10 Branded Content Innovators Who Turn It Up to 11

Raising the bar for storytelling and artistic integrity, not to mention vulva care

What are the limits of branded content? Don’t ask this year’s honorees. With a sharp focus on delivering entertainment and meaning, plus a deep knowledge of both their audience and their brands, these innovators expanded the boundaries of branded content—much to the delight of consumers.

Caio Giannella and Diego Oliveira
associate creative directors, Apple

Thinking different: Giannella and Oliveira were the AMV BBDO copywriter-art director pair behind an educational—and funny—campaign for feminine-hygiene brand Libresse called “Viva La Vulva” (the spot was set to Moby’s “Praise You”), which cleaned up at awards shows last year, winning a coveted D&AD Black Pencil for Direction. At Apple, the two recently created a poignant ad featuring people describing how Apple Watch’s technology helped save their lives.

How they got started: The Brazil-born creative directors met at Africa São Paulo nearly 15 years ago and went on to work together at a number of London agencies, including BBH and Mother, before landing the Apple gig last year.

To their credit: At AMV BBDO, they helped win and lead the joint Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Holidays account for the agency. —Minda Smiley

Mark DiCristina and Sarita Alami
head of brand, Mailchimp Studios; director of programming, Mailchimp Studios

Current work: Building a massive in-house content studio for developing podcasts, documentaries and fictional series. The goal is to produce free entertainment that is “artful, tasteful and a little bit quirky” for an entrepreneurial audience. “It’s been more important for us to just focus on a bunch of people who are doing work that we both really enjoy and also just really believe in,” Alami previously told Adweek. “And the storytelling integrity and artistic integrity behind the work.”

Titles they’ve produced: An animated series called Outer Monologue, which plumbs the inner thought processes of creatives like playwright Ngozi Anyanwu and actress Joy Bryant; a short-form original series for Vice called Second Act, which follows people who quit their day job midcareer to follow a dream.

Storytelling philosophy: “One thing is that great storytelling travels,” DiCristina told Adweek. “The best stuff tends to rise to the top, and we obviously experienced that with Serial and other podcasts we’ve sponsored over the years. We’ve always been really supportive of and attracted to the types of stories that are resonant.” —Patrick Kulp

Adam Morgan
executive creative director, Adobe

What he’s been up to: “For the past year, we have been creating a series of big interactive story experiences. Think a long scrolling narrative packed with a learning path and a ton of content, videos and interactivity,” Morgan says. “These interactive stories have been super successful internally in building a b-to-b pipeline.”

On crafting brand guidelines that go above and beyond the norm: “In most brand standards, it’s all about the logo with a single page on writing. … We created a massive guide that digs deep into all aspects of writing around voice, tone and style—everything from parallel construction to a hierarchy of pauses. Any agency or partner who works with us is blown away at the depth of our writing guide and makes comments that they wish things like this existed for all their clients,” he says.

Side projects: Writing a book called Sorry, Spock: Emotions Drive Business and hosting a new podcast and webinar series titled Real Creative Leadership. —P.K.

Matthew Kobach 
head of social media, Intercontinental Exchange

Why he was bullish about joining the New York Stock Exchange: “It’s a 228-year-old institution in an industry that—at the time I joined—was not completely embracing social media,” he explains. “It was a unique opportunity to forge a new path and move the needle in terms of how financial institutions communicate with the public, their clients and their shareholders.”

Bona fides: After becoming one of the first people to pursue a Ph.D. on the effects of social media in 2008, Kobach spent stints at a social media data-analytics firm and a social media marketing firm he co-founded before joining the NYSE.

Recent point of pride: When Covid-19 hit, Kobach had to shift the NYSE’s social media strategy almost overnight from celebrating IPOs to a straightforward messaging style focused on explaining real-time market news. “With the market in flux,” he says, “staying silent wasn’t an option.” —P.K.

David Lee
CCO, Squarespace

Recent work: Commissioned a series of monumental trash sculptures that served as centerpieces for a long-form spot starring a characteristically reluctant Oscar the Grouch. The 25 pieces were made from real Sesame Street junk and later sold to benefit the program’s nonprofit arm. “We don’t get to tell too many stories about how someone became even more miserable than ever by using Squarespace,” Lee says. “Oscar struck a nerve and proved that even a Grouch can have his dream come true.”

How he mastered in-housing: “We have spent years tinkering with a formula that works best for our team,” he says. “Being a creatively led company that provides a DIY platform for individuals to bring their ideas to life makes it easy for us to take that same maker approach to how we produce our own creative work.”

New quarantine hobby: Photography postproduction. “Submerging myself in this process is very satisfying,” Lee says. “There’s a reason why there are adult coloring books.” —P.K.

Bill McCullough
vp, head of content development, NFL

A storied history: McCullough, an 11-time Emmy winner, joined the NFL in 2017 as the league’s vp and creative director. The following season, the league posted record high viewers and ratings for the NFL Network’s Thursday Night Football production, picking up a Clio for Single Platform Campaign for its “Celebration of the Year” work, and a Short Award for Best Integrated Campaign for the league’s NFL Draft effort, which reached 11.3 million viewers, an increase of 25%. He’s also a self-described “frustrated rock star,” a guitarist and drummer who met his wife 20 years ago when she was the lead singer in his band.

