In recent years, innovation has often been defined by the race to be first to market or prove yourself an early adopter. Thankfully, that technological land rush—whether it be in VR, social apps or AI—seems to be slowing, with the focus shifting to tangible benefits and truly captivating experiences.
Adweek’s annual Creative 100, a list of the most creative professionals in marketing, media and tech, features a wide variety of industry icons, but one of the most fascinating portions of the list each year is our roundup of the 10 digital innovators worth watching.
Here are our picks for 2017’s inspiring, entertaining and occasionally mind-blowing innovators:
Chief Creative Officer, Jackbox Games
Things had been going so well, until the bottom fell out. With little more than a fine arts degree and some design chops, Allard Laban had scored a job with screensaver company Berkeley Systems (“the flying toaster people”), somehow parlayed it into a gig at Disney and then left to rejoin former colleagues who had created a CD-ROM gaming sensation with You Don’t Know Jack.
But in 2001, new gaming consoles like the Xbox disrupted the market, and Laban’s company, Jellyvision, withered from 75 employees to six. So they pivoted, becoming The Jellyvision Lab, and their game techniques became a business tool called “interactive conversation.”
“Initially it was a blue sky effort,” Laban admits, “but eventually we gained some traction and a bunch of clients, many of whom played You Don’t Know Jack in college.”
In 2008, they made their gaming comeback, rebranding as Jackbox Games and launching a new You Don’t Know Jack for the connected age. Then they began bundling new party games into instantly popular Jackbox Party Packs, with hits like Drawful and Fibbage.
So what has kept Laban in his current job for an astounding 17 years? “Once you’ve worked with really funny people, it’s really hard to leave that.,” he says. “It’s what kept me here, the people. They’re so talented, smart and, honestly, kind of adorable.”
Co-founder and CEO, Knotch
Gansca is walking in the New York City rain and thinking about how her startup has grown from eight to 30 employees in the span of four years (and soon plans to expand to 50 staffers). Specifically, she’s recalling how her company has moved from Brooklyn to Manhattan’s Flatiron district and now is readying to call larger SoHo digs home.
“We’ve gone from sitting in a restaurant and having beers in the beginning to thinking about how to create KPIs,” she says.
Based on the belief that “the feedback loop is broken” and consumers need to be heard, Knotch helps marketers like Unilever, GE and Prudential measure and optimize return on investment for their creative efforts, offering real-time data about an audience’s emotional and behavioral response to brand content and ads. Gansca, a Transylvania native and 2011 Stanford grad, looks back on her journey to thriving entrepreneur—Knotch saw revenue jump 500 percent last year compared to 2015—and believes that many up-and-comers miss the boat on how data and creativity mesh.
“Young people often don’t realize that marketing makes the Internet free for us,” she says. “We can make the Internet a better place for everyone.”
Andrew Morse and Chris Berend
Co-founders, Great Big Story
Morse and Berend took a significant risk when they co-founded Great Big Story in October 2015. With financial backing from CNN (where both are digital executives), the online video network endeavors to attract cosmopolitan, sophisticated millennials with positive, uplifting content. That’s quite a different vibe from the CNN legacy brand.
“It’s terrifying to not follow anyone else’s blueprint, but it’s the most satisfying,” Berend tells Adweek.
Great Big Story boasts a slate of original micro documentaries and short films with a cinematic quality rarely found on digital.
Morse and Berend, who came to CNN from Bloomberg earlier in the decade, are seeking fans, not just followers, with content that spans the globe. While the site lags behind Vice and BuzzFeed in subscribers, it’s posting solid audience growth, and has the full support and enthusiasm from CNN Worldwide president Jeff Zucker.
“Most attempts to reach millennial audiences fall into two camps – cynical or silly,” Morse says. “We saw the need for something else. There’s an audience out there starving for something inspiring and surprising. It’s working better than we could have imagined.”
Mooser is on the cutting edge of emerging technologies such as virtual reality, but he doesn’t want anyone to oversell the medium.
“For people who are headstrong in the VR space, we always push back and say ‘Don’t hype it up too much,’” he says. “We need to evolve naturally.”
RYOT is evolving–and growing—rapidly. Since it was acquired last year by AOL, the team has grown globally from 40 to 100 staffers that inject “creative steroids” into storytelling across the Verizon-owned company’s media properties. Along with launching VR sketch comedy and news shows with Hulu, RYOT’s partnered with Clorox on a 360-degree film highlighting how the company’s providing clean water, including a way to donate from inside the VR headset. For Apple, RYOT used an iPhone 7 to shoot a climber summiting Mount Everest. RYOT’s also expanded beyond VR into augmented reality, creating an AR cover of Sports Illustrated sponsored by Coors Light.
