18 Top Creative Leaders Whose Ads Are Breaking Through Into Culture

Meet some of the U.S.'s top ECDs and GCDs

Droga5's Casey Rand and Karen Short pulled off a massive media coup with the Clinton Foundation's "Not There" campaign.
Photo: Paul McGeiver

Lane Bryant’s #ImNoAngel campaign. Werner Herzog’s internet documentary Lo and Behold. The unsmuttifying of Carl’s Jr. The tireless pursuits of IBM’s Watson.

The executive creative directors and group creative directors—and creatives of comparable rank—on the list below helped make all the work above, which has gone well beyond the confines of the ad world and permeated pop culture. Read below about the creators of advertising that moves the needle for clients, and is also embraced on a mass scale.

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 (this list), 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.

 

Casey Rand and Karen Short
Group Creative Directors, Droga5

After meeting a decade ago at VCU Adcenter, Rand and Short (pictured above) went their separate ways (to BBDO and Goodby Silverstein) before reuniting in 2013 at Droga5. Since then, they’ve worked together on Diet Coke, Chobani, the YMCA, the National Women’s Law Center, Under Armour and Chase—mostly recently launching Chase Sapphire’s new brand platform with short films starring James Corden.

Both cite the Clinton Foundation’s “Not There” campaign, for International Women’s Day in 2015, as a career highlight, when they got more than 20 brands, including Condé Nast, to remove women from media imagery—from billboards to Top 40 songs to magazine covers—to communicate that gender equality has not yet been achieved.

“It was a massive effort behind a simple thought in a salient moment,” says Short. Adds Rand: “It changed the scope of what I believed was possible to achieve in advertising. It proved to me that advertising could create culture and effect change.”

Rand likes work that makes her nervous. “Great ideas contain tension, be it cultural, emotional, executional or otherwise,” she says.

Short offers a football analogy: “Barry Sanders was one of the few NFL players who never danced in the end zone. He made a touchdown, and then had the confidence to let it lay. Good work does this. Good work is solid enough in its simplicity and delivery that it doesn’t need extra showiness or loudness. Also, whenever possible, I try to make work that makes a positive difference in the world.”

 

Jason Norcross
Executive Creative Director, 72andSunny

Norcross spearheaded the most sweeping brand about-face of 2017—the modernizing of Carl’s Jr. after years of famously smutty advertising. After blowing up the brand’s old image with new logos, packaging, employee uniforms and ads (including a spot starring the fictional Carl Hardee Sr.), 72andSunny blew up its history quite literally—with an explosive interactive event in the desert.

The campaign “was an opportunity to reimagine a brand that came to be defined in a very one-dimensional and, for many people, unflattering way,” Norcross says. “Confronting those perceptions as a means to introduce a new idea and a renewed focus on why they do what they do was exciting.”

Norcross—who has also been integral to the “Climb On” campaign for Coors Light and “You’re Better Than This” for Sonos—sums up his creative philosophy bluntly: “Constantly try to answer the question, ‘Why will anybody give a shit about what we’re doing?'”

 

Luciana Cani
Executive Creative Director, Lapiz

The Brazil native and former Leo Burnett Lisbon ECD earned headlines this year for Lapiz’s “Tequila Cloud” for Mexico Tourism—a real cloud that rained tequila to playfully urge people in rainy Berlin to vacation in Mexico.

It’s the latest in what Cani has been calling her “experimental projects” since her time in Europe. “We had no idea how we would build the cloud,” she says. “We failed so many times before achieving the final result, but that’s exactly what makes these kinds of ideas challenging and rewarding in the end.”

Cani is a big believer that happy people produce better work. “Happy people are more committed to and work better in teams,” she says. “Usually, advertising maintains a competitive environment, and it’s not easy to break this behavior.” By encouraging collaboration and spreading out opportunities among her creatives, she is “building an environment that I, as a creative, would like to work in.”

She has one other way of making her staffers happy, too. Every Monday morning, Cani gives a bouquet of flowers to a different person on her team to show her appreciation.

 

Dave Arnold
Executive Creative Director, Pereira & O’Dell

Arnold led the Netscout project that eventually became the Werner Herzog documentary Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World, about the history and future of the internet. The film, which snagged two gold Pencils at The One Show and is a contender at Cannes, is an ambitious meeting of agency, brand, artist and audience—a branded piece of content that’s artistically driven.

More recently, Arnold has moved on from Herzog’s genius to Einstein’s, helping to craft a series of 10 short films about the scientist’s passions—promoting the National Geographic Channel show Genius, but departing from the show entirely.

“Everyone knew how rare this brief was, and it was exciting to explore the intersection of music and science, knowing how important both were to Einstein,” Arnold says. “I guess I’m most proud to see how advertising creatives are being recognized more in the broader entertainment world.”

