Diversity, Inclusion and Community Are Among the Touchstones of Adweek’s 2020 Brand Genius Honorees

This year's winners include marketing leaders from Apple, Frito-Lay, Walmart and Nike

Adweek presents our Brand Genius honorees for 2020. Adweek

It’s always a thrill to splash some limelight on outstanding members of our community, but this year it feels especially gratifying to honor marketers who have skillfully led their brands’ messaging to new heights both before and during the thicket of uncertainty, fear and dissent that has characterized 2020. As you read our profiles of our Brand Genius winners, you’ll notice recurring themes like diversity, relatability and flexibility. There’s an earnestness there, and a restlessness. It becomes clear that in marketing, there are many who do good work but only some who rise to the genius level. Here are 10 of them, along with our Brand Save honoree, Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative, and our Brand Visionary honoree, Ryan Reynolds. —Kristina Feliciano

Tor Myhren, vp, marketing communications, Apple

Photo: Brooks Kraft

Myhren served as Grey’s global chief creative officer before joining Apple in 2016, and his ability to understand and empathize with creatives has been a boon for Apple’s dedicated agency, TBWA\Media Arts Lab.

“He knows where to push and where to leave alone,” Brent Anderson, global chief creative officer of TBWA\Media Arts Lab, says. “He’s accustomed to getting the best out of creatives because he did it for so long before Apple.”

Among Myhren’s boundary-pushing projects at Apple: a five-hour ad to promote the battery life of the iPhone 11 Pro in the form of a tour of Russia’s Hermitage Museum. TBWA\Media Arts Lab filmed it in one epic take.

“Because it was winter in St. Petersburg, we only had like six hours of quality sunlight,” recalls Myhren. “Which meant we basically had to nail it on our first take, because starting over meant we’d lose our light. So each hour the pressure mounted.”

When Apple—which was selected Creative Marketer of the Year at last year’s Cannes Lions—debuted its AirPods Pro last year, Media Arts Lab placed massive, unbranded photos of dancers on key storefronts and billboards in cities around the world. Days later, AirPods Pro were added into each of their ears, marking a subtle yet playful nod to the brand’s latest product.   

“Executionally, this was one of the hardest campaigns we made this year,” says Myhren. “To get 30-foot-high, two-sided stickers of giant dancers to look sharp enough to live on our store windows was daunting.”

‘He’s accustomed to getting the best out of creatives.’

—Brent Anderson, global CCO, TBWA\Media Arts Lab

Over the past year, Myhren has been betting big on long-form content, with impressive results. Underdogs—a three-minute, sitcom-esque film that Apple debuted last year about a group of scrappy co-workers who create a circular pizza box prototype to present to management—currently has more than 6 million views on YouTube. Notably, it shows off a smattering of Apple products throughout. A seven-minute sequel, which debuted in July and features the group trying to work from home, has nearly 30 million views.

“It’s a great time for film in advertising, because the shackles are off and the digital media universe holds an infinitely larger palette for telling your product story,” says Myhren.

Additionally, Apple’s ongoing #ShotOniPhone campaign recently expanded to the music video realm and has been hugely successful. Selena Gomez’s “Love You to Lose Me” video, filmed entirely on the iPhone 11 Pro, came out last year and has a whopping 300 million views on YouTube.

In response to Covid-19, in early April Apple started airing “Creativity Goes On,” an ad that TBWA\Media Arts Lab put together in a matter of weeks featuring footage of people painting, dancing and playing instruments at home. “We made that ad entirely from existing videos and photos we found online,” Myhren says.

Myhren also helped Apple pull off this year’s Worldwide Developers Conference, a large event that typically attracts thousands of attendees but was held virtually this year. According to Myhren, producing this year’s two-hour spectacle involved “dramatic drone shots, multiple locations and multiple on-camera talent,” in addition to a series of safety precautions.

“These are restrictions we couldn’t have imagined in our wildest dreams seven months ago,” he says. —Minda Smiley

Kory Marchisotto, CMO, e.l.f.