Current gig: After finding success in the league’s marketing and advertising division, McCullough joined its content group as the vp and head of content development, where he’s been tasked with finding the “North Star” for the league’s media and content strategy. He’s currently in year one of a three-year project: reaching the league’s 180 million fans across a fractured media landscape, working across platforms like Twitch, Twitter and YouTube as well as the NFL Network and with traditional media partners.

The challenge ahead: Even though the NFL has already released its 2020 schedule, the elephant in the room is obviously the pandemic. “The biggest challenge is uncertainty,” says McCullough, who’s also responsible for the creative direction of the league’s new headquarters in Hollywood Park, Calif., slated to open in 2021. —Ryan Barwick

Michael Tabtabai
executive creative director, Google Brand Studio

What he does: Tabtabai’s team is responsible for surfacing “the stories of people in the world doing truly helpful things with our products,” he says.

Proudest moment: Curious whether Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” address was the most-searched speech on Google, Tabtabai’s team embarked on a project called “The Most Searched: A Celebration of Black History Makers.” “We were able to determine it was in fact the most-searched speech, and that insight led us to look for all the other Black-American achievements we could find,” he says. “The results were truly impressive and wide ranging, from [most-searched] guitar solo to talk show host to NASA mathematician.”

On diversity in the tech world: “Our industry is not diverse enough, and we can do a lot more to focus on this problem at an earlier age in school systems,” Tabtabai says. “Even in a privileged community, it takes a lot of trust, mentorship, guidance, confidence, equipment, time, support and resources to foster creative talents at a young age.” —Scott Nover

Nathan Allebach
social media manager, Allebach Communications

How he became Steak-umm’s stream of consciousness: The delightfully bizarre voice behind the processed Philly cheesesteak filler’s Twitter persona known for his rants on disinformation joined his family agency in 2014 and was deemed that token millennial staffer who “gets” social media. By 2017, the folks at Steak-umm “were crazy enough to let me run their account,” Allebach says. (It paid off.)

On addressing industry saturation: “Follow culture, not advertising,” Allebach says. “Most ads suck because most advertisers follow the industry, and the industry is built on hijacking culture. There are too many brands and people competing for the same space online, so paying close attention to culture can break through the clutter with well-informed takes.”

Advice for creatives: “You’ll learn more going down the rabbit holes of Reddit than you ever will from some marketing keynote speaker or ebook with three magic bullet points that highlight last year’s trends,” he says. —Mónica Marie Zorrilla

Carrie Brzezinski-Hsu
vp, head, ESPN CreativeWorks; vp, Disney CreativeWorks

Solution mode: A co-branded commercial campaign for The Last Dance and State Farm faced a sooner-than-expected deadline when the docuseries’ release was accelerated. “Our idea for a live-action, big commercial production was no longer possible, and we were informed within a few days that the release date of the doc was moving up from June to April,” she recalls. “Our team immediately went into creative solution mode, landing on a gem of an idea that both lightened the production lift and felt like it was actually part of the doc.” The CreativeWorks team dug into ’90s SportsCenter footage and used facial mapping technology so longtime ESPN anchor Kenny Mayne could predict the docuseries—and the clips’ use in a State Farm commercial. “We didn’t anticipate how much it would resonate,” says Brzezinski-Hsu. “It was such a hit that State Farm wanted an encore.” So the team once again dove into the archives to use the same facial mapping trick on a clip of Keith Olbermann’s and Linda Cohn’s ’90s SportsCenter days.

Side hustle: “My alter ego is DJ Carrie B,” she says. “Spinning records started out as a hobby. Then one day I found myself DJing for people such as Bethenny Frankel, who probably have no idea that I’m a vp at ESPN.”

Words of wisdom: “Pick a company, brand or environment that you are passionate about,” she says, “because it will make you want to learn the business.” —Kelsey Sutton

Bernardo Andrada
executive creative director, Oliver North America

Where there’s Flyre: Andrada is the man behind an April Fool’s campaign for WestJet called “Flyre Festival,” a spoof on the Fyre Festival fiasco. “It served as a highly successful sales promotion piece as well as a campaign that’s given WestJet a place in culture,” he says.

The fundamentals: “I started my career in Brazil and then moved to Canada. Today, I’m living and working in the U.S. I’ve learned a lot from the cultural and industry differences between these countries,” says Andrada. “But most of all, this has taught me that we’re all connected by our fundamental human truths, which are universal and help us bring about great work.”

More is more: Asked what advice he’d give aspiring creatives, he says: “Always be willing to give more. Great things will come back to you.” —M.S.

Check out Adweek’s Creative 100 for 2020 by category: Rising Talents | Senior Agency Leaders | Global Agency Leaders | Media Innovators | Celebrities & Influencers | Creators & Curators | Branded Content Innovators | Directors | Cover Star: Ramy Youssef

This story first appeared in the June 8, 2020, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.