Julie Supan, Chad Hurley and Steve Chen, YouTube

Chances are, if you’re reading this story you already know what YouTube is. Perhaps you’ve also heard about lonelygirl15, the exploding Mentos, the site’s 100 million daily downloads, its 63% or so category share among video-sharing sites, its inability so far to make money—with losses pegged at $20 million a year—and its warehouse of content, which by one account, adds up to more than nine years’ worth of stuff.

In fact, if you’re reading Brandweek, there’s a good chance that you have already put one of your ads on the workman-like site and anxiously tallied how many times people had viewed it. Like podcasting before it, getting a respectable amount of play on YouTube may be one of those checklist items for your brand zeitgeist meter that proves your cultural relevance. Or, at the very least, gives your team a chance to say, “Yeah, we did that.” You may also be wondering, in fact, if this whole YouTube thing is a fad. Will the brand become the mid-aughts equivalent of Pets.com or more aptly, AltaVista or Netscape, a once-dominant media darling promoted as the Next Big Thing that will, in the end, be forgotten (or extant in a much diminished form)?

That may well be the case, but it’s also irrelevant. Whatever YouTube’s prospects and however much its growth-over-revenue business model seems unsustainable, few, if any brands, have had more of an impact on the marketing landscape over the last 12 months. For that reason, YouTube and its founders, Chad Hurley and Steve Chen, and its senior director of marketing, Julie Supan, are joining the winner’s circle as Brandweek’s Marketers of the Year.

Though it clearly wasn’t the first of the file-sharing sites, YouTube came from nowhere and established itself as a household name in about 18 months, all without spending a cent on advertising. During that same period, YouTube has morphed into almost as important a channel for marketers as network TV.

YouTube’s swift rise has few parallels in branding history. In 2004, Hurley worked as a designer at PayPal, where Chen was employed as a techie. Hurley also was a consultant for the producers of the film Thank You For Smoking. By this summer, Chen and Hurley—27 and 29, respectively—were hobnobbing with the likes of Les Moonves, Barry Diller and Bob Iger at Herb Allen’s get-together in Sun Valley, Idaho.

It all started when, at a dinner party in January 2005, as the story goes, Hurley and Chen were just having fun shooting video with their digital phones. The next day, they realized how difficult it was to load video files onto the Internet. A month later, the pair activated the URL youtube.com.

By May 2005, a beta version of YouTube went live, but there were only 30 clips on the site, many of them featuring Chen’s cat. By mid-year, YouTube was generating good viral buzz among a certain section of the media elite. Ian Schafer, president of Deep Focus, a Brooklyn, N.Y., entertainment marketing firm, said he first heard of YouTube when it became the de facto video player for MySpace’s legion of teen users.

“We started getting links, we started getting e-mails and we thought, ‘This is really catching on,” he said. Schafer said he tried to contact YouTube, but then, the now-

60-person company “had no face.”

That changed somewhat when YouTube hired Supan, 33. A former pr rep at Best Buy who had moved to Sequoia Capital, she took the reins of pr and marketing. (As this issue went to press, YouTube hired CNET’s Suzie Reider as its first chief marketing officer.)