This year’s Young Influentials are very much a reflection of their time: tirelessly innovating across everything from AR and AI to data analytics, diversity in the workforce, Gen Z outreach, branded content and even activism. Many of them are also bound by a desire to give back or effect change. Case in point: Crazy Rich Asians star Constance Wu, who appears on our cover, is determined to use her influence to advance the #MeToo movement and challenge Hollywood’s pervasive diversity issues. Like her, the individuals on our 2018 list of influentials are inspiring not just for their talent but also for their determination to have an impact that can be felt well beyond the bottom line. —Kristina Feliciano
2 Dope Queens: Jessica Williams and Phoebe Robinson
Jessica Williams and Phoebe Robinson had already cultivated a devoted local following in Brooklyn with their stand-up show when they launched 2 Dope Queens in spring 2016. But the popular podcast—with its frank, humorous takes on gender, race and other topics, combined with the warm reception the pair offer guests—swiftly expanded their fan base beyond the borough as it shot to the top of the charts. “People respond to the casual vibe Jess and I have,” says Robinson, 34.
What’s more, it eventually led to a deal with HBO for a season of 2 Dope Queens televised specials, which aired earlier this year. Season 2 is planned for early 2019. The pair is also working on a formidable list of ongoing projects: books, movies, new show development, charity work—and sharing their good fortune.
“We tell stories and we mess around and we say what we want to say, but we want to push forward our own personal experiences,” says Williams, 29. “We want to give that opportunity to other people who are not at the forefront of the media: more women, more people of color and other people who are LGBTQ who are all incredibly talented. We want to make sure we’re seen and as we continue to be seen, we’re lifting up others as well.”
Robinson agrees. “There’s so much of, ‘We can’t give you an opportunity because you don’t have the experience,’” she says. “So it’s like, ‘Let’s create our own experience.’ For me, I’m just going to build my own damn table. And I want to have my friends around it.” —Sara Ivry
Ever since Otto Bell launched CNN’s in-house branded content studio in 2015, he’s kept his team separate from the company’s newsroom. But he’s enabled Courageous to flourish by mining CNN’s rich resources elsewhere, including its 1,000 engineers and global stable of freelance field producers.
“That’s been a big revelation, which has powered a lot of the pushing of formats we’ve done over the last year,” says Bell, 36, who has expanded Courageous beyond short-form video (“which is still our bread and butter”) to documentaries, animation, audio-augmented reality and experiential events.
But Bell’s biggest splashes have come with live commercials. In August 2017, Courageous produced live ads, in virtual reality, for Volvo’s XC60 during the solar eclipse. Then, on New Year’s Eve, the studio pulled off CNN’s first-ever live ad on TV—and the first in cable TV history—for MassMutual. “It was a helluva undertaking, and a couple months of planning, but the audience reaction to it, and the uplift for MassMutual, made it all worthwhile,” Bell says.
His secret for persuading brands to take a chance on these new formats? “What I’ve found is the more you can communicate with clients and agencies during creative development and preproduction, the more successful a project will be in the long term,” he says. “That consultation and over-communication on the front end has paid dividends for us.” —Jason Lynch
By the time they were in their senior year at Cornell University, Aleen Kuperman, Samantha Fishbein and Jordana Abraham had had enough of the “bro culture” that was running rampant on campus. So they channeled that weariness with a vengeance and created “The Betch List,” an anonymous blog with a satirical take on pop culture through a female lens.
It was 2011, and at the time there was no outlet for women to “embrace their more indulgent or slightly narcissistic behaviors,” says Fishbein. With The Betch List, the trio clearly hit a nerve—it attracted close to a million reads in just a handful of weeks.
“The way we would write … was very self-aware humor,” Kuperman says. “We weren’t hating on anything; we were totally part of the joke. We think it’s a tribute to our success that everybody related to it.”
Curious to see how much further they could take it, each of the three women pitched in $1,500 to invest in the blog’s growth.
Betches Media, which turned its first profit in 2014, is now a full-blown media company, complete with an Instagram feed boasting more than 6.3 million followers, a full slate of podcasts, revenue from brand partnerships and ecommerce. Kuperman serves as CEO, Fishbein is COO and Abraham is CCO. (All three women are now 29.)
The company has also published two New York Times best-sellers and will release a third book, When’s Happy Hour?: Work Hard So You Can Hardly Work.
“Our voice has remained consistent, and we continue to say things that nobody else is saying and touch on topics that other people might be afraid to touch on,” says Abraham. “That keeps us relevant and popular and able to expand into whatever new forum or social media that may come out.” —Sara Jerde
At the tender age of 19, Cleveland resident Connor Blakley is already an old hand in the marketing game. When he was in eighth grade, he founded Utpec, a social media management company that worked with Vineyard Vines, Mark Cuban Companies and a variety of small to midsize shops. Utpec, which showed companies how to engage users on social platforms, established Blakley as a fresh and unique voice in youth marketing—one with an unconventional approach in a bottom-line-driven business.
