26 Agency Leaders You Should Be Watching

Meet the innovative executives on Adweek's Creative 100

From left, Madwell co-founders Chris Sojka and David Eisenman, Saturday Morning co-founder Jayanta Jenkins and Spark & Riot founder Ana de Diego.
Headshot of David Griner

Leaders of the agency world used to be seen as names on doors, authors of books and fonts of quippy, quotable wisdom. Today’s best leaders, however, can be found operating at the ground level each day, leading by listening so they can stay in tune with the needs of their teams, their clients and the ever-evolving culture around them. Here are 26 names you should know when it comes to excellence in modern agency leadership.

Jayanta Jenkins
Co-founder, Saturday Morning
Based in: San Francisco

Recent work: Procter & Gamble’s “The Look,” created in partnership with Geoff Edwards, Keith Cartwright, Kwame Taylor-Hayford and Deja Cox. “It was an initiative that shines a light on the struggles of Black men and continues Marc Pritchard’s efforts to champion conversations around inclusivity,” says Jenkins. “My specific role in the project was as a creative lead.”

The personal impact of quarantine: “This quarantine period has given me pause to reflect how to ‘be with me’ and place a higher value on compassion,” he says. “I also have a 2-year-old son named Phoenix, and the way he looks at our world is a gift. Phoenix has been teaching me so much about myself during this period, and it is changing the way I think of myself as a creative leader and the brands I want to support.”

Advice for rising creatives: “Don’t be afraid to fail.”

Adrian Belina and Pablo Vio
Founders and global creative directors, Jam3
Based in: Los Angeles (Belina) and Toronto (Vio)

Recent work: “We crashed last year’s Coachella for Adidas Originals to do a super-sneaky product launch for the not-yet-released Donald Glover sneaker collab,” Belina says. “Ahead of his headlining set as Childish Gambino, our producers and creatives were walking the campgrounds with iPhones renamed to ‘Donald Glover’ and AirDropping unsuspecting concertgoers with his unreleased shoes. It was our smallest activation of the year, but the one with the biggest amount of buzz.”

Advice for rising creatives: “Never lose sight of what gets you out of bed every day. Your passion and love for what you do will drive you to your next track and beyond. If the track you’re on is not getting you there, find a new one,” says Vio.

Personal mantras: “There are two sayings we have that you might see plastered on our walls and on our swag,” says Belina. “‘The Relentless Pursuit of Better’ and a not-so-subtle, ‘Give all the fucks.'”

Barney Goldberg
Ecd, Innocean USA
Based in: Huntington Beach, Calif.

Recent work: Hyundai’s “Smaht Pahk” Super Bowl ad. “This year’s spot was a perfect blend of entertainment and actually selling something,” says Goldberg. “It’s pretty much a product demo with movie stars. From the cast to [director and Creative 100 honoree] Bryan Buckley to how it was received, it really was a special spot.”

On the lessons of quarantine: “Now that we’ve all had to work from home, we can see it does work. I can see agencies being more open to it in the future.” But, he adds, “I do think we’re missing out on the culture-building and creativity of being together.”

Personal mantra: “Work hard, and be nice to people. Nice doesn’t mean you lower the standard. The standard is always high. Nice just means people will feel good about the work and themselves when it’s all over.”

Elaine Cox
Ecd, Heat + Deloitte Digital
Based in: San Francisco

Recent work: Let’s Get Consensual, a campaign educating the public about physical and sexual consent. “This was a passion project, start to finish,” she says. “An ACD team brought this idea to me, to use technology to make consent common sense. Consent is a sensitive and stigmatized topic that too many people avoid or run from. So we set out to change the way this conversation was brought up by leveraging familiar tech to deliver ‘ah-ha’ moments in the places where consent awareness matters most. Together, we crafted the ideas and recruited a few other passionate people around the agency to bring these ideas to life. I sold the work through the rest of our leadership team, pushing for funding to bring this to life. After quite a bit of persistence, we got the funding we needed to really make an impact. And it kept growing from there.”

