At a time when so many people call themselves "content creators," who are the creatives truly making the most of modern media?
From video and podcasts to VR and visual effects, today's content world is a stupifyingly massive playground where the rules are rewritten daily.
As part of Adweek's annual Creative 100—a list of the 100 most creative professionals in America—we gathered totgether 20 of the most ingenious and entertaining content creators of 2016:
• Lilly Singh
Better known to her fans as IISuperwomanII, Singh is one of YouTube's fastest-growing stars with 9.2 million subscribers and 1.3 billion video views. Initially making her mark with parody-based skits involving her Indian parents, the 27-year-old is increasingly becoming known for mainstream projects, including a world tour for her rap music last year dubbed "A Trip to Unicorn Island" and a deal with makeup brand Smashbox to create and sell a red shade of lipstick. She's worked with Coca-Cola to create buzzy content and starred in YouTube's ongoing advertising campaign, which pitches the site's most popular homegrown creators. In May, she even hosted the video giant's annual Brandcast event to pitch brands on why they should shift significant television ad budgets to digital. "Gone are the days of testing this platform," she told a packed room of advertisers. "That is so 2013. YouTube is proven, and the audience is here."
• Quinta Brunson
Writer / Actor / Producer
BuzzFeed Motion Pictures, Los Angeles
If you've ever watched one of BuzzFeed's many viral videos, chances are you've seen Brunson. With a comedic background from The Second City, Chicago, she is among the media company's top talents in consistently cranking out provoking and entertaining digital content. The Philadelphia native joined BuzzFeed Motion Pictures in early 2015, and within a year she became the company's first producer to sign an exclusive contract as one of its development partners. Brunson writes, directs, produces and stars in her own videos, including The Girl Who's Never Been on a Nice Date series, and she's in the process of selling a 12-episode sitcom based on another hit series called Broke. "Traditional media has yet to truly find the beauty in shareable and relatable content as an asset or even a promotional tool," she tells Adweek, "and with valid reason. It's just such an advantage we have in the digital space."
• Scott Bradlee
Founder / Arranger / Pianist
Postmodern Jukebox, New York City
New York's Postmodern Jukebox is a musical collective in the best sense of the phrase. Founder Bradlee and his rotating band of classically trained pranksters have been reworking contemporary pop hits into smoky serenades since 2011. The project started in a Queens, N.Y., basement, and its current playlist runs the gamut from lowbrow to high society. What might lead one to transport the White Stripes into the Dixieland Era or turn "All About That Bass" into a soaring, New Orleans-style romp? "Growing up, I loved the music styles of the past," Bradlee tells Adweek. "While my friends were listening to Top 40 radio, I was listening to Duke Ellington and Ray Charles." The group's YouTube channel has more than 500 million views, and a North American tour is underway, with global appearances to follow.
• Kai Hasson
Co-Founder / Creative Director
Portal A, Los Angeles
Hasson started Portal A, a content studio headquartered in San Francisco and Los Angeles, in a basement with childhood friends Zach Blume and Nate Houghteling. The three still run it together, and since 2010, the studio has created buzz-worthy content for brands like YouTube, Twitter, Google, Lenovo, NBCUniversal and Universal Pictures. That includes YouTube's annual recap YouTube Rewind, which Hasson says defines the studio's brand creatively. "Directing that project has given me the opportunity to meet some of the most talented people in the world of digital content— and it's also aged me 15 years," Hasson says. But the effort for such Herculean projects is worth it, he says: "We spend each moment of the day trying to create work we'll be proud of for years to come."
• Jad Abumrad
Radio and Podcast Host
RadioLab and More Perfect, New York City
Abumrad takes what he calls a "headless chicken" approach to creativity. "My creative process has always been a healthy, sometimes self-destructive amount of flailing around in the dark and trying to hit on something. We spend a lot of time not exactly sure where we're going," he says. But such disorientation is, he believes, key to the success of his shows, the science-minded hit Radiolab and its recent spinoff, More Perfect, focused on stories from the U.S. Supreme Court. "If those moments where you feel lost aren't there, something's wrong," he says. "It's about figuring it out as you go." The result? Some 1.5 million weekly podcast listeners and 14 million monthly radio listeners for Radiolab, along with Peabody Awards in 2010 and 2015.
