14 Young Agency Creatives Whose Work Is Far Ahead of Its Time

The emerging talent behind stellar ads from 'Fearless Girl' to 'Evan'

McCann's Tali Gumbiner and Lizzie Wilson, makers of 'Fearless Girl'

Up-and-coming creative teams may not always hit for average, but they can sometimes slug home runs seemingly out of nowhere. And the 14 below have turned in some truly mind-blowing work over the past year.

From the “Fearless Girl” statue, to the viral Sandy Hook Promise ad, to Emerald Nuts “Yes Good” campaign, to Old Spice’s animatronic S.Q.U.I.D., these creatives brought fresh ideas to the business that broke through in a major way. Read below for more on their impressive exploits.

Note: Instead of one big list of U.S. creatives, this year we’ve divided it into smaller lists based on rank. We have 1) chief creative officers, 2) executive creative directors and group creative directors, 3) creative directors and associate creative directors and 4) art directors and copywriters (this list). We’ve also gone international with a separate list of 10 global creative chiefs.

 

Tali Gumbiner and Lizzie Wilson
Senior Copywriter and Senior Art Director,
McCann New York

Gumbiner and Wilson (pictured above) are the masterminds behind the year’s most culturally breakthrough piece of advertising—the “Fearless Girl” statue on Wall Street, created for State Street Global Advisors. A conceptual and physical marvel, it turned a financial brand into a paragon of corporate feminism, and its creators into overnight rock stars.

“From Girl Scouts to cops, Fearless Girl resonates deeply with women, and I’m extremely proud to have been a part of it,” says Wilson. Adds Gumbiner: “It’s probably the most beautiful thing I will ever be a part of.”

Gumbiner is committed to making work that adds value to the lives of others, “whether it’s entertainment value, emotional value or the simple value of briefly enjoying a moment,” she says. “I feel that whenever a creative puts something out into the world, they’re asking the world to invest time into that experience. And if I can’t give people anything in return for their time, the work feels pointless to me.”

Wilson sums up her approach this way: “Stay curious, and kind. And push to give your work depth. Shallow is easy.”

 

Martins Zelcs and Bryan Stokely
Senior Art Director and Senior Copywriter, BBDO New York

These Miami Ad School grads spent a year as a junior team at Droga5 before jumping to BBDO. Working with creative director Peter Alsante, they made one of the most celebrated viral ads of the past year, “Evan” for Sandy Hook Promise, in which a high school love story turns out to be anything but.

The pair, who’ve also worked on Twix and Foot Locker, picked up three gold Pencils at The One Show for “Evan.” They’re still reeling from how widely the work broke through.

“Viral videos happen naturally. It’s an organic process that’s not predictable,” says Zelcs. “In our case, I think the key to success was that the viewer got surprised while watching the video. It was that ‘WTF just happened?’ moment. We wanted the viewer to have this feeling of something unexpected happening, and it seems like it worked.”

Stokely is humbled by how the PSA moved so many people. “We received numerous emails, in and out of the ad world, from people thanking us for making the spot. We had never expected that kind of response, and it was amazing to see how people connected with it.”

Their creative philosophy? “I think creativity comes from curiosity and observation, so be curious and pay attention,” says Stokely. Adds Zelcs: “Unique ideas come from new experiences. Try out things you haven’t done, and you will have new stories to tell.”

 

Molly Wilkof and Zoe Kessler
Senior Copywriter and Senior Art Director, Barton F. Graf

These young ex-McCann creatives came up with one of the more delightfully offbeat campaigns of 2017—the “Yes Good” campaign for Emerald Nuts, which made inspired use of the Amazon reviews section, including one terse bit of praise that became the tagline.

“We were scouring Amazon reviews for insights on their products when we happened upon one that simply said, ‘Yes Good.’ It was perfect,” says Wilkof. Adds Kessler: “People are hungry for authenticity, and brands aren’t really delivering. We knew we wanted to make something that felt real and honest. ‘Yes Good’ let us have a conversation with our consumers rather than talking at them.”

Kessler’s creative advice is to find the tension in the brief. “If you can figure out why people should give a shit, you can make them give a shit,” she says. Wilkof’s creative philosophy is simple: “Find something true. Then find a way to laugh at it.”

 

Jessica Toye
Senior Art Director, JWT New York

A veteran of several Toronto agencies, Toye has been instrumental in JWT’s Black Lives Matter work, including the app that let black Americans mark themselves “unsafe.” She also helped design a whole new typeface for the News Literacy Project to combat fake news, flipping the letters on their sides and urging viewers to “see all the angles.”

“Not only are they a small organization, but the campaign cost nothing, and it was a great case that a conversation could be sparked through a great insight and smart design,” she says.

Toye wants her work to “make people feel something. Whether it’s sorrow, laughter, fear or joy, the goal of all my creative is to drive emotion. I strive to produce work that is bold and memorable for all clients, big or small, doing great work on any brief—no matter the agency, budget, timeline or any other circumstance.”

 

Stijn Jansen and Bram Ceuppens
Senior Art Director and Senior Copywriter, Heat

This pair cut their teeth in the boutique agencies of Brussels before arriving in San Francisco in 2015. They worked on Heat’s “burglar on demand” campaign for Netgear’s Arlo brand, and lately have been deeply embedded in esports culture, creating online show The Pitch for EA Sports’ FIFA 17 video game.