Photo: Nicholas Kern

When Marchisotto was named CMO of e.l.f. in early 2019, it quickly became clear she had a difficult job ahead of her. Weeks after her appointment, the beauty brand reported fourth-quarter results that showed both its sales and profits in decline. The news rattled investors, immediately resulting in the company’s share price falling some 10%.

To effect a turnaround, Marchisotto was given oversight of all the ways the consumer interacted with the brand and was charged with integrating those touch points to create a seamless end-to-end experience. “It was a moment to take stock and inventory of what were the greatest points of the brand,” she says, calling 2019 “the year of recharge” at e.l.f.

Her plan? “To ignite Gen Z,” she says, while operating under the maxim, “Everything is e.l.f.ing possible.”

‘We want to be at the forefront in the digital space.’

Marchisotto found, for example, that even longtime fans of e.l.f. did not know that the acronym stands for eyes, lips and face. So last October, the brand released its groundbreaking TikTok campaign, a six-day hashtag challenge with an original song about showing off your “Eyeslipsface.” It resulted in 2 million user videos, over 8 million streams and a number of unpaid celebrity endorsements from stars like Reese Witherspoon and Jessica Alba. At press time, the number of views had reached more than 6 billion, making it the most viral campaign on TikTok.

“We’re always looking at what are the emerging platforms, because we want to be at the forefront in the digital space,” says Marchisotto.

Building on last year’s momentum, the company this year has pushed forward with initiatives like its activation with Chipotle, for which the brand created a makeup kit inspired by the fast-casual chain, and a new content series, “No B.S.” (the b.s. stands for beauty secrets), featuring makeup tutorials.

In August, e.l.f. began airing the first-ever reality show on TikTok, dubbed “Eyes.Lips.Famous.” The company also recently announced it is partnering with singer-songwriter Alicia Keys to introduce a new beauty brand in 2021, of which Marchisotto will serve as president.

For the first quarter ended June 30, e.l.f.’s revenue increased 8%, to nearly $65 million from close to $60 million for the same period the year prior. Meanwhile, Ebitda (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization), which is a measure of cash flow, increased 7% to $15.5 million from $14.5 million.

The company’s stock price has also taken off since Marchisotto joined, from around $9 per share to roughly $20 as of Aug. 31, equating to an enterprise value of just over $1 billion when cash and debt are factored in. 

Melinda Fried, head of corporate communications at e.l.f., met Marchisotto more than a decade ago, in a two-year master’s program in beauty marketing at the Fashion Institute of Technology. She describes Marchisotto as “our lightning bolt at e.l.f.”

“She’s looking for what’s next,” says Fried, “and has a thirst for something bigger.” —Richard Collings

Sadira Furlow, vp, marketing, Frito-Lay

Photo: Frito-Lay/Pepsico

Chris Bellinger remembers the first time he took the measure of his new colleague, Sadira Furlow. It was the spring of last year and Bellinger, Frito-Lay’s vp, creative and digital, had flown out to Los Angeles to help with a spot for Lay’s. The shoot at Universal Studios was hectic, full of last-minute script changes. Still, Furlow told Bellinger to fetch a baseball mitt. Then she led him to an empty set, produced a ball and began throwing. At one point, the director trooped out to ask the executives what they thought they were doing. “We’re playing catch,” Furlow shrugged.

“It was a really cool moment,” Bellinger recalls. “We were just throwing the ball and brainstorming. That was my aha moment. [I thought:] Wow, that’s not someone I’m used to working with as a vp of a brand. She’s different.”

Since taking over marketing for Frito-Lay, Furlow has revitalized its three marquee brands by changing everything from package design to their social media voice. Her willingness to shake things up was on view shortly after she joined PepsiCo as Mountain Dew’s marketing director five years ago. (Remember “PuppyMonkeyBaby” from the 2016 Super Bowl? That was hers.) Promoted to vp of marketing in February 2019, she began by spearheading a design refresh for Lay’s (the first in 12 years) that pumped up the famous sun logo by modernizing the typeface and adding “radiant rings.” Furlow then headed a website overhaul, a national ad campaign and the “Gotta Have Lay’s” giveaway.