“I’m not looking at data,” he says. “I can feel the pulse. I’m leveraging my intuition when it comes to strategic decisions.”
A few years later, Blakley created YouthLogic, a consultancy that helped brands understand and connect with members of Generation Z, a cultural and consumer cohort that craves authenticity and coolness, and that differs in one critical way from any demographic that preceded it.
“Millennials, as they got older, kind of adapted to technology. They’re not the first digitally native generation,” he says. “We [in Gen Z] can Instagram, order a pizza and call our girlfriend all at the same time.”
Blakley’s understanding of Gen Z has attracted fans far and wide. Among them is the executive team at The Campus Agency, a Boston-based marketing company that targets college students. In August, Campus acquired YouthLogic for an undisclosed sum and named Blakley its CMO, a perch from which he hopes to continue what he calls his original mission of working with “traditional brands.”
On his wish list of clients are Kraft, Heinz and Disney. He met with Viacom earlier this summer. “I want to make companies that I’m passionate about cool again,” says Blakley. —Sara Ivry
In Porter Braswell’s case, it wasn’t necessity that mothered his invention; it was frustration. The Yale grad landed a full-time job in finance at Goldman Sachs in 2011 by way of a diversity recruitment program and was keenly aware of corporate America’s efforts to diversify the workforce. But he and his colleague Ryan Williams, who also benefited from a diversity recruitment program, didn’t understand why employers found it so hard to do.
As people of color, “hearing companies say that they couldn’t find diverse talent really bothered us, or made no sense,” Braswell, 30, says. “So we decided to build Jopwell to help with diversity recruiting at scale.”
To their delight, it took off. Since its 2015 launch, Jopwell has raised $12 million from pioneering investors like Andreessen Horowitz, Y Combinator and Magic Johnson Enterprises. More than 100 companies from tech, media, sports and other industries partner with Jopwell to identify black, Latinx and Native American talent, and though Braswell declines to share exact figures on how many hires get made thanks to his team, he allows that “tens of thousands of people have made connections through this platform.” Moreover, its bottom line looks good; Braswell says the company is on track to double its revenue in 2018.
“It was only four years ago that I was an analyst at a bank, and in that capacity I am one of thousands, and I have no real say or influence. To go from that to following a dream or a passion … ,” Braswell marvels. “It goes to show when you follow your instincts, amazing things can occur.” —Sara Ivry
Alana Calderone Polcsa
Ellen DeGeneres’ brand has tons of mass appeal, but that doesn’t mean it’s right for just anyone. Choosing like-minded partners is key to supporting the comedian and talk show host’s values of “fun, funny, heart, humor and kindness,” notes Alana Calderone Polcsa, svp of brand content and partnerships at Warner Bros.
Calderone Polcsa, 39, who is heading into her 12th season with the show, has spearheaded partnerships with Beats Music (now Apple Music) to create DeGeneres’ first Super Bowl TV commercial, featuring her grooving around with some dancing bears, and a program with Cheerios called “Million Acts of Good.” The latter campaign resulted in more than 1 billion media impressions and an incremental 6 million boxes of the cereal sold at retail stores, according to DeGeneres’ team.
She also has grown the business’ revenue streams and secured development deals and partnerships with YouTube, Twitter and ATTN, and is the lead on developing the brand’s IP extensions, which include consumer products and publishing.
Not only have these efforts done good, they’ve also done well. Under Calderone Polcsa, overall business revenue tripled in the last five years. And, as you would expect from any DeGeneres endeavor, people enjoyed themselves in the process. “Building a team of people that show up and all have so much fun, and we all have the same enthusiasm and desire to help brands, is really something that I’m proud of,” Calderone Polcsa says. —Sara Jerde
Emilie Choi, who joined cryptocurrency trading platform Coinbase earlier this year, has a long history of M&A experience. She oversaw more than 40 transactions at LinkedIn in the eight years she spent at the professional network, from acquisitions (including Lynda.com) to investments (Cornerstone OnDemand, G2 Crowd).
At Coinbase, she’s entered the space at a time when cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin have skyrocketed in popularity but are still often regarded with skepticism. Choi, who says cryptocurrency is still in its “early days,” and her team have been focused on fostering trust through partnerships with businesses and customers.
Since she joined Coinbase, the company has debuted new products such as Coinbase Pro and Coinbase Custody. Under her leadership, Coinbase has acquired companies such as trading platform Paradex and Earn.com, which enables email users to make payments via digital currency. But Choi says she’s most proud of making cryptocurrency “more accessible and useful.”
