26 Rising Talents Helping Reshape the Agency Landscape

These emerging talents represent a new generation on Adweek's Creative 100 for 2020

Headshot of David Griner

Creativity, long divided by the agency world into the binary disciplines of art and copy, is today a blurred amalgam of technology, timing, strategy, calculated risk and social responsibility—all brought together by a meticulous commitment to craft. Each day, marketers find themselves surrounded by an infinite landscape of media options, and the creatives below have proven to be some of the best at navigating these new horizons.

Jeff Hodgson and Eli Ferrer
Creative directors, Gut
Based in: Miami

Recent work: Popeyes’ “Open Sunday” campaign marking the return of its chicken sandwich. “Popeyes’ main chicken sandwich competitor happens to be closed on Sundays, and Popeyes is open,” Hodgson says. “What better day to relaunch the sandwich? So, with a well-placed sticker on a road sign, we let everyone know that Popeyes is open and would be selling their sandwich again—on Sunday.”

Other work: “Bagel That” for Philadelphia Cream Cheese. “We needed to find a way to sell more cream cheese by selling more bagels,” Ferrer says. “So we asked ourselves what if everything could be a bagel? So we launched Bagel That, a hole-punching machine that turned anything into a bagel. The device sold out on Amazon.”

Advice for rising creatives: “Bring some of yourself into projects,” Hodgson says. “There’s a reason you’re the one creating the idea, so let your personality be part of it.”

Larry Gordon
Creative director, Laundry Service
Based in: New York

Recent work: Jordan Brand’s live Instagram responses to ESPN’s The Last Dance documentary series centered on Michael Jordan. “It’s the brand’s first time ever doing a truly live content series, and we’ve had some really memorable moments,” says Gordon, “like Teyana Taylor recapping her home birth and Carmelo Anthony telling stories about MJ reprimanding him via text message.”

On living in Harlem: “Growing up, movies like Harlem Nights and Sugar Hill inspired me. Harlem just felt like it should be home,” he says. “Spike Lee is also a huge influence, so I hope he forgives me for not living in Brooklyn with the rest of the creatives.”

Advice for rising creatives: “Bring your whole, entire, authentic self to work. I mean it,” Gordon says. “Come in that door and be who you truly are. Because you are already super dope. So don’t hide it, don’t mask it and don’t ever tone it down.”

Page Jensen-Slattengren
Senior copywriter, The Martin Agency
Based in: Richmond, Va.

Recent work: “Every Bod” for Hanes. “We noticed [men’s apparel] was really lacking in messages of body positivity and diversity—a stark contrast to the body confidence we were seeing in women’s underwear and beauty marketing,” Jensen-Slattengren explains. “We wanted to start a cultural movement to get men to love their bodies. We got told no—a lot—but we persevered, and thanks to an amazing team and brave clients, we created a musical with over 100 men singing in the streets in their underwear.”

On inclusive casting: “Representation in advertising is so much more than just casting women or POC in a 30-second spot. We need to champion the stories and lift the voices of people who are marginalized in mainstream media,” she says. “And that means hiring, casting, working with and promoting people in the disability community, LGBTQ, women and diversity in age and ethnicity.”

Personal mantra: “Anything you can do,” Jensen-Slattengren says, “I can do bleeding.”

Raphael Franzini
Creative director, The Community
Based in: Miami

Recent work: “Our executive director of creative technology and innovation, Chris Neff, and I partnered to develop Bridge Forecast, an app to help drivers avoid the traffic caused by drawbridges. This system is now in the process of becoming a permanent service with the City of Miami,” Franzini says. “Plus, the project led to the creation of a new discipline at The Community, Project Greenhouse, focused on generating ideas that link brands to startups under the power of purpose.”

Other work: “‘Best for a Good Reason’ for Verizon. We showcased the true intention behind everything Verizon engineers do through 50-plus videos over the course of a year,” he says.

On defying expectations: “People hate ads—until they see one they like,” Franzini says. “I strive to create stuff the audience can relate to, enjoy or even use so that, ultimately, they know it’s an ad but don’t feel like they’re being advertised to.”