• Kori Schulman
Deputy Director of Digital Strategy
The White House, Washington, D.C.
Before Schulman became the White House's deputy director of digital strategy, she served as Barack Obama's graphic designer during his 2008 presidential campaign. (She even contributed to the book Designing Obama about the art behind the president's campaign.) Schulman, who helped Obama write his first tweet, has played an integral role in helping the president navigate the art of interactive diplomacy and helped him stay on the cutting edge of emerging tech. She's also been tasked with developing ways for Obama to integrate policy messaging into unexpected platforms like Zillow and Pinterest. The result of Schulman's work, alongside the rest of the White House's digital strategy team, has been a presidency whose viral prowess—whether on BuzzFeed, Funny or Die, Facebook or Snapchat—can give any global brand a run for its money.
• Ian Durkin
Curator / Photographer / Videographer
Vimeo, New York City
Despite the tech-infused world we live in, Durkin has used the web to spotlight the great outdoors. The filmmaker and photographer has amassed an impressive, and wholly unique, nature-filled collection that features everything from climbing mountains and catching waves to pirate (yes, pirate) parties and a self-built cinder cone tree house above a skate park. "To me, creativity is rooted in curiosity. Curiosity in a person, a story, a time period, a medium," Durkin tells Adweek. Aside from crafting his own work, Durkin curates Vimeo's Staff Picks, watching hours of film every day. "When I find films that I love, they get featured for the entire Vimeo community to see," he says.
• Angus Kneale
Co-founder and Chief Creative Officer
The Mill, New York City
Kneale has gotten to know The Most Interesting Man in the World, brought the Honda Eclipse to your local theater in 3-D and helped Johnnie Walker create a Brazilian monster, but he's more interested in testing boundaries than stealing the spotlight. As co-founder and chief creative officer of postproduction company The Mill New York, Kneale has supervised visual effects on more than 20 Super Bowl spots. "My creative process is derived mainly from experimentation and cross-disciplinary influence," he says. "I take things from my design background and apply them to technical problems, and vice versa." His shop won a Cannes Lion in the Innovation category this year for the Blackbird, the world's first fully adjustable car rig for ad shoots. "The end result is far more impressive than I ever imagined," he says.
• Saschka Unseld
Oculus Story Studio and Passion Pictures, New York City
Unseld's creative passion is quite literally animated: He has worked on the likes of Pixar's Brave and Toy Story 3 and directed the Disney-owned studio's 2013 theatrical short The Blue Umbrella. His love of emotionally resonant cartoons has also led to much commercial work, most recently Chipotle's comeback spot "A Love Affair." "I always need to find something in the story, the characters, the world that I truly care about," Unseld says. "Something that moves me deeply, something that has two sides to it—a sadness and a joy; a melancholy and a happiness." He describes the Chipotle ad, which depicts a blossoming love affair between competing food vendors, as another attempt to explore that duality: "I was incredibly proud of working with not only Passion Pictures but also my art director, Katy Wu, who instilled the whole world with such a wonderful sense of uniqueness and beauty."
• John X. Carey
Tool of North America, Los Angeles
Best known for helming Dove's iconic "Real Beauty Sketches" video, Carey has continued to generate some of the most potent ads in the industry. This year he helped Apple and TBWA\Media Arts Lab tell the story of Dillan Barmache, an autistic teen whose iPad finally made it possible for him to communicate with friends and loved ones. "On Apple, the loneliness and optimism of our autistic subject, Dillan, really resonated because my favorite people are the 'people in the corner' who no one notices," Carey tells Adweek. "I want to be their microphone." Similarly, he helped give a voice to a group with serious breathing problems in Philips' "Breathless Choir," which was this year's Grand Prix winner in Pharma at Cannes.
• PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman
Reply All, New York City
If there's an oddball story about the internet, chances are Gimlet Media's Reply All podcast has covered it. The show's hosts, Vogt and Goldman, are no strangers to podcasting. They previously founded and co-hosted TLDR, an NPR podcast about internet culture and technology, and before that, they were producers at WNYC's On the Media. With an inventive, conversational approach that lets the topic dictate the length and flow of each story, Reply All, launched in 2014, now attracts more than 2 million listeners a month. Slate France called Reply All "the best podcast on the internet," and fellow podcast host and Adweek Creative 100 honoree Jad Abumrad of Radiolab said it's his "entire staff's secret favorite show—or not so secret, actually."
• Nanette Burstein
Hungry Man Productions, New York City
Despite being celebrated throughout her career for her excellent documentary filmmaking—including an Academy Award nomination for her first piece, 1999's On the Ropes—Burstein says she's actually found her advertising work of the past year to be some of her most rewarding. Her recent campaigns include a continuation of Always' #LikeAGirl movement, this time urging girls to stay active in sports, and Microsoft's "Make What's Next" ad, which challenged girls to name female inventors. "As a female director and a mother of an 8-year-old girl, this was quite fulfilling," she tells Adweek. "Exploring girls and sports for Always' #LikeAGirl, girls and science for Microsoft's 'Make What's Next,' and women's everyday accomplishments for Lean Cuisine's 'Weigh This' made for an inspired artistic year." —D.G.
• Dave Rife and Gabe Liberti
Dave & Gabe, New York City
This dazzling duo of multimedia artists known as Dave & Gabe operate a full-scale overstimulation studio in New York, creating immersive sound and light installations for such clients as Red Bull Studios and various arts organizations. But they specialize in interactive music experiences like Delqa, a collaboration with Microsoft and electronic indie-pop producer Matthew Dear that won three Cannes Lions this year. Rife says he and Liberti are creative contrarians: "Nothing frustrates us more than being told, 'This is the way it is; this is who you are, so just accept that.'" The Delqa project was in keeping with this creative ethos. "We want to give our guests the ability to make their own choices, and reward them for following that curiosity and exploring their unique intuitions," says Rife. "Our most successful projects are enabled by brands who empower audiences to create their own stories and memories."
• Chris Gethard
The Chris Gethard Show, New York City
There's nothing else on TV like The Chris Gethard Show, the freewheeling Fusion talk show that Gethard began onstage at New York's Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre and later moved to New York public access. The show regularly includes surreal celebrity antics like a sumo suit-clad Jon Hamm being bodyslammed by wrestlers and Lena Dunham giving prom advice while dressed as a mermaid. For Gethard, its most essential element is the instant audience feedback. Viewers watch tapings via Facebook Live, and then call in or leave comments online, which morphs the show in real time. "At most, 70 percent of our show is known to us beforehand. That other 30 percent is where the audience defines how things go, and that 30 percent is always the most interesting part," Gethard says. "I'm pretty obsessed with trying to break television out of this outdated mold where things only go in one direction."
• Jessica Williams and Phoebe Robinson
2 Dope Queens, New York City
Is Lenny Kravitz hot or not? How do you channel your inner white lady? What makes a "dad bod" beautiful? These are a few of the questions pondered by Williams and Robinson on their WNYC podcast, 2 Dope Queens. Williams, who recently left The Daily Show, and writer/comedian Robinson are joined on the show by celebrity guests to talk about everything from romance to race. "Partially because Jess and I have an Upright Citizens Brigade background, a lot of what we do is riffing," Robinson says. Their real-life friendship also helps them reach new creative heights. "All of the little moments and conversations that Jess and I have had in the past have helped us have this shorthand on stage," Robinson says. "If you're connected and vulnerable in your creative endeavors, you'll be rewarded for it so richly."