“From the beginning, we’ve believed that in order to achieve our mission, we have to be the most trusted and easiest-to-use interface for cryptocurrency,” she says. “To do that, we put our customers first.” —Marty Swant
Yale Cohen is driving forward brand safety policies at a time when the issue is top of mind for the industry. In addition to shaping the evolution of standards in traditional and emerging areas as evp, digital investments and standards for Publicis Media’s investment arm, Publicis Media Exchange, he’s also involved with the 4A’s digital operations and technology board and Advertiser Protection Bureau, IAB’s Tech Lab and consumer-facing advocacy group Coalition for Better Ads.
“What I love about my job is truly being able to influence the industry,” says Cohen, 37.
When it comes to data privacy, ad fraud, brand safety and blockchain, Cohen says he takes “a very methodical approach to looking at what is the right infrastructure in place and creating the right standards.” That involves analyzing the issues, figuring out a solution and setting in place an action plan for clients across the agency’s roster.
Cohen claims Publicis Media’s new business wins are a testament to clients’ trust in the organization’s approach to brand safety and other issues, but he understands there’s room for improvement. “As the digital industry changes at a mile a minute, I’m sure that we’ll continue to face some of these (issues),” he says. “I’m excited about approaching those new challenges … and creating a fundamental, better industry for all of our advertisers.” —Erik Oster
As a woman of color in tech, Morgan DeBaun is something of an anomaly. And that is precisely why she felt compelled to establish Blavity four years ago: “to build a platform that mattered to people who too often felt unseen and unheard,” as she explained in a June blog post.
Blavity (the name derives from “black” and “gravity”) is a media and tech startup where millennial people of color can create and find stories and news about people who look like them—stories that DeBaun, 28, found largely absent from mainstream outlets. It’s also a place where they can connect with one another and create a community of their own.
The platform quickly became an essential destination. Blavity now boasts more than 1.8 million unique readers a month and is one of five brands under the newly christened corporate umbrella of Blavity Inc. In addition to publishing online content, the company also hosts conferences: Summit21 is an annual meetup for millennial women of color, while AfroTech brings together black entrepreneurs. This past summer, Blavity announced it had closed $6.5 million in Series A funding, a sign that, for now, it plans to continue to grow.
“It’s important to create spaces for those of us who are made to feel as though we don’t belong or that we’re not good enough,” DeBaun noted back in June. “Because the truth is, we do, and we are.” —Sara Ivry
Whether it’s playing pickup ball in Philadelphia’s parks or sending a hilarious combative tweet that starts the latest NBA news cycle, “everything I do goes viral,” notes Philadelphia 76ers star Joel Embiid.
The City of Brotherly Love has adopted the Cameroon native as one of its own—and for good reason. Philadelphians, with their history of trash talk, taught Embiid, 24, not to be scared but to be outspoken. “They just say and do what they want, and that’s what I became,” says the 7-foot-2-inch center.
But he does have one guideline of his own: Everything he does has to be fun—his tweets, his endorsements and even his trash talk. When working with brands or the team, Embiid, who has more than a million Twitter followers, insists on helping “direct” the campaign’s message because of his self-described ability to understand fans. One perfect example: While he was injured, Embiid used his protective facial mask to concoct on a whim his Phantom of the Process character (the Process is his trademarked nickname) to fire up the crowd.
“He is a brilliant young man, multilingual and has experienced things that most people have not at his age,” notes 76ers team president Christopher Heck. “He has a natural ability to engage with people not only on Twitter, but face to face as well.” —Jameson Fleming
When it comes to journalism, “sometimes the right choice is turning down the glossier option of more screen time and real estate in favor of getting the story as completely, precisely correct as possible,” Ronan Farrow, 30, told Adweek earlier this year. “I’m gravitating toward less frequent—and bigger, more explosive, deeper—storytelling.”
He certainly got the explosive part right: Farrow has produced more impactful journalism over the past 12 months than many journalists turn out in a lifetime. In a series of incendiary stories for The New Yorker, he has exposed powerful and wealthy sexual predators, detailing shocking allegations of sexual assault, harassment and intimidation against two of Hollywood’s most influential men: movie mogul Harvey Weinstein and now-former CBS Corp. chairman Leslie Moonves.
And it’s not just media mavens. With an assist from his New Yorker colleagues, Farrow has investigated powerful public figures from across the spectrum, mostly recently in a Sept. 23 piece that unearthed a new accusation of sexual misconduct involving Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. His #MeToo reporting has earned him a Pulitzer Prize (which he shared with The New York Times’ Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey) and sparked worldwide conversations about sexual harassment—and the power of journalism.