Dr. Heather Knight
Heather Knight, Ph.D., believes that by studying actors, dancers and comedians, we can find better ways for humans and robots to interact. The founder of Marilyn Monrobot, a robot theater company, and the annual Robot Film Festival, her work is part academic research, part art.
Knight has spent past four years developing a system for robot body language. Among her discoveries: people tend to not interrupt a robot that looks rushed—an example of how subtle, human-inspired cues could help robots work better with people. After completing her Ph.D. in Robotics at Carnegie Mellon and a post-doc at Stanford University, Knight’s next academic goal is this fall’s launch of a new research lab at Oregon State University.
“Companies are popping up every month featuring home robots, and all the big tech companies are investigating robots, whether they announce that publicly or not,” she says. “People believe in robots and are beginning to understand that the central challenge is the human-machine interface. That’s where robots can touch us, work with us, and add value to our lives.”
—Erin Shaw Street
VP of Adult Swim Games
As vp of Adult Swim Games, Olsen makes sure his company’s 200-plus PC, mobile and console titles—like Amateur Surgeon and Robot Unicorn Attack—are as unique, distinctive and, as he puts it, “weird and unusual” as the network’s shows are.
“It’s a creator-driven environment where we try and leave no fingerprints,” Olsen says. “I’ve noticed there’s an inverse relationship between the number of notes you give and how good a project turns out.”
He has outdone himself with the new VR game Rick and Morty: Virtual Rick-ality, which launched in April and puts viewers directly in the world of the networks’s hit show. But even Rick & Morty tie-in games, like Virtual Rick-ality and Pocket Mortys, are conceived as “standalone products that are expected to perform well on their own,” Olsen says, “rather than just ‘adver-games.'”
Executive Producer, Tool of North America
For Sourikoff, who oversees VR and 360-degree video at Tool of North America, creativity consists mainly of finding fresh ways to interpret timeless themes for an increasingly sophisticated audience.
“If the message is powerful enough, ask yourself, ‘What new perspective can be revealed by using a different vehicle for expression?’ Or more specifically, ‘What could be said in VR that couldn’t be said before?’”
Tasked with launching a slate of original products, Sourikoff is currently immersed in “Fall In Love VR,” a project for Oculus inspired by an experiment that probes whether any two people can fall in love by asking each other a specific set of questions. Tool uses voice recognition to test “if you can feel an authentic connection to a virtual stranger when in VR. The process of falling in love is the most intoxicating human experience,” she says. “That’s a story that’s been told countless times, and now through the power of VR, audiences will be able to experience falling in love first hand, over and over again.”
Milica Zec and Winslow Porter
Co-founders, New Reality Co.
Their first VR project aimed to put you alongside a family huddling for safety in a war zone, but their second was even more ambitious: to make you experience the life of a tree.
These empathy-driven projects—called Giant and Tree, respectively—reunited filmmaker Zec and creative technologist Porter more than a decade after they first met as aspiring editors at a postproduction company. They quit their day jobs in 2016 and set up shop in the New Museum’s incubator space to create Giant, based on Zec’s childhood in Serbia. “Since I grew up in a war-torn country and experienced bombing when I was only 17,” she says, “I wanted to bring users inside of the story, placing them right there with an innocent family in peril.”
Next came Tree, which lets the user experience growing from a seed in the rainforest, stretching to the sky and then sensing (via haptics and ambient smells) the approaching horror of clearcutting.
“During Sundance, Tribeca and TED, I watched people cry and shout inside the headset for the final moments of Tree,” Zec says. “So many people told us that for the first time, climate change felt personal.”
Shitty Robot Maker, YouTube Star
In just a few short years, this self-proclaimed “Queen of Shitty Robots” has morphed into video royalty, generating more than 80 million views across all platforms. An effervescent Swede now based in San Francisco, Giertz builds devices designed to automate menial tasks and, ostensibly, help with daily chores. These gizmos tend to almost accomplish their missions, often with hilarious results.
For example, her “Wakeup Machine” activates an artificial hand that slaps the sleeper silly (which does, in fact, wake them up). And her lipstick-bot smears people’s faces real good; it added some color to Stephen Colbert’s lips (and his cheeks and chin) when Giertz visited the Late Show last year. Her shtick embodies the inquisitive, fun-loving maker spirit, with the thrill of discovery trumping perfection, and it won her a part in Samsung’s Academy Awards commercial.