On growing up in San Francisco: “As a child of refugees, I never felt like I was like anyone else. But because the city was so diverse and everyone was so different from one another, our differences never mattered. Growing up with and around so many languages and cultures taught me to connect with all kinds of people.”

Personal mantra: “‘I have my way with words.’ This is meaningful on multiple levels. Whether it’s wrestling with writer’s block, being analytical, looking for creative inspiration, turning negativity into fuel to push oneself, or finding opportunity in everything, I always make my best effort to make my best effort.”

Chris Sojka and David Eisenman
Co-founders, Madwell

Based in: Brooklyn, N.Y.

Recent work: “I’m incredibly proud of a campaign we developed called We Are the Countervirus, which has run now on every continent, with over 35 million impressions in donated media, and all around the U.S. from grocery stores to highway sides to doctors’ offices to Times Square on the big screen,” Sojka says. “It felt good to do something good, and at scale, when I suddenly felt so powerless as an agency owner.”

Eisenman’s side business: “RifRaf is the leading single-serve ricotta cup in the industry. It currently comes in five delicious and unique flavors,” he says. “RifRaf is special to me because I was able to combine two of my favorite things: cheese and business.”

Personal mantra: “Non erit terebravisse,” says Sojka. “Never be bored.”

Shannon Washington
Group ecd, R/GA
Based in: New York

Recent work: “When I can, I love working with smaller businesses that I share a passion with, and last year I connected with Andréa and Robin McBride—aka The McBride Sisters—an unapologetic, black women-owned wine company that is looking to completely upend their industry. My kind of people. After connecting initially with a conversation about a campaign, I unpacked the brand a bit and suggested that they strengthen the brand’s foundation before jumping into a campaign. So together with my strategic partner, Anita, we spent a few months as a two-woman shop and did an accelerated creative x strategy sprint that delivered a clearer brand story, vision, and easily segued into a beautiful campaign that will launch soon.”

On working the (famously secretive) Apple account before joining R/GA: “I, along with some very talented people at Media Arts Lab, made something gorgeous for Apple. I co-led a team of 10-plus amazing creatives on a journey that recontextualized entertainment, culture and community, and made some groundbreaking choices in terms of the directors we collaborated with. A new take on an iconic name. And of course that’s all I can say about it.”

Advice to creatives: “Be brave enough to challenge everything you know to be true and don’t fall victim to your expectations.”

Ana de Diego
Founder, Spark & Riot
Based in: Los Angeles

On launching a production startup in 2018: “The goal was to build a company that produces a variety of projects, all with an ethos of giving back through and after production,” says de Diego. “Since the birth of Spark & Riot, we have produced numerous projects across different industries and have helped dozens of nonprofits and causes by creating content and financing specific projects for them.”

Recent work: Dove’s “Amplified,” featuring four Black women sharing their stories of hair discrimination in the workplace. “Not only is the ethos of the brand and messaging in line with Spark & Riot’s,” she says, “but it allowed us to build a strong nonprofit partnership with the ballerina Ingrid Silva, and we have already started manufacturing ballet pointe shoes for all skin shades.”

Personal mantra: “There will be sleeping enough in the grave. Benjamin Franklin.”

Erica Roberts
Ecd, Publicis NY
Based in: New York

Recent work: “I’m most proud of the work we’ve done this year on Jif, starting with the launch of the ‘That Jif’ing Good’ Campaign, which injected fun, modernity and irreverence into such an iconic brand. Without that total brand refresh, we wouldn’t have had the right to hijack the #JifvsGif debate the way we did. That activation was created in partnership with Giphy and really put the brand front and center culturally. I was the ECD over this new work from Jif, along with all the other consumer and coffee brand relaunches from J.M. Smucker. This includes our new ‘Morning Harmonizers’ campaign for Folgers, ‘Father Nature’ for Smuckers and ‘Quality that’s Criminal’ for 1850 Coffee, to name a few.”

