27 Senior Agency Leaders Who Are Charting a New Course for the Creative Industry

They're taking the helm and changing the rules

Michelle Nguyen is co-founder and chief creative officer of San Francisco-based Scout Lab.
Headshot of David Griner

Yesterday’s upstarts have become today’s top-level talent, ushering in a new, digitally native generation of leadership. While many of them first arrived in the advertising world to find it dangerously complacent, those wise and bold enough to chart a path forward have helped reshape the industry. You may not have already known their names, but you’ve certainly already felt their influence.

Katie Keating and Erica Fite
Co-founders, Fancy

If a chain of sex shops isn’t the first kind of client that comes to mind when you think of an agency dedicated to empowering and championing women, well, maybe it should be.

New York-based Fancy was founded by agency veterans Katie Keating and Erica Fite in 2011 with the insight that “if something matters to women, it matters to the world.” Years before #MeToo began shifting the agency landscape, Fancy was building a business around limitless respect of women both as colleagues and as consumers.

Fancy's poster for The Lion's Den

And when they were recently approached by The Lion’s Den, a chain of 46 sex shops looking to modernize its brand image, Fancy made the magic happen.

“Fancy was challenged with shifting perception of a mostly male, DVD-centric, pull-off-the-highway adult superstore into an appealing destination for women and couples,” Fite says. “We knew Lion’s Den would provide the perfect opportunity for us to elevate and validate sexual health and empowerment as an important part of a women’s life, historically misrepresented—in a category dominated by ideas and images meant to tempt and titillate men—or flat-out ignored.”

The resulting work was empowering, certainly, but still fun, with women shedding inhibitions in the bedroom and even at the occasional geriatric birthday party. The brand’s poster for International Women’s Day was especially memorable: “Women Come First!”

Another point of pride is Fancy for Good, the agency’s nonprofit focus area. “We recently raised money to equip midwives with motorcycles in Ghana,” Keating says, “and our efforts also support women and girls around the world from Haiti to Rwanda to South Africa to right here at home in NYC.”

Danilo Boer and Marcos Kotlhar
Executive Creative Directors, BBDO New York

Bacardi and Macy’s may be very different brands, but they’ve faced a similar challenge: They’re iconic, but not always seen as the most fresh and exciting options in their rapidly evolving categories.

Luckily, the same team is working with both to change that. Danilo Boer and Marcos Kotlhar—a duo that traces its roots to their early years together at Brazil’s AlmapBBDO—have been behind BBDO New York’s upbeat and invigorating work for these two clients.

For Bacardi, that’s meant everything from millennial-resonant ads like “Break Free,” poking fun at the inescapable loops of Instagram’s popular Boomerang feature, to cutting-edge collaborative integrations like Music Liberates Music, through which Bacardi donated studio time to new Caribbean musicians every time someone streamed a Major Lazer track on Spotify.

“We have been very proud of how in the last three years we and the BBDO team have turned Bacardi into a brand that is constantly innovating, delivering entertainment and making ads that don’t even feel like ads,” Boer says, “and how that led Bacardi to be praised by award shows and, most importantly, helped their business leave a difficult moment and move into a currently, extremely healthy place.”

For Macy’s, the duo recently completed “Spotlight,” a lovely ad that used seamless digital effects to show the sunlight melting away drab winter clothes in favor of bare skin and bright, light fabrics.

If you’re looking to have your own moment in the sun, whether as a brand or as a creative professional, Kotlhar has this advice: “When you start to get comfortable and you feel like you finally have things under control, change.”

Michelle Nguyen
Co-founder and Chief Creative Officer, Scout Lab

When it comes to food, Michelle Nguyen sees things differently than most of us. Literally.

“I have synesthesia, where I associate experiences with colors,” she says. “Cooking, or even eating, to me is almost exactly like painting a picture. Every ingredient, sound, texture and taste formulates a color that gets layered and stored into my brain like a painting.”

That might explain why, after leaving her successful tenure as design director for lifestyle media site Brit + Co to launch San Francisco agency startup Scout Lab, one of her first major projects has been to create stunning visual content for Plenty, a network of local farms that use vertical gardening techniques to create healthy food with a minimal footprint.

“Not only do I get to combine my love for design and food, but the experience has also been deeply rewarding because I’m developing creative for a brand that I truly believe will change the world,” Nguyen says.

The magazine-quality creative direction for Plenty has been strategic and hands-on joy for Nguyen. “I loved getting down and dirty in the process,” she says. “I handled everything from concept of photography to model selection and even recipe development with our food stylists.”

Any free time Nguyen finds between work projects is spent on her two other great passions: travel and true crime.

“I find creativity in how crimes are solved, putting the case together piece by piece through evidence, testimonies, and facts versus perception,” she says. “I actually thought about becoming a forensic scientist before I decided to get into design.”

Feh Tarty
Chief Creative Officer, SS+K

The world-changing powers of humanity and creativity were never abstract ideas to Feh Tarty, born in Liberia and raised in the United States, where he watched from a distance as loved ones endured a brutal civil war.

Those memories felt fresh when he served as creative director on the 2017 music video for “No Refuge” by PARISI and Wu-Tang Clan alumnus RZA.

“It was emotional for me because members of my family fled to refugee camps in neighboring countries in order to survive Liberia’s civil war, which began in 1990,” Tarty says. “As a child growing up in the U.S., it was hard listening to some voices in the media refer to Liberian refugees as a nuisance, rather than parents, siblings and children fleeing for their lives to unite with their loved ones—and in many instances risking their own lives to save others.”

This story first appeared in the June 11, 2018, 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."
Publish date: June 10, 2018 https://stage.adweek.com/creativity/27-agency-senior-leaders-2018/ © 2020 Adweek, LLC. - All Rights Reserved and NOT FOR REPRINT