• Emily Weiss
Beauty Blogger / Entrepreneur
Into the Gloss and Glossier, New York City
Having founded beauty blog Into the Gloss in her mid-20s before launching her beauty line, Glossier, in October 2014, Weiss has turned both ventures into must-visit digital destinations for the chic. She credits her brands' success to input from her female readers and shoppers. "We derive all of our inspiration from our community, whether it's the products we create or our larger brand positioning—she drives everything," Weiss says. "I think a lot of brands are waking up to the fact that they cannot create in a vacuum, but for us it's in our DNA." Henry Davis, COO and president of Glossier, says Weiss "has a creative aptitude that thrives on the contribution of others and lays the foundation for her truly modern approach to brand building."
• Andrew Keller
Global Creative Director
Facebook Creative Shop, New York City
Keller's career seemed to be on a precarious path in 2015 when he was ousted as CEO and executive creative director of CP+B after 17 years with the agency. But he soon landed an even more coveted gig—global creative director of Facebook Creative Shop. Now Keller is helping to lead the social giant's creative marketing endeavors and agency partnerships. In his new role, Keller says he's focused on creating content that will have sincere impact for brands and users alike. "I strive to create work that is meaningful, useful and valuable," he says. "Brands need to find cultural narratives to tap into. Whether it's a cause, a passion or philosophy, serious or ridiculous, a brand needs to take a stand for something that connects credibly with who they are or want to be."
• Maryanne Butler
Framestore, New York City
The New York Times took a big step toward ushering in the era of VR when it shipped 1 million Google Cardboard viewing frames to subscribers. One thing many of those curious recipients saw was the work of Butler, creative director for visual effects house Framestore. She worked on the GE-branded VR video "The Nature of Industry," part of the NYT's Grand Prix-winning VR package at this year's Cannes Lions. "I'm very proud to be part of a project that changed so many people's perceptions about VR," she tells Adweek. Despite the complexity of such projects, Butler says she often finds value in the concepts that come most easily. "I use my instincts as a guide when I approach my work," she says. "More often than not, the ideas we have first are the best ones because they come from an honest place."
• Chris Milk
VR Content Creator / CEO
Within & Here Be Dragons, Los Angeles
Before brands like McDonald's, Budweiser and Lufthansa began experimenting with virtual reality, Milk was creating praiseworthy 360-degree films about the Syrian refugee crisis and the need for fresh water in Ethiopia. Milk, who began his career creating music videos and commercials for some of the world's biggest bands and brands, has been a pioneer in the realm of VR. His company, formerly Vrse.works—now been split into two entities: production studio Here Be Dragons and VR distribution platform Within—has inspired advertising, entertainment and journalism industries with how to make a viewer care about what they're seeing on screen. Milk sees the medium as an empathy generator, connecting the human experience with human consciousness. "I want to work in the same way a great composer would make the strings swell as the hero comes up over the mountain," Milk said in June at a conference in New York. "I can make you feel something usually by breaking the rules."
• Andrew Gauthier
BuzzFeed Motion Pictures, Los Angeles
Gauthier parlayed his ability to create viral videos for BuzzFeed such as Photoshopping Real Women Into Cover Models (which counts more than 18 million views on YouTube alone) and Drunk vs. Stoned (nearly 14 million) into a job running BuzzFeed's nascent video operation, with the goal of developing scripted and episodic fare. Earlier this month, Warner Bros. teamed with BuzzFeed—as well as Ellen DeGeneres and Broad City's Ilana Glazer— for its first motion picture, called Brother Orange. "When people ask me what my favorite video is, I totally cop out and say 'the next one,'" Gauthier says. "I get so much inspiration from all of the different ways people are connecting with each other on social platforms." —T.B.
Check out the rest of Adweek's Creative 100 honorees for 2016:
Also, see the full list of honorees in alphabetical order here.
This story first appeared in the July 25, 2016 issue of Adweek magazine.