15 Chief Creative Officers Who Are Inspiring the Advertising of Tomorrow

Cutting-edge work from some of the industry's top veterans

Renato Fernandez of TBWA\Chiat\Day took storytelling to the next level on Snapchat for Gatorade.

World-class creatives often get further and further from the work as their career progresses. But the 15 below—all holding the title of chief creative officer, or comparable rank—remain in the trenches, close to the cutting-edge work their companies are producing.

Read more below about the galvanizing creative chiefs at a variety of U.S. agencies, from major offices of big networks to smaller boutiques.

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 (this list), 2) executive creative directors and group creative directors, 3) creative directors and associate creative directors and 4) art directors and copywriters. We’ve also gone international with a separate list of 10 global creative chiefs.

 

Renato Fernandez
Chief Creative Officer, TBWA\Chiat\Day Los Angeles

This former AlmapBBDO art director (pictured above) joined TBWA in 2011 and rose to L.A. CCO this year. For Gatorade, he helped craft memorable retirement films for Derek Jeter (“Made in New York”), Abby Wombach (“Forget Me”) and Peyton Manning (“Dear Peyton”) but took things to the next level in 2016 with Serena Williams’ Match Point—the first in-app Snapchat video game.

“It is a disruptive idea that transformed Snapchat into a gaming platform … giving the audience a taste of what she’s worked for in her career,” Fernandez says. “We proved Snapchat can be a powerful storytelling platform. All it needs is the right idea.”

Three mottos guide his advertising work: “Good is the enemy of great” (a quote courtesy of TBWA\Hunt\Lascaris co-founder John Hunt), “Corner clients with good ideas” and “Do what hasn’t been done.”

“Most of the time, creatives tend to compromise when clients don’t want to buy their ideas. I think it should be the other way around,” he says. “When they don’t like your idea, come back with one that’s even better.” On the topic of trying new things, he adds: “If you don’t know how to execute the idea, it is a good sign you are going in the right direction. The fear of failing will keep you on your toes.”

 

Jeff Stamp
Deputy Chief Creative Officer, Grey New York

Recently ascending to deputy CCO, Stamp has run the largest creative group in Grey’s New York office as global executive creative director on Procter & Gamble. Along the way, he’s had plenty of hits, including Gillette’s “Perfect Isn’t Pretty” Olympic spot (40 million-plus view) and “Go Ask Dad” campaign. He also helped a little NFL project called “Super Bowl Babies” become a huge hit.

But it’s an edgier campaign he’s most fond of—Gillette’s 2015 music video “Shave Forth,” with a track by Dr. Lektroluv and DJs From Mars, aimed at electronic dance music fans who are “body-shaving freaks.” “I’m not out popping Molly every weekend, but the track is amazing,” Stamp says. The work “took a business issue head on, was strategic, and then the guys just pushed the shit out of it. Clients hated it until it sold an ass ton of razors. They still may hate it, but they don’t say it as much anymore.”

Stamp’s broader philosophy is to “go harder, but care less.” In other words, be passionate about the work but also detach emotionally.

“It’s liberating when we’re OK with the possibility of losing a pitch or a meeting,” he says. “But that only works if we know we went at it as hard as we possibly could. Left it all out there. If we’re willing to work harder than the next guy, it shows in better work, and clients feel it. But desperation is a kind of a lame look, and clients can feel that, too. It can never be the most important thing we have going on in the world; otherwise everyone plays tight, is more risk adverse, and it’s less fun overall. It also just helps us all remain sane. Sane is good.”

 

Suzanna Bierwirth
Chief Creative Officer, The Mars Agency

Photographer. Interior designer. Design magazine publisher. Founder of a modern paper-goods company (Binth). The German-born Bierwirth has a boundless creative spirit, which she is now channeling into The Mars Agency, the shopper marketing firm outside Detroit, after a long tenure at FCB Chicago.

“I’m not here to help build a creative department. I’m here to help design a more holistically creative business,” she says. “To have our scale, strategic acumen and retailer intelligence, all without being beholden to a holding company… this agency is a creative’s dream.”

