalist-turned-marketer has been behind successful paid posts ranging from Netflix’s Women Inmates, which Aston says “set the standard for journalistic storytelling for a brand,” to GE’s How Nature is Inspiring Our Industrial Future, the Studio’s first foray into VR.
Aston now is looking toward ambitious stories that combine ”cutting-edge digital media, human influencers and real-world events.” He pointed to the Studio’s work for Kia’s Impossible to Ignore campaign, intended to provide the brand with greater engagement and readers with a more immersive experience.
Aston says his background, specializing in environmental reporting, is essential to making the Times’ marketing arm work for both brands and consumers. “Journalists help readers discover new ideas by distilling clarity from complexity, identifying narrative tension or by putting a product or a company into a larger perspective,” he said. “These same approaches can help brands bring better context and interest to their stories.”
Global Creative Director, Spotify
After learning the ropes about Spotify while working at Razorfish on the agency side, Bodman joined the music-streaming service as its first global creative director in 2015. Since then, the brand’s advertising has continuously highlighted interesting, unusual and often quirky tidbits about streaming data, crafting them into entertaining and creative out-of-home, print and TV ads.
“I’m part of building a brand that people truly love and feel passionately about,” Bodman says. “It’s an insanely fortunate place to be, and I feel like we’re only getting started.”
With a 30-person creative team, Bodman has worked on campaigns like creating a fake job posting offering Barack Obama a gig called “President of Playlists” and made out-of-home ads to reveal when Prince’s music became available on the streaming site.
But Bodman is most proud of last year’s “Thanks 2016, It’s Been Weird” campaign that focused on odd listening habits—like how 3,749 people listened to REM’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It” on the day of the Brexit vote. “It was the first fully integrated brand campaign we created completely in-house, and the response was so overwhelming,” Bodman explains. “Last year was a tough year and it felt like we found ways for people to have a moment and see the lighter side.”
Head of Creative, Everlane
As a former journalist and an author, Spunt has built a career on telling transparent stories. At Everlane, she guides the creative for a company built on transparency. Everlane works directly with 24 factories around the world and openly shares information about their practices under the #KnowYourFactories hashtag.
With a history that includes time at American Apparel and having written a book about chemicals in beauty products, Spunt has directed Everlane’s creative for six years.
“There are three pillars to great brand storytelling: photography, copy and great design,” Spunt says. “I think where I might be different from other creative leaders is that I prioritize all of those.”
This year, Spunt helped lead Everlane’s 100% Human Collection. The line was launched in January as a response to the election, and a portion of proceeds benefit organizations like the ACLU and Equality Now. The brand also recently launched a pride-themed collection to benefit the Human Rights Campaign. Next up: the company, once online-only, is exploring the possibility of opening more brick-and-mortar concept stores.
—Erin Shaw Street
Chief Content Officer, Refinery29
Once a fashion-focused city guide, Refinery29 has become the millennial woman’s go-to source for smart takes on everything from style and celebrity to news and culture, not to mention a formidable force in the video space.
Content chief Emmerich, a Vice and Scripps alumna who joined Refinery29 in 2015, has been instrumental to that success, building out the company’s video team, launching dozens of original series, and creating content for platforms like Snapchat Discover. Last year, she inked a partnership with Turner that includes the Shatterbox Anthology, a short film series helmed by female directors like Chloë Sevigny and Kristen Stewart, and Who Run the World?, a Morgan Spurlock-produced docu-series that will premiere later this year on TNT.
“My goal since joining Refinery29 two and half years ago has been to expand representation of women within the media,” Emmerich says. “I pride myself on taking risks in order to shine a light on radically inclusive and culturally relevant stories that are told in every way from social media to big screens.”
Vp of Branded Content and Global Creative, IBM
In the past year, artificial intelligence has come to feel more human than ever. That’s largely thanks to Ann Rubin, IBM’s vp of branded content and global creative, who had helped the super computer show off in fashion, music and art.
IBM Watson has collaborated with Grammy-winning producer Alex Da Kid on a song, debuted a dress with Marchesa at the Met Gala and collaborated on a Gaudi-inspired art installation with a New York architecture firm. (IBM has partnerships in the works with Disney, Facebook and Discovery.)
Along with these showy forms of intelligence, the company has opened several Watson APIs for marketers to tap into big data, and launched a campaign to explain that AI has more capabilities than just b-to-b. And with more than 1 billion people coming in contact with Watson in 2017, IBM hopes it will feel even more relatable soon.
“You never tell people ‘trust me,’” Rubin says. “That’s Advertising 101. You never say that. But if you can show Watson as approachable, humble and smart, then you gain people’s trust.”