Says Farrow, “I’m really happy to see a resurgence of investigative reporting, and people really understanding why it can be so important if you do it right.” —A.J. Katz
As she tried to make it big in show business, Tiffany Haddish wouldn’t let anything—not even homelessness—get her down. Twice, when money was tight in her early 20s, she slept in her tiny Geo Metro, which she parked in Beverly Hills. “If I’m gonna be homeless,” she told The Hollywood Reporter, “I’m gonna be homeless in the best area.”
Her persistence paid off with a scene-stealing role in last year’s hit comedy Girls Trip, and since then, she’s been steadily conquering the rest of Hollywood, dominating TV, film and standup comedy. This year alone, the 38-year-old starred in four movies (Night School, Uncle Drew and the upcoming comedies The Oath and Nobody’s Fool), as well as the TBS sitcom The Last O.G. alongside Tracy Morgan. Haddish will also appear in a Netflix standup special next year.
And she’s not limiting herself to entertainment. “I want to make a cookbook. I wanna make a gardening book. I want a clothing line. I want a jewelry line. I want a perfume,” she told The Hollywood Reporter. But wait, there’s more: “I want to get $10 million a movie. … $100 million, eventually.” —Jason Lynch
When the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation was announced a year and a half ago with a compliance deadline set for this past May, panic and confusion ensued among Google’s marketers. Fortunately, they had Pooja Kapoor to help steer them through.
As the tech giant’s head of GDPR, data trust and ecosystem, Kapoor—who discovered her love of technology in middle school, when she took apart a computer for the first time—has also been guiding Google’s partners through the adoption of ads.txt, a process of verifying authentic ad inventory that aims to crack down on fraud. Before taking on GDPR, Kapoor ran product strategy for Google’s programmatic solutions.
“I’ve really started to focus on tackling some of these big ecosystem problems that impact stakeholders across the industry,” notes Kapoor, 36.
Kapoor says her prior roles on the ad-ops side—she previously worked at Tribune Co., OAO and Admeld, an ad-tech firm that Google acquired in 2011—enable her to act as a powerful advocate for Google’s partners every step of the way.
“I take the responsibility of making sure that the solutions that we’ve built for our clients meet their needs and are solutions they can use,” Kapoor says. “Being the voice of the customer is something I’ve done for a long time.” —Kelsey Sutton
Earlier this year, Asad Malik was a breakaway success at the Tribeca Film Festival with Terminal 3, an experience that uses AR and AI to help people understand what it’s like to be a Muslim facing extra screenings at an airport before entering the U.S. He invited attendees to put on a Microsoft HoloLens headset to take on the role of a U.S. customs officer while asking one of six hologram characters a series of personal questions.
Afterward, participants met the actual human behind the character they’d been interrogating. “I really want to make experiences that unfold in particular places and that multiple people can engage with and that affects the construct of reality that we live in now,” says Malik, 22, who interned this past summer with the immersive media company RYOT and with whom he developed Terminal 3.
Now a senior at Bennington College in Vermont, Malik plans to move to Los Angeles next year to continue creating AR experiences that tell stories of underrepresented voices while also challenging the way we see the world. Meanwhile, he’s working with RYOT on a new project that uses AR in sort of a “reverse-Turing test,” where instead of the humans testing if the AI is human, the AI asks the human questions. The goal? To make them prove they’re real. —Marty Swant
“If I wasn’t at a for-profit company, what would I be spending my days doing? Should I be out there in Uganda doing microfinance?” These are the questions that keep Squarespace CMO Kinjil Mathur up at night. But it’s not as though she’s been squandering her time.
Since joining the company in early 2017, Mathur, 36, has pioneered its efforts to effect social change around pressing contemporary challenges. In honor of Equal Pay Day in April, the company offered a 20 percent discount for prospective female customers to emphasize the fact that women in the United States make just 80 cents for every dollar a man makes. In June, Squarespace threw its weight behind LGBTQ Pride marches in Dublin, New York and Portland, Ore., to demonstrate its support of equal rights and opportunities.
Squarespace has also embarked on new partnerships. A longtime sponsor of podcasts, it recently expanded its foray into the audio realm with Casting Call, a collaboration with Gimlet Creative. The company also joined forces with Madison Square Garden Co. to create the Make It Fund. Small businesses apply for grants of $30,000—the amount Anthony Casalena, Squarespace’s founder and CEO, got from his father to launch the company—and mentorship from both MSG and Squarespace.
Along the way, Mathur has pushed herself to become outspoken about her experience in the workplace as a woman, first-generation immigrant and a person of color. “Other people are looking to me to be that person,” she says. “And I’m honored to do it.” —Sara Ivry
It’s an understatement to say Jeff Miller brings important perspectives to his role as global head of creative strategy at Snap Inc.: He’s worked at Ogilvy & Mather (pre-rebrand), PepsiCo and now Snapchat, so he’s been the client, the agency and now the platform bringing the former two parties together.