Bierwirth sees retail/brand activation marketing, so often overlooked as a creative field, as poised for a renaissance. It’s “a wide-open space,” she says. “Technology and targeting have unlocked creative opportunities traditionally reserved for brand advertising. The lines are completely blurred. My job is to bring on more exceptional talent, then curate the right teams and set them loose to create.”

 

Drew Ungvarsky
CEO and Executive Creative Director, Grow

A computer science major, Ungvarsky started Grow in the spare bedroom of his Virginia townhouse in 2001, and has since grown it into a 40-person digital agency. Most notable are his collaborations with Google’s Art, Copy & Code team, which has produced such celebrated work as Burberry Kisses (Grand Clio Image Award winner in digital) and EA Sports’ Madden GIFerator (winner of six Cannes Lions).

Most recently, Grow worked with Art, Copy & Code on “Window Wonderland” for Google Shopping, giving people a tour of New York’s magical holiday windows from their own homes; and on Google Shopping Insights, which began as a data visualization brief but evolved into a platform for data-driven stories and insights.

He’s also giving back to Norfolk, Va., by leading the city’s Vibrant Spaces initiative, which brings multiple retail experiences under one roof—shopping, service, food, events, entertainment, lounging and working spaces.

“As a developer turned creative leader, I’m a firm believer that great ideas can come from anywhere … and the best ones come from collaboration,” he says. “We’re just as likely to unlock a big idea by exploring a strategic or creative insight as we are experimenting with a new technology and thinking about user behaviors.”

 

Ari Weiss
Chief Creative Officer, North America, DDB

After five years at BBH, this onetime Cliff Freeman copywriter took on a daunting task at Omnicom—leading the first new work from its McDonald’s-dedicated agency, We Are Unlimited. Even his new office at DDB was intimidating.

“It was Bill Bernbach’s original office. Complete with a sun-bleached oil painting of the man himself,” Weiss says. “I wanted to turn and run the other way. Instead, I threw up just a little in my mouth, swallowed it, and sat down at my new desk under the judging eyes of the originator of modern creativity.”

That first McDonald’s work was daring in the spirit of Bernbach—a soft-drink promotion that didn’t mention McDonald’s at all, but rather harnessed the power of search by urging viewers to Google “that place where Coke tastes so good.”

“I don’t think they were expecting to see the world’s first unbranded campaign that day, and I think that’s exactly why they bought it,” says Weiss.

He also began looking at the Bernbach painting in a new way. “He wasn’t there to judge me. He was there to give me confidence,” he says. “It’s in creativity’s unexpected nature that we can find solutions to business problems we may have previously thought couldn’t be solved. For that, I thank Bill Bernbach’s oil painting, and the incredibly brave McDonald’s clients.”

 

Kerry Keenan
Co-Founder, Never The Less

The onetime chief creative officer of Deutsch New York has found a powerful outlet for her creativity lately, co-founding Never The Less, a political activist collective of almost 100 advertising women working to market the resistance to the new U.S. administration.

“We have the highly valued skill of being able to communicate with people who are not in our bubble,” she says. “I’ve been doing it for 20 years working on brands like JCPenney, McDonald’s, Crest, Jagermeister … effectively talking to people who are not mirror images of myself. So, while Never The Less takes on issues that are important to the collective—women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, criminal justice reform, immigration, climate change—we are committed to doing so in a way that starts conversations instead of shutting them down.”

She says it’s been “an amazing experience to have so many powerful and dedicated women in one room working together, from copywriters to global CCOs. Now if I can just stay off Twitter.”

Keenan’s creative philosophy is more of a list of learnings that’s always evolving.

“Be a good person,” she says. “Be a good mentor. Be kind. Be generous with your time. Be generous with credit. Do good work, or at least beautiful work, or at least innovative work, or at least make your agency a lot of money with your work so your agency has the resources to be entrepreneurial. Entertain people and they will love you. The best stories are true. Be brave. Be flexible, as the world is constantly changing and so is our industry. Craft. Craft. Craft. A project never ends, you just run out of time. Use your talent for good. As often as you can. Which kind of comes back to be a good person.”