Arnold, who also works on brands including Realtor.com, Memorial Sloane Kettering and Timberland, says his creative philosophy is simple: “Encourage friction. It helps reveal the best ideas.”

 

Lindsey Allison
Head of Strategy, Deutsch

A creative in a strategist’s body, the onetime CP+B rising star’s inspired account planning at Deutsch set the table for any number of nontraditional Taco Bell ideas—like launching the first QSR e-commerce website, ta.co; opening up the Irvine test kitchen to Open Table reservations; orchestrating the first blind pre-order, for the Quesalupa; giving the cheapest menu items the most sophisticated ads with “Feast for $1”; and getting real about breakfast with the “When your morning is hell, just go to Taco Bell” jingles.

“To me, a good brief is a first round of creative,” Allison says. “I think strategy has only one job: to find ideas that make the meat fall off the bone for creative teams. Because without brilliant execution, strategy is just a piece of paper.”

Her approach to strategy is simple. “Find the right problem to solve—a problem that is real and matters to people—don’t invent one that doesn’t exist,” she says. “Solve it with a surprising truth—something that feels familiar, yet you are hearing it for the first time. … It’s psychology. Their minds have to stop and make sense of it. That’s what I strive for. Ideas that people have to pause and think about.”

 

Hans Dorsinville
Group Creative Director, Laird+Partners

Dorsinville has been with the fashion-focused Laird+Partners since it opened in 2002. For the past three years, he’s pioneered messages of body positivity in Lane Bryant’s breakthrough campaigns, from #ImNoAngel to #ThisBodyIsMadeToShine, igniting a movement not only to accept plus-size women, but to celebrate them.

“Being the father of a 16-month-old girl, and thinking about how she will perceive herself, has greatly affected my desire to put messages of positivity for women out into the world,” he says. “Every iteration of this campaign has been a build on a previous theme, all centered around one platform of body positivity—a story that is important to tell to empower women.”

Dorsinville sees creativity as “a unique vision that is a translation of an observation. Something mundane can be transformed into something noteworthy if it’s handled with creativity. Watch, listen and then serve it up in a new way. There is so much inspiration out there if you are open to it. Really listening to the consumer can bring forth many ideas, and listening to your gut can validate them.”

 

Victoria Azarian and Jeff Curry
Executive Creative Directors, Ogilvy New York

These Ogilvy ECDs are the keepers of IBM’s Watson, partnering man with machine to create new kinds of work, from fashion to sculpture to music. Curry is focused on building the Watson brand, while Azarian leads key initiatives that deploy his A.I. in creative ways.

“Watson is a computing platform,” says Curry. “We created his character … how he looks, how he talks, how he interacts with people. He’s hung out with some of my favorite humans: Serena Williams, Stephen King, Ridley Scott. But the most fun shoot of my career was our ‘Support Group’ spot for the Oscars. Watson played the straight man to Carrie Fisher’s comedic timing and Joe Pytka’s evil robots.”

Azarian is proudest of two Watson projects: “The Cognitive Dress” and “The First Thinking Sculpture created with Gaudí and Watson.” The former, a partnership with Marchesa fashion house, created the first dress that responds to how people who view it (with comments via tweets). It debuted at the Met Gala, where the theme was Manus x Machina.

“The dress was the talk of the gala,” says Azarian. “IBM not only outperformed fashion giants like Prada and Dolce & Gabbana, it landed on numerous best-dressed lists, including Harper’s Bazaar and Elle. And now it is on permanent display in the Henry Ford Museum of innovation. So that’s pretty cool.”

For the Gaudí project, at Mobile World Congress, Azarian and her team fed everything they could find about Barcelona architect Antoni Gaudí—images, articles, even song lyrics—into Watson and had him make a Gaudí-inspired kinetic sculpture. “When the art historian for the Gaudí Foundation, Professor Daniel Giralt-Miracle, said it was ‘a natural extension of Gaudi’s thinking,’ I couldn’t have been more proud,” Azarian says.

Curry is a humanist—at least, that’s what his longtime mentor, the late Chris Wall, told him. “I’ll go with that,” Curry says. “I try to consider the person I’m making work for. So many people get hung up on B2B or B2C. Why not just talk like a human being? We don’t make art, we make conversation. Respect the intelligence and attention span of your audience.”

For her part, Azarian believes in creative energy. “Teams that work best together tap into each person’s unique strength, build on it and create something really special together,” she says. “I also try to look at each project with a sense of playfulness and laughter. Because if you’re not having fun, why bother? I can’t deal with sad dogs.”