At Snapchat, Miller, 35, leads a team centered on creating ad experiences on the platform, including the Jordan Brand augmented reality (AR) lens that led to a pair of unreleased sneakers selling out in 23 minutes, the recently rolled-out shoppable snap ads that let consumers shop from an ad and an immersive Smithsonian Burning Man exhibit AR lens sponsored by Intel.
“What we do at Snapchat so well, I think, is to continue to push the boundaries of what a format can do,” says Miller. “We’ll always in my mind be leaders, not just in audience but in innovation in AR.”
A highlight for Miller, who started out on Snapchat’s product marketing team, was the debut last December of the lens studio, which let anyone from creators to marketers make AR ads.
“To me, that was a very clear signal of where we were going as a company, transitioning from a place where everything was being done internally and took a long time to create to now a point where AR is essentially democratized,” Miller says. “And not just for brands and agencies but for teenagers that still live at home, for people who are aspiring artists, aspiring free developers.” —Ann-Marie Alcántara
When Janet Mock sat down with über-producer Ryan Murphy in spring 2017, “I just thought it was a general meeting,” she recalls. “I hadn’t even heard of Pose.” But by the time they parted, the trans advocate and activist had been hired as a writer on Murphy’s FX drama about the underground drag ball culture in 1980s New York. In the process, Mock became the first trans woman of color to write for a TV series—and quickly shattered more glass ceilings during the critically acclaimed drama’s first season by adding producer and director to her resume.
“I’ve always wanted people to just see trans folk as people, to see the humanity of us,” says Mock, 35, who wrote a 2014 New York Times best-seller memoir, Redefining Realness, and a 2017 follow-up, Surpassing Certainty. “Pose has been able to do that within eight weeks, in a way that has shifted and transformed not only the individual people watching but also our culture.”
The series has been “the greatest surprise of my life,” says Mock, who is now in the writers room for Season 2, adding that she wasn’t daunted by unexpectedly becoming a trans pioneer in TV. “It’s not important to be the first,” she says. “I think what’s important is to do a great job to ensure that you’re not the only.” —Jason Lynch
Isabelle Olsson moved to Silicon Valley from Sweden nine years ago seeking an exciting challenge, her career up to that point having consisted of designing furniture, jewelry and interior decor. Two years later, she was working at a San Francisco tech design firm when a Google recruiter phoned her from out of the blue with a job offer.
“At first, I thought they had the wrong number,” recalls Olsson, 35, adding that the recruiter’s oblique job description didn’t keep her from saying yes. “They wouldn’t tell me what I was going to work on … but I didn’t move across the entire world to not take risks.”
It turned out Google wanted an outside-the-box thinker for an outside-the-box product: the Google Glass, which Olsson was put in charge of designing. Her sleek, understated frame won praise from tech reviewers, though it couldn’t save the ill-fated device from the public’s disinterest. She eventually moved on to the Google Home, where her background in interior design gave her a valuable perspective. With its subtle, elegant design, Google Home is now overtaking Amazon Echo’s share of the smart speaker market.
“There were a lot of black, blocky boxes [when I started in tech design],” notes Olsson. “I think of design more in the sense of how I can create things that fit into people’s lives.” —Patrick Kulp
Until last winter, Parkland, Fla., wasn’t particularly well known beyond state lines. Then, over the course of minutes on Valentine’s Day, it became the focus of international attention when a former student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School walked in with a semiautomatic rifle and mowed down 17 people. Seventeen more were injured. It was the deadliest school shooting in the United States.
The tragedy left survivors bereft—but it also galvanized them.
A little more than a month after the mass assault, Parkland students organized a political action committee. They convened the March for Our Lives, a demonstration in Washington, D.C., with sister marches around the world, and sent a strong message that lax gun laws are intolerable and deadly, and that today’s young people—tomorrow’s voters—are angry and ready for change. They spoke out clearly, loudly and passionately about the need for gun reform, the deplorable neglect they see on the part of politicians, the insidious power of the NRA and their demand for laws that make it harder to access firearms.
These students—Emma Gonzalez, David Hogg, Cameron Kasky, Alfonso Calderon, Alex Wind, Jaclyn Corin and others—became both household names and national inspirations. Over the summer, they embarked on a nationwide tour, meeting with local groups advocating for stricter gun control and participating in critical voter registration drives.
The horror they endured left a lasting scar, but the activism they’ve undertaken demonstrates their resilience, strength of spirit and abiding faith in the possibility for positive social change. —Sara Ivry
Jordan Peele kicked off 2018 by winning the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for his debut feature film, Get Out—and he’s been unstoppable ever since.