Advice for creatives: “Never leave a room—or Zoom—if you’re unclear what you’re being asked to do. Whether it’s a brief, creative review or client feedback, ask tons of questions. And don’t just ask for the sake of pushing back. Ask to understand.”

Personal mantra: “Work hardest for the people working for you.”

Julia Neumann and Amy Ferguson
Ecds, TBWA\Chiat\Day New York
Based in: New York

Recent work: “The Super Bowl spot we created this year to launch new Mountain Dew Zero Sugar by remaking The Shining was an absolute labor of love,” Ferguson says. “Super Bowl spots are crazy because there are so many eyes on them, both internally, client side and out in the world. It’s the only time people actually want to see commercials so there is a lot of pressure to make something amazing. As the creative leads on the project and the brand Julia and I had to stay focused on delivering the absolute best creative product and not let the process chip away at what we were trying to make. In the end, we loved the finished product and it was so much fun to make.”

Other work: “The Billie Jean King Your Shoes project for Adidas was special,” Neumann says. “In honor of the 45th anniversary of the Battle of the Sexes we brought back her blue signature shoe. At the US Open people could turn any shoe into a blue BJK—no matter what brand—and take her spirit in the streets. Working with Billie Jean King, making a 70 year old woman the star of a campaign for a major sports brand and bringing it to life the way we were able to, was amazing”

On the ad industry’s “weird masochism”: “Everything has been under threat since I started, and possibly most of it was true, but we made it through somehow,” Neumann says. “TV was dead, and yet here we are still making spots. At one point, if creative didn’t have tech at its heart, it was all over, yet our Adidas “BJK Your Shoes” saw us create an awesome campaign with a tennis legend minus all the tech–and it resonated better than anything else we had done. Turns out real people do not change that much. Brands still resonate and are your most valuable asset.”

Matt Murphy
Ecd and partner, 72andSunny L.A.
Based in: Los Angeles

Recent work: “Last year, we worked with Tinder to launch “Swipe Night,” which was a choose-your-adventure style narrative where your decisions not only drove the apocalyptic storyline forward, they also led to matches. We built the experience directly into the Tinder app, in full partnership with their product and engineering team. I was involved in the project from the initial pitch through to final output, helping to keep our ambitions high, as well as making sure we nailed the execution. There were so many collaborations and ‘firsts’ happening on all fronts, that it really was a masterful effort of everyone giving it their all, the whole way through.”

Advice for creatives: “Creativity is a craft. Practice it every day. You’ve got to show up, put in the hours, and be relentless to work through and learn from the lows, while taking stock and celebrating the highs. The more you challenge yourself to solve each and every problem in bold new ways, the more powerful your mind will become.”

Jan Jacobs and Leo Premutico
Co-founders and CCOs, Johannes Leonardo
Based in: New York

Recent work:: “In 2019, we entered our sixth year with Adidas,” Jacobs says. “At the beginning of this year, we were tasked with relaunching the brand’s most iconic shoe—the newly redesigned Superstar sneaker—through a story that focuses on the future of the brand, while paying homage to its past collaborations. The film component was directed by Jonah Hill in his directorial debut, and we tapped into the Adidas creator network for the campaign, “Change Is A Team Sport.” The film depicts a facility where creators from different crafts and generations come together to work for change. It was a massive undertaking and another example of how we have continued to rally the adidas organization around an idea that empowers and values creators.”

Recent honors: Thanks to its success winning the Volkswagen and Gap accounts, plus doubling its staff size in a year, Johannes Leonardo was named Adweek’s Breakthrough Agency of the Year for 2019.

On courage versus risk: “Courage has nothing to do with risk,” Premutico says. “Risk is taking shots in the dark, chasing trends, and not being accountable for the results. Courage is about doing your homework, sharing the stakes, and walking hand in hand with your clients into the headwinds in order to create true and long lasting change. As an agency we make it our responsibility to enable our clients to make courageous decisions—and leave things behind in order to focus on an idea that can transform an organization and set a long-term agenda.”

