The 2019 Digital Hot List: The Platforms and Innovators That Shaped a Pivotal Year

And honoring Executive of the Year Evan Spiegel and Creator of the Year Loren Gray

Collage of Adweek
Our Digital Hot List winners include AirPods, TikTok and Fortnite. - Credit by Sources: Getty Images, Epic Games

This might be the year that finally killed off analog: The digital world has clearly overtaken all aspects of our lives, from the songs we listen to (and the devices we use to experience them) to how we communicate with colleagues and even the way we shop. This year’s hottest digital movers and shakers range from TikTok, which has shaken up the music industry, to Shopify, which has done the same for retail. From an enduring game to a potentially game-changing merger, here’s a look at the Digital Hot List of 2019.

Digital Executive of the Year
Evan Spiegel

Snap's comeback has earned Evan Spiegel Adweek's Digital Executive of the Year honor for the second time.
Courtesy of Snap

Don’t call it a comeback. Call it a resurgence, a maturing of a company that’s somehow still defying the expectations of Wall Street, advertisers, marketers and its users.

Since we last named Snap Inc. CEO Evan Spiegel our Digital Executive of the Year in 2015, Spiegel and the company he co-founded have undergone vast changes. First, Snapchat became a brand under the umbrella company Snap Inc. and decided to market itself as a camera company. The firm pushed forward into hardware, releasing Spectacles in 2016 (which is now on Version 3).

Snapchat went through a much-hated redesign, an IPO and a tumble in the market that made people wonder if the platform stood a chance against Facebook. It lost users to Instagram, after the app mimicked many of Snapchat’s most popular features. And in an echo of the 2015 exodus it experienced, Snapchat shed almost a dozen executives in 2017, including Imran Khan, chief strategy officer. After the company’s IPO in 2017, Snap shares struggled, hitting a record low of $4.99 on Dec. 21, 2018.

But that’s all behind Spiegel and Snap now. The platform’s incredible comeback—it’s once again a coveted place for both users and advertisers—has earned Spiegel the Digital Executive of the Year honor for the second time.

The company has seen positive growth in its last two quarters, and announced that it now reaches 90% of all 13- to 24-year-olds—and does so more than Facebook or Instagram in the U.S., U.K., France and Canada. Its Discover tab, which features content from publishers and Snap originals, continues to see growth, with a 60% increase year over year in total time spent watching Discover each day. More than 60% of the audience for Discover’s daily shows, like ESPN’s SportsCenter, watch three or more days a week. The company stated in its Q2 earnings that it has 203 million daily active users and noted that its Android app update led to a 10% increase in retention rate.

For advertisers, Snapchat opened up pixel tracking in 2017, a self-service video ad creation tool and shoppable Snap ads dubbed Collection ads. With the hiring of its new chief business officer, Jeremi Gorman, the brand’s no longer trying to reach everyone but is instead solely focused on its Gen Z audience and the $1.3 trillion buying power potential there. It’s built in a native ecommerce shopping feature in partnership with Shopify and pushed the boundaries with its augmented reality lenses—but is experimenting with limited drops, such as a collaboration with Jordan Brand and Darkstore that sold out in 23 minutes or Levi’s and Disney. (All of this long before Instagram announced its own checkout feature.)

Back on top once again, Spiegel remains humble, looking toward the future of Snapchat—which, for all its ups and downs, still isn’t even 10 years old. “We are so grateful for the opportunity to collaborate with our community and partners to build a business that makes a positive impact,” he told Adweek in a statement. “2019 has been a great year for Snap, and we’re excited to continue building on our momentum.”

Some of the “positive impact” that’s attributed to Snap is the lack of emphasis on likes and public profiles, instead zeroing in on one-to-one friendships and curated publishers on the platform. Notably, Snapchat has escaped much of the scrutiny other tech platforms like Facebook and Google are facing, such as inquiries from the U.S. and foreign governments.

This past July, the company rolled out its first global campaign. It’s all about celebrating friends—and not necessarily growth. In other words, maybe Snap and Spiegel’s comeback is thanks to all the friends they made along the way. —Ann-Marie Alcántara

Digital Creator of the Year
Loren Gray

Loren Gray, Adweek's Digital Creator of the Year, has 33.8 million fans on TikTok.

At 17, Loren Gray isn’t old enough to vote or legally drink. But her age hasn’t stopped her from rapidly becoming the most followed user on TikTok, the social platform everyone’s talking about. Her massive audience—she has 33.8 million fans and as of this writing has received 2.08 billion “hearts,” or likes, on the platform—has made her one of 2019’s biggest social media stars, with brands lining up to partner with her.

Gray, Adweek’s Digital Creator of the Year, started using TikTok four years ago, when she was just 13 and the platform was then called Music.ly. She had no idea at the time that the platform would turn into a career; her fame “happened by accident,” she says. Gray first used Music.ly simply as a tool to make videos that she could upload to her Instagram account and share with friends. But as she gained Instagram followers, she started to think that there might be something to the videos she was making—and decided to dive deeper into the platform where she was actually creating them.

Soon, Gray was obsessed. She’d wake up before school to make videos, and continued producing them when she arrived at school. Within a year of her being active on the platform, brands started to take notice and reached out to her about advertising on her channel. Despite her growing follower count, “I almost didn’t process the power that I had until I had big brands reaching out to me,” Gray says.

Today, she’s worked with brands like Target, even appearing on a billboard in Times Square for the retailer. To help navigate these deals, Gray has leaned on her mother, calling her a “tremendous” help.

From a brand perspective, Gray’s unparalleled influence on TikTok distinguishes her. The massively growing platform—which beat out Facebook, Instagram and Twitter for worldwide downloads in the last quarter of 2018, according to Mediakix—is primarily popular among younger consumers. Gray says that particular niche helps to differentiate it from bigger, more universal platforms like Facebook and Instagram.