Peele, the 39-year-old comedic genius behind the beloved sketch show Key & Peele (with his former partner, Keegan-Michael Key), has produced Spike Lee’s new film, BlacKkKlansman, co-created a new sitcom vehicle for Tracy Morgan (The Last O.G. was renewed for a second season by TBS), created a new series for YouTube Premium (a comedic sci-fi show aptly named Weird City, also due out next year) and is rebooting The Twilight Zone for CBS All-Access (coming in 2019) and will take the reins as the show’s host.
He’s also just wrapped production for his second feature film, Us, starring Lupita Nyong’O and Elisabeth Moss. (Given his production schedule, Peele was unable to chat with Adweek.) If it seems like Peele’s time has come, maybe it’s more that the time couldn’t be better for someone like Peele.
“There has been a lack of imagination in Hollywood, which sets us up to bring in really new, creative ways of storytelling,” Peele told Variety for a cover story in August. “The imagination, especially, when we talk about representation, has been dull. For years and years and years, there’s this preconceived notion that diversity presents a struggle for projects. Well, the truth is, we haven’t invested in diversity. We haven’t invested in artists. So there’s a lack of courage, and I think, when you take leaps and you bring courage and confidence to projects, it works.” —Kristina Monllos
When Matt Prince noticed that Taco Bell customers were using its signature “Will you marry me?” sauce packets to propose to their significant others, he provided them with the opportunity to order a wedding off the menu—in the same way they would a Cheesy Gordita Crunch.
Taco Bell Weddings is just one of the many initiatives resulting from Prince’s strategy of combining social listening and consumer insights. Currently leading Taco Bell’s earned media, communications integration and special projects for the global brand, the 34-year-old has spearheaded everything from putting the taco emoji on keyboards around the world to saving the first Taco Bell branch from demolition.
Prince—who oversaw social media engagement for the Walt Disney Co., where he developed and managed the company’s first-ever Social Media Command Center and online engagement program—says Taco Bell sees itself as a lifestyle brand, not a fast-food purveyor. He describes the company’s voice as transparent, accessible and, most important, innovative—one that sparks an “Only Taco Bell could do this” conversation.
“We try to make sure that we’re not just a corporate culture that’s talking down to consumers,” he explains, “but a brand that is speaking to them in the same way that they would speak to their friends, within platforms that they already use.” —Jessica Sulima
Christena Pyle, who grew up in an affluent part of Tampa, Fla., always feeling like an “other,” draws on personal experience in her role as director of diversity and inclusion at Omnicom and director of Adcolor. Her parents, she says, didn’t have a lot of money, but they were intent on their daughter having the best education and found a way to make it happen. “They knew this was the way forward,” she says. “I would be at school and feel not rich enough and not white enough, but I’d go home and have two brown parents who were so proud of that. It was the perfect thing to come home to.”
It wasn’t until she moved to New York and was accepted into the 4A’s Multicultural Advertising Intern Program that Pyle, 34, started feeling like “a real person.” There, she met Tiffany R. Warren, Omnicom’s svp and chief diversity officer, who founded Adcolor, which advocates diversity in the creative and technology industries. Now Pyle’s priority is realizing Adcolor’s mission to, in the organization’s words, “rise up and reach back.”
At Omnicom, meanwhile, she says she gets to be a diversity practitioner, working across policy and culture at the agency. “We as practitioners can’t say diversity if we’re not considering our Asian brothers and sisters, people with visible and invisible disabilities, black and brown people and those who even think differently,” she says. “I really want to live up to the word diversity.”
When Adweek spoke with her, it was the Friday afternoon before Labor Day, and most people had already eagerly embarked on their long weekend. But not Pyle. She was determined to stay past 5 p.m., after which she would meet one of her mentees for dinner. “It is not easy having two distinct roles,” Pyle says, but it’s “the greatest gift of my career.” —Lindsay Rittenhouse
Queer Eye’s Fab Five
Antoni Porowski, 34, Tan France, 35, Karamo Brown, 37, Bobby Berk, 37, and Jonathan Van Ness, 31, have been delighting fans as the new Fab Five since Netflix released the first season of the rebooted Queer Eye in February. More than a decade after the original series signed off the air, Queer Eye 2.0 has been embraced both for its makeovers of everyday men (and the series’ first woman) and their homes and its ability to bring viewers to tears episode after episode.
As with the first Queer Eye quintet, each of the new Fab Five members specializes in a different area: Porowski teaches cooking skills, France offers fashion advice, Brown is the culture expert, Berk redesigns spaces and Van Ness does hair and makeup. But they all are part therapist, and they’re all lovable in their own way. Fans have latched on to Van Ness’ pronunciation of honey (“henny”), for example, and Porowski’s known for his affinity for avocados.