At the time, the Fritos brand hadn’t done a marketing campaign for 48 years. Furlow came up with one. Called “Here’s to the Moment” and produced with creative help from RGA, it highlighted the many ways that Americans have worked this simple corn chip into their daily lives, from making Frito Pie to eating it while watching football. Even when a brand is famous, Furlow says, “you can’t just set it and forget it. Being an icon is as much about being timeless as it is about being timely.”

Last year, she brought back the “Smiles” campaign (created with The Marketing Arm), which prints the toothy grins of ordinary Americans on bags of Lay’s and uses sales to fund corrective surgeries for kids with cleft palates. She also collaborated with L.A. Lakers center Anthony Davis not only to create a new Ruffles Lime & Jalapeno flavor around his personality, but to launch a limited-edition Nike sneaker called Ruffles Ridge Tops. “The passions for our consumers are within basketball, fashion, sneakers and gaming,” Furlow explains. “So we really looked at a new way to launch innovation and to reimagine brand partnerships.”

‘Being an icon is as much about being timeless as it is about being timely.’

Despite the economic challenges of the pandemic, Frito-Lay revenues were up 6% for Q2. (Signing Kevin Jonas to kick off the “#JoyGivers” campaign—which donated $50 to Feeding America for every social media post that praised a role model in the community—likely made a difference, too.)

Despite the weight of Furlow’s responsibilities, or maybe because of them, she’s careful not to let marketing duties overwhelm her own sense of self. Furlow can enumerate no fewer than 14 tenets that she lives by. But asked to choose just one, she doesn’t hesitate. “Protect your magic and trust your dopeness,” she says.

“You have to remember to protect the things that make you you. That is where your power lies,” she says. “The journey is hard, especially when you have the responsibility for iconic brands. Sometimes you can doubt yourself. Sometimes, as a Black woman, [I think:] ‘Do I belong in this room or at this table?’ I got to just trust that I will overcome, and that I belong.” —Robert Klara

Joe Earley, evp, marketing and operations, Disney+

Photo: Disney+

When Joe Earley joined Disney in January 2019, he set his new working pace to a sprint. The longtime TV executive knew he had a huge task ahead of him: marketing Disney+, the company’s biggest bet ever on the future of television entertainment, less than a year before the streamer was slated to premiere in the U.S. 

“It already felt like we were behind,” says Earley of his first few months at the company. “That date—Nov. 12 launch stage—was coming no matter what. We had a countdown clock in the office kitchen, and it was so real: ‘Have you seen the clock today? How did we get into the hundreds? How do we only have 60 days left?’”  

The expectations for how Disney+ would deliver for the company were sky high from the outset, with then-CEO Bob Iger calling the platform the “biggest priority” of 2019, and the firm promising investors 60 to 90 million global subscribers by 2024. Earley—who spent more than 20 years on Fox’s television side in marketing and PR, rising to Fox Television Group COO—had to work with his new colleagues to come up with a strategy that could leverage their collective knowledge about TV and film marketing while also building a new direct-to-consumer marketing muscle.

“We had an unbelievably short lead time and yet every one of the teams was able to achieve an amazing level of innovation and creative inspiration, which anyone in marketing knows is hard to do on a daily basis,” Earley says. “And it wasn’t just the Disney+ team innovating—we were reaching out across this company.” 

The resultant cross-promotional full-court press touched just about every portion of the business, from broadcast plugs for Disney+ across linear networks like ABC and ESPN and blitzes on billboards and digital, to various parks and retail integrations and discount partnerships with Visa and Verizon.

The marketing blitz also included a first-of-its-kind social effort where every Disney brand’s social channels posted about their “moving day” as they headed over to Disney+. “That might seem like a simple idea, but it was quite a grand idea, and quite complex—and it was pulled off beautifully,” Earley says.

‘Nine months in, we’ve hit some of our multiyear goals.’

By the first day Disney+ rolled out in the U.S., the company had already seen 10 million sign-ups, and that already staggering Day 1 number got another major boost as Disney+ original series The Mandalorian’s character The Child, more affectionately known as Baby Yoda, took the internet by storm—driving even more excitement and demand for the new service. 