“It forced us to fully immerse ourselves in a specific culture and learn the language of its people, to make sure we ended up with a product that felt as authentic as it was entertaining,” says Ceuppens. Adds Jansen: “The whole process of creating and producing a show from scratch, but for this totally new type of audience, has been a very interesting and exciting process for us and the agency.”

Ceuppens and Jansen are galvanized by new experiences and tools, but only if they help forge a real connection to consumers outside the ad bubble. “It’s like Grandma Ceuppens always used to say: You can’t be a good listener with your head too far up your own ass … I mean echo chamber,” says Ceuppens.

Jansen also has a thing for robots. If you’re in Cannes, swing by the Young Lions zone to meet Heatbot, his interactive LED installation connected to a chatbot. “Even if it fails miserably, it’ll no doubt be a great learning experience for all of us,” Jansen says.

 

Kate Carter and Zack Roif
Senior Copywriter and Senior Art Director, R/GA

This renegade pair are all about work that doesn’t just say something but does something.

“I think a lot of times in our industry, we have a tendency to make work that brings awareness to issues and not utilities. I want to be a part of making work that acts on those issues,” says Carter. “Work that actually makes an impact. And I don’t just mean the do-good-and-save-the-world stuff. I mean everything.”

Their experiments with chatbots are a good example. Last year they built an election chatbot that answered voting questions like “How do I register?” or “What the heck is in-person absentee voting?” This year they celebrated Equal Pay Day by turning advertising icon Cindy Gallop into a chatbot and having her help women find accurate salary information and ask for the raise they deserve.

“A lot of good work is made saying ‘This is a problem’ or ‘This is an unfortunate modern reality’ but doesn’t provide people with an actionable solve,” says Roif. “We pushed beyond simply showing why the gender wage gap is a harsh reality, and created a tool that gives women the confidence and information they need to ask for the money they deserve.”

Carter and Roif, who also whipped up (and sold out) their own “Alternative Facts” card game less than a week after the infamous phrase was uttered, also want to do advertising that’s purposeful and relevant.

“I want to create work that is informed by the way people already behave and conversations already happening in popular culture today,” says Roif. “We are well past the point where we can push arbitrary, one-way campaigns out into the world. Brands need to be working from a point of human insight and honesty. Creativity is most effective when it’s moving at the speed of culture.”

“As a woman in advertising, it’s incredibly important to understand your purpose and hold yourself to it,” says Carter. “I think my purpose is to do work that scares my dad and makes my mom really proud. My poor dad.”

 

Chen Liang and Ryan Niland
Art Director and Copywriter, Wieden + Kennedy

This young pair have inherited the mantle of W+K’s storied Old Spice account, and honored it with requisite weirdness.

They worked on the Mother’s Day mom-bot M.A.R.I.A.N.N.E. 7000 (short for Motherly Automatic Robotical Internet Assurance Nonstop Nurturing Engine), who dispensed mompliments to followers. They’ve also done broadcast spots, from the NFL effort “The Road” to “These Drying Times,” parodying frontier life.

But their wildest work to date was the online game S.Q.U.I.D. (Shared Quests Uniting Individual Dudes), in which internet users controlled a giant real-life adolescent robotic sea beast on Twitch over three days of livestreaming.

“It was a culmination of 10 weeks of writing, designing and planning things that we ended up throwing out the window on day one,” the pair say. “It was hectic, strange and slimy, but for some reason the audience on Twitch really responded to that. … It felt like a giant six-hour improv show acted out by a group of crazed and anxious creatives in a control room, an animatronic tentacled robot, and tens of thousands of people on the Internet.”

Their creative philosophy, they say, is simple: “Keep trying to sell work that takes us to the beach or at least someplace warm. It hasn’t happened yet, and our CDs are getting pretty annoyed we keep pitching it, but that’s not going to stop us.”

 

Claudia Cukrov
Senior Creative Strategist, SS+K

Cukrov has worked to engage investor audiences with E*Trade, donors for Smile Train, D.C. elites with Delta, and helped launch retailer Jet.com. But she really hit her stride during the last election, with all the tension that came with it.

“I think a lot about what gets people fired up,” she says. “You see it every day in the comments section of articles, or even the John Oliver episode where he preaches about privacy rights by bringing it back to the NSA ‘spying on your dick pics.’ When it comes to issue-driven work, people only begin to care about a cause when it’s provocative and personal. I like to call it ‘trolling for justice.'”

Cukrov worked with Fusion on election stunts, as well as the #CallingAllVoices and #AsAmericanAs campaigns. She also rallied young women to the vote for Emily’s List, and engaged the next generation of activists for Planned Parenthood with #IDEFY.

She is proudest of a project she did with Dexter (Betaworks’ bot-building platform) called BFF Trump, a chatbot that let users have a one-on-one conversation with then presidential candidate Donald Trump—in his own words. It engaged 35,000 users with no paid support.

“The entire experience was designed to make you fume, and when users reacted with their most creative insults, BFF Trump was ready, driving them to turn out Nov. 8 and vote,” Cukrov says. “When it comes to politics, most agencies sit on the sidelines. I’m glad we had the balls to use our talent for something that really matters.”

 

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.

This story first appeared in the June 12, 2017, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.