And things just keep getting better for Queer Eye, which earned three Emmys this year and was renewed for a third season, which will be set in Kansas City, Mo. The guys, meanwhile, are busily expanding their brands. Porowski has opened a restaurant in New York, France got a book deal to write a memoir, Brown is an in-demand guest speaker, Berk continues to build his furnishings company, Bobby Berk Home, and Van Ness hosts a popular podcast. —Sara Jerde
Pedro Rodriguez has always been a high achiever. He was just 4 when he and his family emigrated to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic and didn’t speak fluent English, but his mother fought for months to get him integrated in classes with other kids his age rather than placed in an ESL specialty program. Rodriguez not only adapted but excelled.
“I watched MTV to learn English, I kid you not,” says Rodriguez, 34. “‘Pour Some Sugar on Me’ was the song I rocked out to.” Whether it was Def Leppard’s doing or not, Rodriguez had risen to the top of his class by first grade.
Today, he’s at the top of his field. Rodriguez launched Horizon Media’s voice practice, oversees partnerships and social projects across the agency and led the influencer marketing practice to grow 116 percent in revenue in two years. He is equally ambitious on others’ behalf. Rodriguez is a diversity and inclusion council member at Horizon Media and a member of the Lagrant Foundation, mentoring young minority professionals in the industry. He supports nonprofits such as Out in Tech, advocating for LGBTQ rights in the technology sector, and God’s Love We Deliver in New York, which cooks and distributes meals to people with severe illnesses in metropolitan areas.
Rodriguez says that however many professional strides he makes, he will never lose sight of one of his core principles: to “pay it forward.” —Lindsay Rittenhouse
While traveling in 2015, Jen Rubio suffered a fateful luggage emergency in a Swiss airport. Her suitcase had broken, and she was stunned at the lack of replacement options for sale. Back home, she took matters into her own hands and, with a friend and former colleague from Warby Parker, founded Away, a direct-to-consumer luggage brand that bypasses retailers—and in turn passes savings on to shoppers.
Away has since sold more than half a million suitcases and became profitable before it even turned 2. In June, it announced that it had raised $50 million in Series C fundraising, bringing its total to a whopping $81 million. It has opened six of its own retail outlets, including one at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, and more—both in the U.S. and abroad—are en route. Meanwhile, Away has also embarked on collaborations with basketball star Dwyane Wade, model Karlie Kloss, the NBA and the Star Wars brand.
“We know that there’s so much that can be improved within the travel experience, whether it’s where you go, how you get there or what you do once you arrive,” says Rubio, 31. “There’s a big opportunity for Away to be part of creating those solutions.”
But Rubio is not limiting her ambitions to the marketplace. “My goal is for Away to be the No. 1 travel brand in the world and to be a platform that encourages people to be more open, to see more of the world, and to make connections with the people and places around them,” says Rubio. “Travel and experiencing new cultures has the ability to make us better, more empathetic people.” —Sara Ivry
As a 13-year-old growing up in the Bronx, Dhane Scotti had what he calls a “crazy idea”: He was going to write commercials for a living.
The response from his mother, who worked in nonprofit marketing, was “less than enthusiastic,” but that didn’t stop him. In an effort to prove the validity of this career path, Scotti went on to earn a master’s degree at Florida A&M University in advertising before discovering the 4A’s Multicultural Advertising Intern Program (MAIP) and eventually scoring internships at Saatchi & Saatchi and Ogilvy.
“When I graduated, I had made some great inroads through MAIP and the 4A’s to mentors in the industry,” he says. They helped him score his first job at Publicis New York, where he worked on the Malibu Coconut Rum account before heading to Anomaly and BBDO New York.
In 2015, Scotti, 36, relocated to Atlanta to run the global Coca-Cola account for McCann Worldgroup. He says he’s glad to be in Atlanta just as the city is “having its moment” and remains active with local organizations like the A3C music festival and Heritage Academy. He’s also involved with industry groups like MAIP, Here Are All the Black People, the One Club and Harvard’s digital marketing strategy program.
“I want to make sure that people of color in schools that aren’t seen as a pipeline into advertising know that there’s this possibility,” he says, noting that he works to help kids realize they can create careers by combining tech savvy with a love of storytelling. “Without the business of creativity, I don’t know what I would be doing.” —Patrick Coffee
Rick Stallings describes his day-to-day responsibilities as “change management” and “transformation through education.” In other words, he helps clients understand data well enough to interpret the numbers for themselves—and to ask the right questions when it comes to their own businesses.
Through the Agile ID approach, the 34-year-old and his fellow Omnicom teams aim to take analytics from a source for post-campaign case studies to a “pre-look” tool that can help with everything from brand strategy to new business pitches.