 

Ricky Vior
Executive Creative Director, The Community

Vior was one of The Community’s first creatives, joining in 2002 as an art director. He now helps drive the creative vision for clients like Converse, Corona and Verizon, and is a fine artist in his own right who regularly shows in Miami and Buenos Aires.

Vior drew on his artist roots for Converse’s #LoQueSoy (“Who I Am”), which highlighted artists who lead double lives, working boring day jobs to support the pursuit of their dreams.

“We found bands that despite of having five followers or views on social media, they kept producing, posting and creating. These bands’ search was not about viewers or likes, it was about searching for what matters to them,” says Vior. “Understanding why people are willing to do something is, in a way, understanding yourself. I was inspired by the stories that were shared, and it brought me back to the early days in my career when I believed anything could be done.”

“Unsuccessful” artists, writers and directors are an inspiration for Vior generally. “These people had a vision, but it was simply not their time, or they did not finish their vision, or the world wasn’t ready for them,” he says. “I like the idea that nobody was paying the proper attention to them, and now I can do so.”

Vior believes in fostering creativity through new experiences. “I try to keep my mind and my teams’ minds around me fresh,” he says. “That comes from making simple changes like switching up my environment or pushing myself to try unknown, new things.”

 

Laurel Boyd
Director of Media Content + Innovation, Mediahub/MullenLowe Group

Boyd is a master of using existing media platforms in delightfully new ways. In particular, her work for Netflix has defined next-level creativity in media.

For Black Mirror, she and her team found an on-brand way to bypass digital ad blockers, and ran messages that read, “Hello, ad blocker user. You cannot see the ad. But the ad can see you. What’s on the other side of your black mirror?” For Narcos, they filled airport bins with images of the items Pablo Escobar packed each time he fled to a new location.

But Boyd’s favorite work lately has been for two other shows: Grace and Frankie, and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. For Grace and Frankie, she and her team took a fictional product from the show, Frankie Bergstein’s All Natural Yam Lube, and got Gwyneth Paltrow to promote it in the first-ever sex issue of her GOOP newsletter. For Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, they took over the YouTube masthead and ran old UGC content (like Double Rainbow, Pizza Rat and Girl Burning Hair) that Kimmy would have missed while in the cult bunker and overlayed her reactions as if she were watching them for the first time.

How does she dream up her great ideas? “Keep a mental collection of stuff you think stands out—a cool piece of technology, interesting content and personal experiences,” she says. “Then surround yourself with really smart and talented people to come up with unique ways to connect the dots.”

 

Mark Sarosi
Creative and design director, Anomaly

This six-year Anomaly veteran has worked on his share of celebrated ad campaigns, from Budweiser’s Super Bowl puppy trilogy, to Johnnie Walker’s “Gentleman’s Wager” films with Jude Law, to the “Wake Up the Silent Home” work for Sonos. But his crowning achievement might not be an advertisement at all—but a business all its own.

Sarosi drove the design strategy, from product to visual identity to communications, for the Anomaly-owned cannabis brand Hmbldt, whose vape pen was honored as one of Time magazine’s top 25 inventions of 2016. Design was central to the project, as the simplicity and clarity of the brand and product were critical to communicate safety, efficacy and quality—in a category still shadowed by stigma and negativity.

“I have no children—yet—but I consider that brand, that product, to be my child,” Sarosi says of Hmbldt, which shows Anomaly at its most innovative and entrepreneurial. “To have been part of the creation of something with such a massive impact, in such a short amount of time, a product that is helping to save lives, has been such an incredible experience.”

Of his creative philosophy, Sarosi adds: “A wise man once told me: Play for the name on the front of the jersey, not the name on the back. Stay humble. Stay hungry.”

 

Katy Hornaday
Executive Creative Director, Barkley

“The best creative is the stuff that punches you in the gut,” says Hornaday. “It makes you want to run out of the room and tell someone about it. And it’s so simple, you can tell someone about it. But so provocative, you can’t stop thinking about it.”

The former Mullen and CP+B writer has been at Barkley since 2012, and has led its creative department since March. Recent notable work includes relaunching the TAKE5 candy bar with experiential and social marketing, and gamefying Periscope for restaurant client Wingstop by auctioning off prizes in exchange for heart-taps instead of cash.

“Periscope said it was impossible to get the heart count in real time,” Hornaday says. “We developed a way to hack into the data stream between the user and Periscope. It worked like a dream and proved ‘impossible’ was possible after all.”

She adds: “At the end of the day, the best work is the stuff that gives consumers a story, a fact or piece of culture to share with a friend, family or their social communities.”

