Mark Zuckerberg Is Our Digital Exec of the Year, but That’s Not to Say It Was a Smooth 2016

From VR innovation to ‘fake news’ issues

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At just 32 years old, Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg has accomplished more than most technology executives could ever dream of—founding and running the world's biggest and most powerful platform that has single-handedly upended how we communicate and consume media and entertainment, while turning it into a digital advertising juggernaut.

Facebook practically prints money, having earned a staggering $18.5 billion in ad revenue through three quarters of this year, up from full-year 2015's $17.9 billion. Meanwhile, 1.2 billion users access Facebook every day. And the Menlo Park, Calif.-based company is poised to harness even more power via innovations in virtual reality and artificial intelligence, bringing livestreaming to the masses and internet-beaming drones—just a few steps he hopes will keep Facebook light years ahead of competitors.

Some of Facebook's opportunities represent the biggest obstacles for Zuckerberg—Adweek Hot List's Digital Executive of the Year—as observers increasingly question Facebook's colossal size in shaping and controlling media and advertising. This month, the network has taken flack for the abundance of fake news articles piped through news feeds that favored President-elect Trump during the election. Such critiques will likely grow as Facebook's prominence and size increases. "Now that they are so large, they do bear a greater responsibility in anticipating the unanticipated consequences, especially around things like machine learning," says Robbie Whiting, co-founder and chief technology officer at Junior. 

But don't expect those challenges to stall the CEO's ambitious plan to connect the world though his platform. Facebook has become like its own planet that's too big to be stopped and can seemingly weather any PR disaster thrown its way.

"They have very few blind spots—that's pretty amazing," notes Whiting. "Zuckerberg has an innate ability to understand the types of things that underpin the next generation of Facebook products."

At the center of Facebook's booming ad business are super-sophisticated targeting tools that have become more refined over the past year—letting marketers go either super-granular or broad with their campaigns. "There's a magic threshold between specificity and scale you can get in Facebook that I think is pretty unique," explains Nick Law, vice chairman and global CCO at R/GA. "You can micro-target macro audiences. You can reach people that are very specific, and what you find with Facebook is that even people that are very specific are a large audience."

Zuckerberg, meanwhile, has spent the last few months building out Instagram, Oculus VR, Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp—each of which stands to be a new revenue generator. "Facebook's not afraid to say, 'Our core business includes a video platform [and] a VR platform,' and they continuously try to disrupt themselves with the way they approach their core mission," says Whiting.

Also near the top of Zuckerberg's priorities this year was his work in getting rural areas hooked up to the information superhighway—likely the next source of user growth—through programs like and internet-beaming drones. "He's looking for ways to actually increase the number of people who are able to connect with each other through his own platform," says Tom Hyde, content director at Big Spaceship. "I truly believe that is a very generous philanthropic mission, but it will also allow him to market and communicate with—and put brands in touch with—a much larger audience in the future when he's connected all of the world."

Meanwhile, as Facebook's algorithm continues to increasingly favor video over text, Zuckerberg has been laser-focused on turning his platform into a video engine. In the spring, Facebook flipped the switch on Facebook Live, making livestreaming as easy as pressing a button, a move that immediately grabbed the attention of marketers and publishers. "I wouldn't be surprised if you fast-forward five years and most of the content that people see on Facebook—and are sharing on a day-to-day basis—is video," he told BuzzFeed in April.

Facebook continues to upend the media and marketing worlds in other ways, too. As the site absorbs more of publishers' traffic, big names including The Washington Post and The New York Times have gone all-in on publishing content solely for Facebook through Instant Articles—landing pages that load 10 times faster than average mobile sites.

That sprawling scope has its drawbacks, though, and Zuckerberg has repeatedly come under fire this year over growing concerns that his company has too much clout. A primary issue is Facebook's miscalculation of inflated video metrics that spiraled into a storm of questions from marketers about the data gleaned from their campaigns, including a request from the Association of National Advertisers in September asking Facebook to audit and accredit its metrics. Facebook has since said it fixed the issue and added a measurement council of agency, brand and tech execs who will routinely meet to discuss the platform's measurement practices. Still, there are lingering questions about Facebook's willingness to fully open its so-called walled garden for ad measurement.

"The more you do and the more scrutiny you have, the more likely you are to make a misstep," says Big Spaceship's Hyde, adding, "He's been very quick to pivot, update, amend and be transparent when he does make mistakes."

Whiting adds, "Facebook has become so ingrained into peoples' lives across many platforms—it doesn't seem like there are any negative consequences from this backlash."

Talk about executive power. 

Check out the rest of this year's Hot List honorees:

This story first appeared in the November 28, 2016 issue of Adweek magazine.

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@laurenjohnson Lauren Johnson is a senior technology editor for Adweek, where she specializes in covering mobile, social platforms and emerging tech.