When he first joined OMD as an assistant strategist 10 years ago, the iPhone was brand new, digital marketing had “very few rules and low expectations” and agencies had to persuade their clients to build mobile apps. This year, digital will account for more than 50 percent of total ad spend in the U.S. for the first time.
Before joining PHD in 2017, Stallings spent several years at ad-tech companies Collective (now Visto) and Omnicom-owned Accuen, where he specialized in “connecting mobile usage to TV behavior” and familiarizing himself with an ever-evolving sales model.
So when will the analytics discipline truly advance to its next phase? “I’d love to think that, at the end of 2019, we will put a period at the end of the sentence,” Stallings says. “But we’ll never really be satisfied, which is pretty exciting.” —Patrick Coffee
Sarah Stringer says her department aims to create work that is “meaningful to consumers,” as well as provide business solutions to clients. And in her case, innovation can take many shapes—and sizes.
Stringer and her team helped lead Sour Patch Kids’ first foray into esports via an Overwatch League sponsorship and worked on Spotify’s “Equality” campaign highlighting female artists.
She has also helped productize innovation for Carat clients through “matchmaking service” Carat Ignition, which pairs clients with handpicked partners and startups for a specific brief and helps clients develop internal innovation practices.
While Stringer, 35, makes a large impact in her current role as Carat U.S. svp, head of innovation, one of her proudest accomplishments is a small one. When she was at Carat Australia, she was part of the team behind the agency’s miniature billboards for Ant-Man.
“We did it with such a small percentage of our budget,” she explains, but the campaign caught the attention of Reddit, where it went viral and became the “third worldwide trending topic” on the site. “It was a really proud moment for the team.” —Erik Oster
Having already made a name for herself in search marketing, Purna Virji has spent the past year studying and implementing ideas for the future of conversation and what that means to commerce. Her discoveries are essential to the continued development of Cortana, Microsoft’s virtual assistant that’s now embedded in products and services both inside and outside of the brand.
“Everyone is talking about conversion being the next big thing,” she says. “But we have to think about how it changes everything when we think about customer experience.”
Virji, 38, says there are many angles from which to think about how voice should be used: Does the AI provide clarity? Does it have a character that matches the brand? Is there compassion for the customer and what they’re trying to accomplish? Can it correct itself along the way?
As she explores voice’s potential, Virji has her own (unfortunate) experience to draw on: She broke both wrists in a car accident in 2016 and spent six weeks relying on AI to entertain and inform her.
“They told me jokes, they told me the news, they read audiobooks for me,” she says. “I kept thinking, they’ll do things differently—what will happen next?” —Marty Swant
More marketers are looking for custom brand solutions than ever before, which is where Ryan Wolf comes in. She built the pitch team for Velocity, Viacom’s in-house branded content studio, which will deliver a whopping 1,400 client pitches this year—a 60 percent increase in volume after expanding to encompass even more Viacom properties, including Paramount Network, the newly launched Viacom Digital Studios and recent acquisitions like VidCon.
“Clients and even our sales team hear of these new acquisitions, and they’re like, ‘We want this,’ without really understanding what they’re asking for,” says Wolf, 37. “We need to be grounded in culture and creative insights to help guide our clients to what makes the most sense. Because they may want something that may not resonate with the particular audience they’re trying to reach.”
Her expertise helped win back Wendy’s business for the first time in two years, with a “Baller on a Budget” campaign in which each Viacom network helped drive customers to post Frosty selfies at the restaurant. “It’s reiterating to them that we can leverage the full power of our brands to deliver one cohesive message,” says Wolf. “We do that in a really fun and engaging way, but keeping it really simple for the agency, so they don’t have to do a lot of the heavy lifting.” —Jason Lynch
Constance Wu has made a career out of helping correct Hollywood’s decades of cultural negligence when it comes to Asian-American representation. Her August romantic comedy, Crazy Rich Asians—Hollywood’s first major studio film in 25 years with a majority Asian-American and Asian cast—has become a smash hit, grossing more than $165 million domestically, with a sequel already in the works. And she’s in her fifth season as fearsome-yet-loving matriarch Jessica Huang on ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat, the first U.S. primetime sitcom about an Asian-American family in two decades. But Wu, 36, wants to make sure that Hollywood doesn’t think that one hit movie makes up for decades of neglect. “It’s like how sometimes I will be like, ‘All right, I’ve cleaned my kitchen. I’m done; the kitchen is clean.’ But it’s not! It takes maintenance,” says Wu, who is adjusting to a new phenomenon since the success of Crazy Rich Asians. “This movie has opened a lot of doors, and people are just offering me leading parts now—I’m not auditioning!” —Jason Lynch