 

Monserrat Valera and Jorge Murillo
Creative Director and Executive Creative Director, Alma

Hailing from Mexico and Ecuador, respectively, Valera and Murillo have helped reduce the teen smoking rate in Florida to an all-time low and brought a little lovin’ back to McDonald’s Hispanic sales. The work for Tobacco Free Florida (TFF) includes striking out-of-home work, as well as very clever radio spots (including multiple Cannes Lion winners “Tobacco Downs” and “Auctioneer”).

“We love telling stories. Especially when it’s for a brand that’s trying to make a difference,” says Murillo. “Finding new and innovative ways to change people’s behavior is a challenge, but when you have a great client that trusts you, it makes all the craziness worth it.”

Valera, who is one of 12 women globally in the DDB network tapped for the next generation of creative leadership as part of The Phyllis Project, says she loves good design as much as a good story. “We try to make them think without being preachy,” she says of the TFF work. “That’s why we try to create pieces that not only do the job, and do it well, but are simple, smart and beautiful.”

 

Joel Kaplan
Group Creative Director, Muh-tay-zik Hof-fer

Kaplan (with help from his creative partner Tony Zimney) led the agency’s delightful work for Netflix, including the livestreamed guinea pig who decided for students whether to study or watch Netflix, and the “Netflix Spoil Me” button, which let users see the key spoiler scene of a random movie or show (it was pressed 9 million times in its first week).

He’s particularly fond of his work for the Method cleaning brand, which gleefully celebrated epic messes in slo-mo, like a grandmother using a leaf blower on her birthday cake. “We wanted to completely go against the playbook that dominates big cleaning brands and make the most beautiful, artful work we could,” says Kaplan. “That meant designing a world where messes were how people celebrate life, not accidents that get in the way.”

Kaplan wants his teams to look at every assignment as if it were coming from a challenger brand with something to prove.

“It forces us to find tensions the leaders are ignoring and go at them full force,” he says. “That means exploring opportunities others overlook, talking with audiences that others discount, and embracing ideas that fall outside our comfort zone. In the end, thinking like a challenger positions us to discover something new and exciting simply because we can’t afford to look, sound or be normal.”

 

Becca Morton
Executive Creative Director, Pitch

A onetime GCD on Visa at TBWA\Chiat\Day, Morton was freelancing for Pitch last year when she led a rebranding project to build a consistent identity and story for Westfield Century City. That went so well—ultimately transforming the concept of the mall into a multi-faceted destination spanning the physical and digital space—that Westfield signed with Pitch around Christmas. Pitch then quickly hired Morton full time.

“It’s a great brand that’s totally reinventing what traditional ‘malls’ used to be,” Morton says of Westfield. “And I’ve been dying my whole career to do a fun, fashion campaign—like my whole career. To see it come to life is still totally surreal.”

Morton is also proud of a campaign she helped create about five years ago called NKLA, or No Kill Los Angeles. It’s a Best Friends Animal Society initiative to turn L.A. into a no-kill city within five years—which they achieved this year. “The fact that we’ve helped prevent tens of thousands of animals from being euthanized is pretty mind-blowing,” she says.

Morton’s approach to advertising is simple. “Just do good work, and be a good person,” she says. “It’s an easy industry to not be very nice in, and we’ve all met a million people who aren’t, so I try and keep that in mind. Also, ‘What would Lee Clow do?'”

 

Simrit Brar
Design Director, Phenomenon

A onetime Bollywood movie-poster designer in India, Brar has been with Phenomenon for five years, and design director for three. She helped the agency on its smash-hit Wilson X Connected Basketball campaign, and her leadership of the graphic design and UI teams has helped Phenomenon win innovation business for clients like Pepsi, P&G and Flywheel and branding design business for Warner Brothers, Neustar and Wonder.

Her favorite project lately was the rebranding of Nationstar, a large mortgage lender, as Mr. Cooper. “For me, it got personal because I made all the mistakes as a first-time homeowner at the peak of the lending crisis. I felt the pain of the customer, and I think I channeled some of that angst!” she says.

Phenomenon gave the brand a warmer name and created an expression of the brand that is human at every point of interaction. “We scrapped all of the typical mortgage jargon and confusing gobbledygook,” Brar says. “We created a visual style based in illustration to make Mr. Cooper’s messaging and visual voice bold, fresh, modern and friendly. And we created a colorful, easy-to-use website with tools we developed to make the experience of owning a home a pleasure and not a pain.”

Brar has a four-tiered approach to the work: “Play. Solve. Craft. Learn.” In other words, have fun; solve business problems in unique ways; sweat the details; and keep up with the industry. The craft piece is particularly critical. “Everything we make has to be crafted to perfection, especially with all the thought and effort that goes into our work,” Brar says. “Unless it’s compelling and gorgeous, why bother?”

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.