Rony Castor and Anthony O’Neill
Associate creative directors, Goodby Silverstein & Partners
Based in: San Francisco

Rony Castor and Anthony O’Neill

Recent work: “Not a Gun” for Courageous Conversation Global Foundation. “It’s a campaign that deals with police brutality against Black people. As Black men, it’s close to our hearts and will hopefully spark change,” O’Neill says. “Despite having a nonexistent budget, the entire team was all in—from the agency partners on down, the team made it great.”

On the need for inclusive hiring: “We’ve worked at multicultural, African-American and general-market agencies, so we’ve seen firsthand how great it can be to have a diverse group of creative people within an office,” Castor says. “If I’m honest, most agencies could do better when it comes to diversity, especially at the leadership level. That’s the biggest change we’d like to see across the board.”

Side effects of quarantine: “I know a lot more about TikTok than I’d like to,” says Castor.

Sai He
senior creative, freelance
Based in: Vancouver

His alter ego: Dong Draper, a social media persona that’s become a popular source of insight and community for rising creatives.

Recent work: New Zealand Transport Agency PSA “Let Driving Distract You.” “We threw hundreds of ideas at the wall before a phrase I absentmindedly jotted down—‘Let driving distract you from your phone’—captured the imagination of our ecd,” He recalls. “We took the line and reverse-engineered a spot that is the antithesis of typical PSAs. Instead of telling viewers what not to do, we gave them a reason to look forward to driving distraction-free.”

On diversity and inclusion: “The industry’s diversity problem is actually a privilege problem,” says He. “Some of the brightest creative minds will never get a chance because they don’t have the time or money to go to portfolio school. It’s getting harder for self-taught creatives as portfolio schools saturate the entry-level market with a mostly homogeneous stream of talent.”

Jessica Ghersi and Kevin Kaminishi
Creatives, Wieden + Kennedy New York
Based in: New York

Their Super Bowl double appearance: In 2019’s Big Game, Ghersi and Kaminishi developed two of the night’s biggest ads, both featuring Bud Light: “Special Delivery” about corn syrup and “Joust,” which abruptly revealed itself as a co-branded ad with HBO’s Game of Thrones. The spots were also created while the duo was also working on three non-Super Bowl ads. “It was sort of hell, but like the kind of hell that you remember as heaven later,” Ghersi says. “II definitely cried, but laughed a lot too.”

Other recent work: “We just released a spot called ‘Meet Again’ on what would have been MLB’s opening day,” Kaminishi says. “It shows all the empty stadiums and bars that have been affected by Covid-19, and encourages people to stay home and be safe now, so that we can all meet up again later.”

Justin Norman
SVP and creative director, Doner
Based in: Detroit

Recent work: “Last year, I had a blast relaunching JBL with a group of extremely smart brand-side partners. We produced a whirl of work in the family of Harman companies from things as simple as fun explainer videos for web to the three commercials we produced for their portable line of speakers. I was fortunate to get hired on to Doner to lead that business as its creative director.”

On diversity and inclusion: “For me, as a creative of color and as a black man in the corporate world, I find it incredibly alarming how few people who look like me or have my background are in leadership. I try my best to mentor as many young creatives of color as I can and keep my doors open to anyone needing conversation on anything I can help uplift.”

Christina Mallon
Global Head of Inclusive Design and Accessibility, Wunderman Thompson
Based in: New York

Recent work: The Tommy Hilfiger Adaptive Alexa skill. “Tommy was the first mass fashion brand to launch an adaptive clothing line for people with disabilities.  Many people in the disability community find using their voice for certain tasks easier, so my team and I partnered with them to create a voice-activated personal shopper.”

Reclaiming her narrative: ”A few years ago, my arms became paralyzed from motor neuron disease. The most difficult part of becoming paralyzed was not losing control of my arms but losing the control over my narrative.  People assumed that my life was over and that I could no longer add value to the world.  Most media and marketing portrays people with disabilities as charity, and most brands don’t design with their needs in mind, which devalues them.  These were design problems, so I became a designer.”

Nellie Rego Santee
Copywriter, David
Based in: Miami

Recent work: “Edchup,” Heinz’s collaboration with Ed Sheeran. “It started with the fact that Ed Sheeran had tattooed the Heinz label on his arm years ago, and always professed his love for the brand. We wanted to include him in the creative in a way that was authentic and real to his love, and didn’t sound like a paid endorsement.”