Co-founder and Chief Creative Officer, Casper
While Casper is best known for disrupting the mattress industry, the savvy startup has also set the tone for the new niche of mail-order mattresses through its creative marketing.
Having now expanded to sell sheets, pillows, duvets and dog beds, Casper has sold more than 500,000 products in total and is growing fast.
Along with whimsical subway ad campaigns in New York, Casper is also creating what co-founder Luke Sherwin calls “nonsensical” activations in the form of hyper-targeted naps. At the SXSW conference in Austin, the company created a mobile hotel by placing mattresses inside of vehicles for people to try. It’s also partnered with Daybreaker—a global network of 7 a.m. dance parties—and recently had a pool party in New York featuring floatable Casper air mattresses.
The brand even has its own online magazine, Van Winkle, focused on—surprise—sleep. “We’re trying to move Casper from being a self-aware disruptor to a self-aware inventor, and I think you’ll see more of that in the next year,” Sherwin says.
Social Media Specialist, Wendy’s
It’s impossible to talk about brands and social media without talking about Wendy’s. That’s thanks to the fast-food chain’s team of community managers led by social media specialist Meredith Ulmer. That viral #NuggsForCarter tweet? Ulmer is responsible for strategy and execution on social and made sure the tweet—and everything that went with it—stayed organic and authentic to the brand.
There was no paid media behind the effort, but Ulmer (as well as the team at creative shop VML) helped it become the most shared tweet ever. That’s largely due to the work the the team has put into making the brand’s social voice resonate with consumers. The social media team’s work also defined Wendy’s first Super Bowl commercial of the century.
“The beautiful thing about the Wendy’s voice is that it feels so relatable,” Ulmer says. “It’s our ability to talk to the internet and our customers like a person, like anyone you’d want to talk to. We have that down-to-earth charm.”
Creative Director, Gimlet
From walking entrepreneurs through the steps involved in financing a business to analyzing a dating app profile, Rafsanjani helps names like eBay and Tinder create compelling branded podcasts as an alternative to the 30-second commercial.
Since joining Gimlet Creative—the advertising arm of the podcast company that makes hit shows including StartUp and Reply All— two years ago, Rafsanjani has grown Gimlet’s advertisement business from a one-woman show to a full-time team of seven.
Similar to Gimlet’s editorial skills, the key to a great sponsored podcast starts with solid storytelling instincts, she says.
“We’re trying to surprise listeners and entertain them and do it in a way where they want to spend 20, 30 minutes with the show that you’re listening to,” says Rafsanjani. “The process is super collaborative.”
Director of Visual Trends, Getty Images
Grossman is working hard to update how men and women are portrayed across a sizable swath of the Getty Images’ 200 million photo and video assets.
“Our reach is enormous,” Grossman says, “and that means we have a great responsibility to make pictures that break stereotypes, envision a more inclusive society and help move the needle closer to a world of equity.”
Thanks to Grossman<, who oversees Getty’s Lean In Collection, a partnership with Sheryl Sandberg’s LeanIn.Org, the company offers visuals designed to combat gender clichés. What’s out: ’50s-throwback shots of moms wearing aprons and rubber gloves as they cheerfully cook dinner or clean house. The same goes for images of macho men engaged in formulaic macho activities. Instead, diversity rules, with, for example, women of all types shown playing sports or competing in the business world, and multicultural men seen raising kids at home. Subscribers in 95 countries have downloaded 40,000 images since the collection launched three years ago.
Global Head of Production, Airbnb
Airbnb’s advertising work has been lauded in recent years for exploring what it means to be a modern travel brand, touching on themes like diversity and local culture. Behind the scenes is Holbrook, who honed her skills at Coca-Cola before joining Airbnb in 2014. She leads an in-house production team responsible for creating work like last year’s poignant “Accept” spot that went on to run as a Super Bowl commercial.
To promote its expansion into local experiences and the “Trips” feature, Holbrook’s team filmed and photographed hosts in 12 cities, creating more than 500 pieces of content in eight weeks.
“My goal is to create marketing content that inspires people to want to experience what they see,” says Holbrook. “You can watch a piece of content, but then actually live it in real life by booking an experience, visiting a place or staying in a home.”
Get to know the rest of Adweek’s Creative 100 for 2017:
• 15 Chief Creative Officers
• 18 Executive Creative Directors and Group Creative Directors
• 22 Creative Directors and Associate Creative Directors
• 14 Art Directors and Copywriters
• 10 Global Creative Leaders
• 12 Digital Innovators
• 10 Branded Content Masters
• 12 Artists and Authors
• 11 Celebrities and Influencers
• Cover Story: How Kumail Nanjiani Is Becoming an Inescapable Creative Force
Also check out all the honorees in alphabetical order.