Personal mantra: “I once heard that in order to be happy you need three things: Someone to love, something to do, something to look forward to,” Jacobs says. “I believe this is true.”

Shayne Millington
Global ecd, McCann New York
Based in: New York

Recent work: “Changing the Game” for Microsoft’s Xbox Adaptive Controller. “It was successful because creativity, engineering and the trust between a brand and an agency all came together at once,” she says. “We let the the community lead the way, not just with how the controller was designed, but with how we told their story. In every part of the project we let our hearts lead the way.”

Other work: “We did a campaign about the first female NFL coach,” she says. “Her name is Katie Sowers. Microsoft had an NFL media buy, and normally we would have told a story of an interesting male football player or coach. But instead, we chose to highlight a woman who was succeeding in what was generally known as a man’s role—a person who was defying the odds by doing what she loved, coaching football. Most people didn’t know her story, so it was really gratifying to help tell it.”

How New Jersey shaped her: “Being from New Jersey, you were always the butt of a joke, and you were always in the shadow of NYC,” she says. “So you were tough, you were outspoken, you were sarcastic and you could laugh at yourself. And you grew a thick skin. This toughness helped me grow up in a business that was generally male-led. I have a big mouth and an even bigger personality. But anyone who knows me knows I have a big heart, and I care sometimes too much, and all of that was created from that little state that everyone loves to hate.”

Josh Gross and Pedro Pérez
Co-CCOs, Energy BBDO
Based in: Chicago

Recent work: “We’re constantly searching for ideas that transcend formats, ideas that make their way into consumers’ lives,” Gross says. “A great example is ‘Clutter Couture Bag’ for Ziploc. Ziploc had a new product to help organize the inside of purses. We launched it by infiltrating New York Fashion Week, and it ended up being the most talked about campaign the brand has ever done.”

On the lessons of quarantine: “This year has been a bizarre and unexpected reminder that creativity can thrive under any circumstance,” Pérez says. “What have we learned? Adapt. Move quickly. Let the ideas do the rest.”

Personal mantra: “Be consistent in being different,” Pérez says.

Husani Oakley
Chief tech officer, Deutsch New York
Based in: New York

Recent work: Budweiser’s “Be a King” campaign. “We rolled out limited-edition bottles with exact replicas of [soccer star] Sergio Ramos’s tattoos,” he says. “Purchased via select online and physical retailers, once you got your hands on one, you could unlock exclusive content where Ramos explained the meaning behind each tattoo.”

Advice for rising creatives: “Don’t just stay curious about how things work under the hood—act on that curiosity. Figure stuff out, poke and prod. And there ain’t nothing wrong with liking both Mozart and 90 Day Fiancé. Stay engaged with what people out there are talking about.”

Personal mantra: “Every idea can be made better with a little bit of elbow grease.”

Kathy Delaney
CCO, Publicis Health/Saatchi & Saatchi Wellness
Based in: New York

Recent work: “The Thrown-Out Flag.” In our research, we learned that 40% of LGBTQ teens who come out to their parents are thrown out of their homes. We used the icon of the Rainbow Flag, torn and beaten up to illustrate this little-known statistic. I worked very closely with Scott Carlton, a creative director at Saatchi & Saatchi Wellness, as well as a tight team of designers and writers who cared and wanted to help. We did everything from create the website and resources for these homeless teens, but also went to second-hand stores to buy the fabric, worked with a local tailor and then distressed the fabric—often in assembly-line fashion in the office with sandpaper and chalk—to create the ‘thrown-out’ effect of the flags you see in the campaign.”

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."
Publish date: June 7, 2020 https://stage.adweek.com/creativity/adweeks-creative-100-2020s-senior-agency-leaders/ © 2020 Adweek, LLC. - All Rights Reserved and NOT FOR REPRINT