11 Branded Content Innovators Who Take Marketing to the Next Level

From GIFs and 'grams to films and unforgettable experiences

Christene Barberich & Piera Gelardi. Erin Yamagata

Few fields in marketing pose more complex challenges than branded content, a term whose definition and intricacies expand with each passing year. Unlike ads, branded content is consumed voluntarily—meaning it needs to be enticing enough to look at and compelling enough to stick with.

As part of this year’s Creative 100, Adweek is honoring 11 branded content innovators who show the wide range of possibilities when it comes to content that’s creative and entertaining while still strategic at its core.

George Hammer

Chief content officer, IBM

Photo: JP Lespinasse

When most people think of IBM, content probably isn’t the first thing that springs to mind. George Hammer wants to change that.

As he nears the end of his third year as IBM’s chief content officer, Hammer has left his stamp on IBM’s offerings.

“I named my team IBM Originals because creativity is about originality, and originality is the DNA of the people,” Hammer said. “I’m a firm believer that creativity will solve challenges—like plastics in the ocean—faster than governments can.”

While the content Hammer produces for IBM is polished, his creative background is rooted in improvisation. On a dare, he walked onto stage at a Second City, and the performance never stopped.

“Thanks to improv, I’ve tried to bring fun to work, and that fun brings out the creativity,” he said.

One product of the creativity is Cod3rs. In partnership with Vox Creative, IBM Originals launched the Cod3rs campaign to elevate another one million female coders by 2020.

IBM created a pathway for grades 9-14 to accelerate the infusion of female and at-risk students into computer science programs. Cod3rs is one of the many ways Hammer—and IBM—are using creativity to positively impact the world.
—Mitch Reames

Janine Kahn

Editorial manager, Airbnb

Photo courtesy of AirBnb

While most of the travel content out there is about dropping into a place, Airbnb Magazine has spent the past two years trying to get people to “live like a local.”

With Kahn’s leadership on editorial strategy, the publication—which began in 2017 through a partnership with Hearst—has collaborated with regional photographers and illustrators to ensure each issue puts “the local lens on a place.” Sometimes that means featuring most-searched-for destinations, but often the content is about off-the-beaten-path locales adored by locals.

“With Airbnb Magazine, we’re looking to flip the script on traditional travel-centric content,” she says. “That means positioning travel as accessible instead of exclusive, and prioritizing people over places. The magic of Airbnb comes from human connection and creating a space for belonging, and we wanted that to be at the heart of our magazine.”

That focus has helped Airbnb gain traction. Along with increasing the publication’s frequency from four to six issues per year, circulation through newsstands and subscriptions has skyrocketed from 350,000 to 1.2 million. Much of that has been driven by the company’s decision to mail copies to Airbnb hosts, which now comprise 85 percent of its subscriber base. (It’s even been a finalist for a James Beard Award.)
—Marty Swant

Sam Bergen

Vp, global brand creative, Beats by Dre

Photo: Brian Cooper

After less than a year in his role, Bergen was tasked with leading creative for one of Beats by Dre’s newest products: the Powerbeats Pro. The resulting spot, “Unleashed,” and its related content brought together more than a dozen star athletes, with direction from Hiro Murai and a new track from Beck.

Bergen—who recently finished an MBA focused on creativity—thinks “music can be almost as strong as a performance-enhancing drug.”

“For us, the desire of making work has never been to just be edgy,” he says. “That’s not a good comms strategy for any brand. You have to be original. Otherwise you’re going to be derivative.”

Bergen says the playbook for audio marketing was in some ways invented by Beats. However, it’s something others have now adopted. And while Beats was a disruptor earlier on, he knows “you can’t sleep on that.”
—Marty Swant

Alix McAlpine

Director of creative strategy, Giphy

Photo: Gabe Gonzales

As Giphy’s director of creative strategy, McAlpine oversees the delicate art of weaving brands into the reactions, clap-backs and other evocative interactions communicated through GIFs. Having honed her branded content chops over four years in BuzzFeed’s creative department, McAlpine brought a thorough understanding of the internet’s visual vernacular when she came on board in 2016.

But Giphy offered a bigger challenge than sponsored listicles: How does one cram a brand narrative into a few soundless seconds of animation—which might be used to convey a complex range of emotions?

“You run the risk of it really becoming a banner ad if you are just too explicit with your branding,” McAlpine said. “You really want it to have that magic that GIFs have.”

McAlpine has become a deft practitioner of that magic. Her top two rules: “Keep it simple, stupid,” and, “Always ask yourself how you would use [the GIF] in a conversation.”

Some recent projects she is particularly proud of include series of GIFs for the Google Pixel 3 that featured Donald Glover dancing alongside an animated version of himself, as well as a SXSW gallery of fan art around Jordan Peele’s new horror film, Us. “It’s been really creatively fulfilling,” McAlpine said.
—Patrick Kulp

Pablo Rochat

Art director and owner, Pablo Rochat Studio

Photo: Quinn Gravier

While most of us are numbly scrolling through our social media feeds, Rochat keeps giving his followers a reason to press down their thumbs. He’s spent the past year making Instagram his “public sketch book,” using it to develop surreal animations, digital illusions and the occasional twerking Thomas the Tank Engine.

“I like to think of the work that I make as lo-fi, high fun,” he says. “Its first job is to entertain people and not be so precious.”

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Damn ???? ( made for @adultswim )

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This story first appeared in the June 10, 2019, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.