But Gray isn’t just content with her TikTok fame, and sees social media as just the beginning of her career. Last year, she signed a record deal with Capitol Records and plans to make music a bigger part of her future. “I used my social media to find my goals and my bigger passions,” she says. “Music was something that I really wanted to do, and social media gave me the means to achieve that: having a built-in audience, the funds to develop myself … myself, my voice and my sound and working with producers.”

But music isn’t all that Gray is interested in. As she continues to make the transition into working full time (the Pennsylvania-born teen relocated to Los Angeles to pursue her career), she’s open to exploring multiple paths. “I’m in this phase where I’m trying to do as much as I can,” she says.

No matter the career path Gray takes, her barometer for success will remain the same. “Anytime that I create something that I’m proud of, and other people enjoy and are proud of what I’ve created, that’s what success means to me,” she says. “Sharing something with the people who follow me and with the world and having them like it, that’s the most validating thing for me.” —Diana Pearl

Hottest Digital Obsession
‘Old Town Road’

Courtesy of Columbia Records

Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” wasn’t just the song of the summer; it’s the song of the entire year, spending a record-breaking 19 consecutive weeks at the top of the Billboard Hot 100. And that’s thanks in large part to TikTok. Lil Nas X uploaded a version of the song to the app in February, which launched something of a meme storm. Over the next several months, thousands of iterations flooded TikTok—as well as other social media platforms, like Instagram and Twitter—which tallied billions of views and turned the song into an instant classic. —D.P.

Hottest App
TikTok

Getty Images

TikTok has been downloaded more than a billion times and rocketed songs (“Old Town Road”) and creators around the world to stardom—and launched that meme of a woman trying kombucha for the first time. No need to connect with friends on the platform: The app algorithmically serves up auto-playing vertical videos, usually set to music, in which people around the world show off bits of their lives, crack jokes, lip sync and dance. To capitalize on the platform’s young, tuned-in audience, TikTok is courting Madison Avenue with new ad formats, targeting capabilities and shoppable features. —Kelsey Sutton

Hottest Acquisition
T-Mobile/Sprint

Sprint and T-Mobile cleared a big regulatory hurdle in their long slog toward a merger when the Justice Department approved the deal in July. While legal challenges still remain—including a multistate lawsuit—it’s looking likely that America’s third- and fourth-largest wireless carriers will finally unite in a marriage that is poised to rock the media-distribution landscape. Chief among its ripple effects will be the combined companies’ newfound capacity to build a more robust 5G network than either of its larger competitors, AT&T and Verizon. —Patrick Kulp

Hottest Game
Fortnite

Courtesy of Epic Games

Many games go viral and then fade out just as quickly, but Epic Games’ Fortnite, originally released in 2017, isn’t going away anytime soon. Fortnite pulled in an estimated $2.4 billion in 2018 revenue, and it topped 250 million users earlier this year, with 10.8 million playing concurrently during an in-game live concert by DJ Marshmello in February. Fortnite Battle Royale, the most successful of the three game modes, was still No. 1 in the iTunes App Store’s adventure category as of the end of September. The game has spawned a clothing line and celebratory dances, and Season X, released in late September, added elements including limited-time mission objectives and prestige missions. Epic Games earlier this month even pulled the plug on Fortnite for a stunt called “The End,” as the developer prepared to debut a new map—keeping fans guessing and engaged. —David Cohen

Hottest Platform
Slack

2019 saw Slack evolve from niche workplace darling to stock market standout, thanks to a blockbuster IPO this past summer that brought the company’s value to $23.2 billion. Slack’s CEO Stewart Butterfield predicts his platform will eclipse email as the go-to for workplace communication—and he could be right. With 95,000 paying customers and more than 10 million daily active users, the platform boasts a place in the hearts—and on the screens—of more than 6,000 companies like Airbnb, NBCUniversal and, of course, Adweek. —Shoshana Wodinsky

Hottest Gadget
AirPods

Getty Images

It’s safe to say Apple has bounced back from its controversial decision to remove the iPhone’s headphone jack in 2016. Its AirPods wireless Bluetooth earbuds debuted in December of that year, and they quickly became Apple’s most popular accessory product, with 35 million units sold in 2018 and that number projected to reach as high as 55 million this year and an astounding 110 million in 2021. The second version of AirPods, released in March, added voice-activated Siri access, a faster chip and an optional wireless charging case, which pushed demand even higher. Apple’s wearables, home and accessories division accounted for $5.5 billion in net sales in the second quarter of 2019, versus $5 billion for the iPad and $5.8 billion for the Mac. —D.C.

Hottest Shopping Platform
Shopify

What do Budweiser, Steve Madden and Kylie Cosmetics have in common? They all run on Shopify. The ecommerce platform is currently the third-largest online retailer in the U.S., right behind Amazon and eBay, with $1.07 billion in revenue last year. The platform is live in 175 countries, where more than 820,000 merchants have sold in excess of $100 billion in goods. In the past year, over 218 million buyers have bought something from Shopify-powered vendors, which range from multimillion-dollar companies to small businesses. Shopify is set to continue on this path of growth by rolling out its Amazon competitor, the Shopify Fulfillment Network, and expanding the platform to CBD merchants. —A.M.A.

Check out all of this year’s honorees:

This story first appeared in the Oct. 21, 2019, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.


Publish date: October 20, 2019 https://stage.adweek.com/digital/the-2019-digital-hot-list-the-platforms-and-innovators-that-shaped-a-pivotal-year/ © 2020 Adweek, LLC. - All Rights Reserved and NOT FOR REPRINT
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