“That show was lightning in a bottle, and it was a gift from [The Mandalorian creator] Jon Favreau, from Kathy Kennedy from Lucasfilm and from Star Wars universe,” Earley says. “And Baby Yoda—we will always be indebted to Baby Yoda.” 

Despite the early success, “there was no sitting back and patting ourselves on the back post-launch,” says Earley—the team had to get started on international launches of Disney+ in subsequent months. 

Even though he hasn’t gotten to bask in the success, by just about every metric, Disney+ is one. Less than a year in, the streamer has 60.5 million subscribers, already surpassing the projected number Disney expected it would take several years to reach. “Nine months in, we’ve hit some of our multiyear goals, and that means that some of our marketing plans have had to accelerate,” Earley says.

The marketing department was thrown another challenge when Covid-19 hit, applying even more pressure to Disney’s streaming arms. But Earley isn’t fazed. “In the lead-up to Disney+, we all lived with constant fire drills and constant challenges, and that actually prepared all of us for this,” he says. “We haven’t missed a beat.” —Kelsey Sutton

Janey Whiteside, evp, chief customer officer, Walmart

Photo: Walmart

When lockdowns began in March, the retailer saw customer behavior go through five years’ worth of evolution in just five weeks, says Whiteside. Consumer needs changed on almost a daily basis early on. First, toilet paper and cleaning supplies were the focus. Then there was a shift to at-home activities and personal grooming and finally to home improvement and décor. “We saw that the pandemic was changing the way that customers shop,” says Whiteside. “And we knew that we had to deliver something that allowed them to get access to goods quickly.”

‘We’re focused on being there for our customers in any way we can.’

The brand responded with innovations like two-hour Express Delivery and the Walmart+ membership program. Meanwhile, existing innovations like digital payment service Walmart Pay and curbside pickup were more relevant than ever because they provide contactless experiences. Whiteside says Walmart also contemplated its role in U.S. communities during an unconventional summer, which was the genesis of a virtual camp and the transformation of 160 parking lots into drive-in movie theaters. “We’re really proud to be a company that is focused on being there for our customers in any way we can, not just for their day-to-day supplies, but as a partner in their life,” she says.

Unlike some brands, which had to tweak their pre-pandemic messaging for our new normal, Walmart’s existing approach of telling emotionally resonant stories and underscoring convenience feels right on point—if not prescient. In 2019, it released a 60-second spot focused on the retailer’s role in American communities. This past February, Walmart debuted its first official Super Bowl ad, which showcased the convenience of curbside pickup with famous faces like Buzz Lightyear, martians from Mars Attacks! and Bill from the 1989 movie Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure—just a month before anyone knew how significant curbside pickup would prove to be.

In April, with the pandemic darkening the national mood, Walmart aired an ad featuring Walmart employees singing the Bill Withers song “Lean on Me” as a message of hope. The company has now notched two huge quarters: Q1 revenue was up $10.7 billion, with U.S. ecommerce sales growing 74%, followed by Q2 ecommerce sales rising 97%.

“We’re going to continue to evolve how you engage with Walmart,” says Whiteside. “We’re going to continue to evolve how we tell our story through our customers and through our associates in the aim of creating those emotional connections that go beyond just buying stuff.” —Lisa Lacy

Diego Scotti, CMO, Verizon

Photo: Verizon

In the immediate onset of the pandemic, Verizon became the first major brand to run a TV spot addressing the new state of fear. The ad—a straightforward reassurance from the company’s retail employees that they would keep customers connected—came together over the course of several harried days. But the brand sensibility that informed it and made it credible to customers had been in the works for years now under the marketing leadership of Scotti.

In a wireless industry where advertising is dominated by inter-carrier feuds and technical sales pitches, Scotti has shifted Verizon’s focus to telling emotionally affecting stories about the human impact its wireless service can have—from doctors using 5G to power medical devices to teachers connecting with remote classes.

This story first appeared in the Sept. 14, 2020, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.