 

Mark Ray
Chief Creative Officer, North

This ex-Arnold executive creative director left the corporate agency world in 2006 to lead the rebranding and growth of indie agency North in Portland, Ore., a city whose unique creativity Ray calls “restless and musical at its core.”

Ray involves clients closely in the creative process, holding group concepting sessions that are like “writers’ room” throwdowns. This collaborative approach has led to campaigns like Columbia Sportswear’s “Directors of Toughness,” which is one of Ray’s favorites. He’s also very fond of yerba-mate beverage company Guayaki’s “Come To Life” campaign, and the way it communicates with the brand’s entire audience through music.

“People aren’t consumers. They’re human beings who are generally annoyed by marketing. Never, ever forget this,” he says. His other advice is to “mind the beautiful details, but don’t lose the big picture—and vice versa,” and “appeal to the better angels of our nature. Pandering sucks.” Finally, he says, “have fun” and “be kind.”

 

MT Carney
Founder and Creative Lead, Untitled Worldwide

An account planner by trade, the Scottish-born Carney was a co-founder of Naked Communications in New York and president of marketing for Disney before opening Untitled Worldwide in 2012.

She helped launch Game of War, beginning with the Kate Upton spot on the Super Bowl, and has guided the marketing of startup brands like Oscar Health and Glossier. Her most high-profile work of late has been for Gap, including the global #DoYou and #IamGAP campaigns which culminated in fall, holiday, spring and summer work.

“I’m intensely proud of our summer 2017 work,” Carney says. “We traveled across the United States to meet real Americans, the people of all backgrounds, ethnicities and beliefs that make up this magical country that we call home. Rodeo riders, refugees, moms and soccer players—just people, just like us. Our goal was to capture the true face of America at this complicated moment in time.”

Shot in multiple cities by Valerio Spada, the project “was a true marriage of art and strategy,” Carney adds. “Stunning images and film connect each of the subjects with the simple line, ‘I am Gap.’ Because whomever, whatever, wherever we are, the truth is that we are, deep down, all the same.”

Asked for her creative philosophy, she replies simply: “Make it beautiful and make it work.”

 

Noel Cottrell
Chief Creative Officer, Fitzgerald & Co.

Cottrell co-founded two agencies in his native South Africa before coming to the U.S. in 2008 to steer the E*Trade talking baby and Febreze “Breathe Happy” campaigns at Grey New York. He moved to Fitzco in 2011, growing its size (revenue and headcount are up 25 percent in the past year alone) and creative stature in the years since.

Fitzco has done lots of Coca-Cola work, including its summer 2017 campaign, and recently helped develop a TV series, Ultimate Staycation, for flooring client Pergo. But its most inspired work lately might be the “Buy Back the Block” campaign for Checkers & Rally’s, featuring a mini documentary about rap mogul Rick Ross buying the Checkers restaurant he went to as a kid. Ross also recorded a hit song about it with Gucci Mane and 2 Chainz.

“A brick-and-mortar franchise investment, a long-form content piece with partner UPROXX, a hit Rick Ross song and a ton of press helped shine a light on successful business people investing back in the underprivileged communities they came from,” says Cottrell. The campaign picked up a One Show Pencil in the Cultural Driver category for “work that is the pace car for the future of culture.”

 

Scott Carlson
Chief Creative Officer, Van’s General Store

This former Mother creative director opened Van’s General Store with his friend and co-conspirator, actor Liev Schreiber, in 2012. The New York City boutique is known for its range of work. In the past year alone, it’s made films, published an art book, launched a juice and food restaurant and used the storefront of its Lower East Side office as a gallery space.

Carlson is particularly proud of a recent Cadillac spot celebrating the boxer Chuck Wepner. “It was a really humbling and collaborative endeavor that allowed us to meet people from all walks of life and produce something that had meaning and staying power,” he says.

The agency also got creative for sleepwear brand Sleepy Jones. “We got to really embrace its ethos, relax and have fun,” says Carlson. “We started with developing narratives for images to be used in-store, and it just started rolling from there. We were having so much fun that by the time we were done, we had also created and published a book, created 15-foot teddy bears made out of pajamas and launched a gallery show and pop-up.”

His creative approach is as multifaceted as his work.