Advice to creatives: “The best strategy to learn to do good advertising at the beginning is reverse-engineering. Looking at good pieces of work and trying to figure out why they are good and why they work. Look at good work every day.”

On starting out in Goiânia, Brazil: “Because it is not a big center for advertising, a lot of what we learn in terms of advertising is self-taught. That made me learn how to get things done without many resources, and getting inspiration from other markets.”

Matthew Pullen and Jon Murray
Associate creative directors, RPA
Based in: Santa Monica

Recent work: Honda’s “Magic Snow Globe,” a VR experience for children hospitalized for cancer treatment. “Since the kids couldn’t physically leave the hospital to take part in all the usual holiday activities,” Murray says, “we used VR to transport them to a winter wonderland where they could play in the snow, build a snowman, and take part in the magic of the holiday season.”

On the personal impact of quarantine: “We’re often too busy—or we make the convenient excuse to be—to focus on the things that matter,” Pullen says. “The weight of Covid-19 and the world situation has definitely made me appreciate the important things even more. I’m lucky to have my health, my job and to know that my family is safe and well.”

Advice for rising creatives: “If you find yourself at an agency where you’re not making the kind of work you want to make, get proactive,” Murray says. “Study your client’s business and pitch ideas to your CD that somehow solve one of their business problems.”

Mietta McFarlane and Luke Chard
Senior copywriter and senior art director, Droga5
Based in: New York

Recent work: “A project that we just released and I couldn’t be prouder of was the latest ‘Seize The Awkward’ campaign, a teen suicide prevention charity that we helped develop two years ago. The first year, we acknowledged the awkwardness that comes with having a conversation about mental health with a friend, and this year we evolved it into all the ways you can break the ice and start the conversation. We created ‘Whatever Gets You Talking,’ a music video jam-packed with different ways to ask a friend if they are OK. Plus we created over 30 Giphy stickers that people could send to their friends, filters, and a bunch of illustrations that demonstrated other ways to ask.”

Creating where there’s a need: “Something I’ve noticed recently are the long lines outside supermarkets like Whole Foods due to social distancing,” Chard says. “So I developed a side project called Queue Cam with some friends that is a livestream of the lines at Whole Foods, so you can check the line before you get stuck in one.”

Advice for creatives: “Unless you’re very lucky—or have a God-given talent—the best briefs don’t just land on your desk,” McFarlane says. “You either need to sniff them out, or better yet, create them.”

Meredith Kinee and Rachel Cuyler
Creative directors, VMLY&R New York
Based in: New York

Recent work: “This year, we had the opportunity to help New Balance create a campaign around the 40th anniversary of the London Marathon,” Cuyler says. “We worked to develop stories that highlighted real runners and their relationship to both running and their home cities in England. Casting is always a highlight for us—getting to connect with those runners and let them each tell their story in their own voice was truly rewarding. The race itself, like many others around the world, was postponed due to Covid-19, but we look forward to sharing those stories alongside the runners during the race, which is scheduled for October.”

Advice for creatives: “Do your hardest work and thinking in the morning,” Kinee says. “If you’re feeling blocked or needing to express something complex, try it first thing in the morning. Your mind is so much more open to approaching difficult things right when you wake up. I think when the world around you is still, it helps quiet the chaos within—which helps you reframe your approach to tackling difficult projects.”

Joshua Smutko
Partner and creative director, Omelet
Based in: Los Angeles

Recent work: “Without a doubt I’m beyond proud of the team for our work on Google Stadia,” Smutko says. “Our fall campaign was a beast and the most amazing thing I’ve ever worked on. It was an incredible blend of strategy and insanity. For our spring campaign, Covid-19 had us pivot to a complete remote production, and being part of that was an experience I’ll never forget. I was beyond humbled by the perseverance of our team, our clients, and all of our partners.”

This story first appeared in the June 8, 2020, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@griner david.griner@adweek.com David Griner is creative and innovation editor at Adweek and host of Adweek's podcast, "Yeah, That's Probably an Ad."