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.”

Tarty created the video while running his own London agency called Stay in School, which he left to take on a CD role at consultancy SYPartners before being named to his current role, CCO of SS+K. Previous roles include creative stints at DDB Los Angeles, Mother London and Wieden + Kennedy London.

Passionate (or, as he says, “super nerdy”) about history and human behavior, Tarty believes that creativity is a defining aspect of how mankind endures its greatest times of crisis.

“Eventually, after some unbearable suffering, our survival tends to fall on our creative ideas and willingness to work together,” he says. “The minute we lose sight of that, the earth will simply hit reset without us.”

Christine Lane and Deb Archambault
Executive Producers, McCann New York

A statue that became an icon. An album featuring no less than Bob Dylan. These are just two of the projects that have made McCann New York the recent envy of the agency world (and Adweek’s U.S. Agency of the Year for 2017), and they couldn’t have happened without producers Christine Lane and Deb Archambault.

“I will forever be proud of leading content creation around Fearless Girl,” Archambault says of the highly awarded bronze statue created for State Street Global Advisors. “She may be small, but she’s so much bigger than a project.”

Lane says Fearless Girl has been an unprecedented experience, especially in terms of the unexpected ways it echoed throughout the world.

“Working in advertising, you always want your projects to resonate in culture, and to see Fearless Girl as a meme, as a question on Jeopardy, and represented in political satire was incredible,” she says. “But I never anticipated women would get tattoos of Fearless Girl. I never anticipated receiving emails from mothers who saw their daughters in Fearless Girl or from women working on Wall Street who felt their struggle was finally being acknowledged.”

Since Fearless Girl’s launch, McCann has continued to generate lauded campaigns, including the Universal Love album featuring new versions of classic love songs, reimagined as being sung to someone of the same gender. Dylan, Kesha, St. Vincent and more contributed to the project. “My hope,” Archambault says, “is that Universal Love helps inspire artists to sing more freely about whomever it is that they love.”

Derek Fridman and Jason Musante
Chief Design Officer and Chief Creative Officer, Huge

One is an acclaimed street artist. The other is a pilot who sees time in the skies as a form of meditation. Together, they form one of the most interesting and inventive duos in modern advertising.

Derek Fridman has spent years stretching the outer edges of how the industry defines “design.” It began in 2001, when he left Razorfish after the dot-com collapse and spent six months dedicated to creating art under the pseudonym UrbanMedium, resulting in gallery showings around the world. Even today it remains an “outlet for my insatiable need to create as well as a catalyst for thinking outside the box when solving a client’s design challenges.”

In 2013, Fridman opened Huge’s Atlanta office, now the agency’s second-largest. He’s most proud of launching Huge Cafe, a self-sustaining public coffee shop and R&D retail space. His team has also created apps, VR/AR activations and other interactive experiences for brands like Lowe’s, Under Armour and AMC Theaters.

As Huge’s creative chief, Musante brings a diverse agency pedigree, including successful stints at Saatchi & Saatchi, Co:collective and BBDO New York.

While his team’s work on the 2018 Super Bowl for Quicken Loans, starring Keegan-Michael Key, is his best-known recent work, Musante was also instrumental in the 2017 launch of Zelle, a mobile payment app owned by a partnership of banking giants like Bank of America and Capital One. Huge developed the name and market strategy for the app, along with all the marketing materials—accomplishing the seemingly impossible design challenge of getting seven major financial institutions to agree to one brand aesthetic.

With so much going on, amateur pilot Musante finds that time in a cockpit is the perfect way to disengage from his digital life and be present in the moment. “This total focus is incredibly meditative,” he says, “allowing me to get a different perspective, literally, on any creative or business challenge.”

Lisa Topol and Derek Barnes
Co-CCOs, DDB New York

In advertising, when you find the perfect partner, you never want to be parted. But promotions and job changes usually bring an end to such dream duos.

That seemed to be the fate in store for Lisa Topol and Derek Barnes, who met at Wieden + Kennedy New York in the 2000s but parted ways to work at different agencies. Then they were reunited at Grey as ECDs in 2013, and this year, DDB New York lured them both away to be its co-CCOs.

At Grey New York, their partnership fueled the creativity for brands like the NFL, Bose and Best Buy. Topol and Barnes are most proud to look back on their 2015 Super Bowl spot for NoMore.org, which let audiences listen to a chilling conversation between a 911 operator and a domestic violence victim pretending to order a pizza while her abuser was in the room.

“This was just before the ‘Me Too’ movement blew the lid off the types of behavior women are all too often exposed to every day,” Topol says. “It used one of the biggest platforms in the world to deliver a very compelling, sobering and real statement about the often silent issue of domestic violence. It made noise and it made phones ring at domestic violence hotlines across the nation.”

Activism and social causes have increasingly fueled Topol’s creative pursuits, such as the posters she wrote for the 2017 Women’s March, with slogans like “pRESIDENT EVIL” and “Is That Putin in Your Pocket, or Are You Just Happy to Deceive Me?”

“Sitting back and watching this implosion is not an option,” she says. “Along with friends and colleagues we launched a huge series of protest signs we made available on Tumblr for free download. I was amazed when I saw them show up all over the march in D.C.”

Liz Taylor
Chief Creative Officer, FCB Chicago

Liz Taylor is writing a book. She wants you to know this, because the more she mentions it, the more pressure she’ll feel to actually get it done.

“It’s a goal I’ve always had,” she says. “I try to take time each year to head off into the woods, surrounded by trees and nature’s soundtrack, to work on it. It’s rewarding to be a maker, a writer, a storyteller.”

Regardless of whether or when her book gets published, Taylor’s storytelling is frequently on display in the work from FCB Chicago and, prior to that, from her time as an ECD at Ogilvy. At FCB she’s worked with brands big and small, including creating the 2018 Super Bowl ad for Michelob Ultra featuring Chris Pratt.

For under-the-radar men’s products brand Archer, FCB Chicago created a PR coup by giving a minor-league baseball pitcher “the biggest sports endorsement deal of all time”—$3.4 billion, with the clever caveat that it would be disbursed over 10 million years. The work won two Cannes Lions and an Effie.

But Taylor’s favorite project was the eye-opening “Teddy Gun,” which created a gun in the shape of a teddy bear. The gun-control advocacy project wanted to highlight that toys often face stricter regulation in America than firearms.

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