11 Branded Content Masterminds Who Are Elevating the Art of Marketing

Using humor, insight and craft to create thought-provoking work

Karen X. Cheng of viral video agency Butterbar creates fun and irresistible clips for social.

Whether creating viral videos or bringing the potency of journalism to corporate content, each of the creators honored in this year’s Adweek Creative 100 has elevated the art of branding through passion, craft and seemingly limitless talent. Learn more about their stories and work below:

Karen X. Cheng
Founder, Butterbar

The force behind San Francisco-based viral video agency Butterbar (now known as Wafffle), Cheng has a habit of creating fun and irresistible clips optimized for social media—like this year’s ad featuring a tiny rundown kitchen being beautifully remodeled, a promotion for home renovation loans from financial startup SoFi.

Previously a program manager for Microsoft, a Silicon Valley designer and a startup founder, Cheng stumbled onto her current career path in 2014 when a marketing exec at Beats by Dre contacted her about a “donut selfie” video she had created for fun—and ultimately hired her to help turn the clever roundabout camera technique she invented into a sizzling ad for the headphone brand, in which she also starred alongside celebrities like Kylie and Kendall Jenner, Serena Williams, and Nicki Minaj.

After landing that gig, Cheng incorporated her agency—rebranded Butterbar this January—in 2015. Her other credits include spearheading a clip last year about the dearth of strong female leads in traditional children’s books as a way to promote real-life role model anthology Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls.

Describing the agency’s process, Cheng cites a blend that includes focused brainstorming around client goals, keeping up with viral video trends and rapidly changing social-media algorithms, and employing a methodical, analytics-driven approach to distribution.

“It’s actually not about being the most creative,” she says. “It’s about making something that could be disguised as something people would see in their Facebook feed anyway. Our goal is to make ads that don’t look like ads.”
Gabriel Beltrone

Jamal Dauda
Global Head of Music, WeTransfer

While transferring files might not seem like the most inspiring or creative part of making a song or a film, Jamal Dauda has spent the last year demonstrating the important role it plays on the file-sharing platform.

Earlier this year, his team debuted a documentary starring musicians Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile, discussing their friendship and their creative process that resulted in their 2017 album, Lotta Sea Lice. Dauda describes the documentary video as a “time capsule.” After that came a video series starring Björk and others exploring the many parts of creative collaboration.

So why sponsor all this creative content rather than focus on showcasing the cloud-based business’s services? It often goes hand-in-hand.

“I think the series is to show that creativity is much more than this big bang,” he says.

WeTransfer, located in L.A.’s Venice neighborhood, resides at the intersection of tech and culture. Last fall, the company debuted a new mobile app to complement the desktop website’s tools for sharing projects. Currently, Dauda is working on a podcast that will debut this month, featuring conversations about the “nuts and bolts of creativity.”

“What does creativity really look like?” he says. “A lot of other brands and makers of content are talking about creativity in a very general sense. … It’s not always as simple as hopping in the studio and saying, ‘We made magic.’”
Marty Swant

Devin Friedman
Founder, Wealthsimple Magazine

After many years as an editor for GQ, Devin Friedman parlayed his storytelling talent into a job where he could further his ever-expanding creativity: multimedia journalism.

In college, Friedman studied fiction but didn’t want to stay home writing alone. He became an award-winning journalist, writing for magazines such as Esquire, Rolling Stone and The New Yorker. At GQ, he wrote an Iraq war book and led the magazine’s video channel, where he developed Most Expensivest Shit with 2 Chainz, now a TV show.

But he wasn’t done finding new, expansive creative outlets. Last year, Friedman joined Wealthsimple, a Canadian financial tech company, helming DGA award-winning ad campaigns, and establishing a Webby-finalist online magazine and video series. He is now exploring what a Wealthsimple podcast and print magazine could look like.

Just don’t use the term “branded content.”

“Either it sounds and feels like an ad, or it feels creepily un-ad-like in a way that makes me feel suspicious,” says Friedman, who wanted to create transparent content, something he characterizes as “totally legit when it comes to being interesting.”

For instance, in Wealthsimple’s interview series, Money Diaries, people tell their life stories through the prism of money. In one, Rachel Bloom shares her money made per episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. In another, a nun discusses her vow of poverty. Other interview subjects include Aubrey Plaza, Solo star Alden Ehrenreich and ad icon Paul “Can You Hear Me Now?” Marcarelli.

“The point of it is to be interesting and human about money,” says Friedman, “to make people feel like they’re not alone and to maybe teach them something as well.”
Senta Scarborough

Joseph Galbo
Social Media Specialist, U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission

Running “weird” Twitter accounts is a fine art. Wendy’s and Denny’s were pioneers in creating a connection between the humorous side of social media with the informative brand messaging that many companies want to push to their followers.

Now it’s the government’s turn.

This story first appeared in the June 11, 2018, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.