“If I’m not losing sleep because I am excited about a project, then it’s not right,” Carlson says. “To get there, you have to observe everything and remain curious and fascinated. Don’t judge and don’t hate; just go for it, have courage and really really think about ideas from every angle. I ask myself, how would it smell? What does an image sound like? Can you feel it around you? Does it emote? Ultimately, your creative needs to make you smile or make you laugh.”

 

Rob Schapiro
Chief Creative Officer, Brunner

Schapiro and his Pittsburgh agency stormed this year’s Super Bowl with the most talked-about ad on the game: “The Journey,” an immigrant story created for a little-known Pennsylvania building material supplier, 84 Lumber.

The spot “took an unknown brand and inserted it into a very meaningful global conversation,” Schapiro says. “One way or another, it moved people. It could not have happened without a client who had the courage and trust to greenlight it, and the budget to pull it off.”

Other recent highlights at Brunner include recreating and posting highlights from college football’s championship game in real time using client Duck Tape, and having a 10-year-old girl “adult-nap” grownups and get them to ride bikes again for Huffy.

“Now more than ever, my approach to work is still driven by some pretty simple questions,” Schapiro says. “What else could we do? How else could we do it? And most importantly, will it truly matter to people?”

 

Hunter Hindman and Rick Condos
Co-Founders and Co-Chief Creative Officers, Argonaut

The onetime creative directors on Coca-Cola “Happiness Factory” at Wieden + Kennedy Amsterdam, Hindman and Condos later shepherded HP and Doritos (including “Crash the Super Bowl”) at Goodby Silverstein & Partners before opening Argonaut, a Project Worldwide agency, in 2013.

Lately they’ve produced varied and distinctive work for clients like Cricket Wireless, Dodge, Titanfall 2 (an Electronic Arts video game), Credit Karma and Fitbit, for which they won an Effie.

Hindman’s favorite recent work is “Become One,” the Titanfall 2 launch film. “Getting to create all-new, unique film assets for a video game launch is rare. Getting to rewrite the lyrics to one of your favorite songs [Cher’s “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)”] is even more rare,” he says. Condos points to their Dodge spot “Warning,” which spoofed pharma side effects and “still makes me laugh every time I watch it.”

How do they get inspired? “Ideas come from everywhere. They’re all around us. The key is to be open to seeing them,” says Condos. “That and taking longer showers,” Hindman adds. “Trust me. It works.”

 

Con Williamson
Chief Creative Officer, EP+Co

It’s been more than three years since Williamson left the CCO job at Saatchi & Saatchi New York to join Greenville, S.C.-based EP+Co (formerly Erwin Penland). This past October, EP+Co (one of Adweek’s Agencies 3.0 shops for 2017) launched one of Williamson’s favorite campaigns yet, “The Perfect Journey” for luggage maker Tumi, featuring 19 short films about eclectic global travelers who took the brand’s 19 Degree bag with them.

For Williamson, a former JWT and Euro RSCG exec whose creative motto is “Unthink everything,” the Tumi series crystallized EP+Co’s commitment to innovative approaches.

“It made us better, and it was so much fun,” he says. “Along with our client, we unthunk the whole process—from the actual production model, to the amazing content and the final event at Tribeca Film Festival. The entire team just blew me away.”

 

Ari Halper
Chief Creative Officer, FCB New York

After 13 years at Grey, Halper joined FCB New York in early 2016. Recent work includes several campaigns for social good targeting young people—the “Little Lungs” ads for the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products; and “Student Body Armor” for Cocks Not Glocks, a gag campaign that imagined bulletproof college apparel that could be useful in states that let students carry guns.

Halper was involved in famous gun-control campaigns at Grey (including “Ed” and “The Gun Store”) and is proud of both “Student Body Armor” and the FDA work. “It’s not every day that you get to do work that may actually save a kid’s life,” he says. “I also love that both platforms take an inherently heavy topic and make it digestible to kids by disarming them with entertainment.”

At FCB, he has embraced the agency philosophy of “Never Finished” ideas—of avoiding one-hit wonders and instead striving to create “enduring, legacy-building platforms for our clients that can last years, if not decades.”

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.