2018’s Digital Hot List: The Movers and Innovators That Got Us Excited This Year

From Fortnite to Instagram, these are the trends that shaped the year

This year's winners included Instagram Stories, Fortnite and HQ.

Some companies take digital to heart, manipulating the 1s and 0s of the internet to create incredible experiences in content and advertising. This year’s hottest digital movers and trendsetters range from the insanely popular game Fortnite to the industry-shaking Time Warner acquisition. As we slide into cooler temperatures, here’s a look at what’s hot in digital in 2018.

Executive of the Year
Brian Lesser

To hear AT&T tell it, Brian Lesser is the man who will reinvent modern advertising. In the year since the carrier tapped the former GroupM North America CEO to lead its advertising and analytics business, Lesser has already presided over a $1.6 billion deal to buy AppNexus and rebranded the division as Xandr. But that’s just the beginning; AT&T has tasked Lesser with building an advertising exchange that will serve not just digital and streaming video inventory but also targeted TV ads, upending the industry’s entrenched old-school norms.

For his part, Lesser says he sees AT&T as a chance to continue the work he was doing at GroupM to improve media buying with technology—but on a much bigger scale and with more resources.

“It struck me that it was an even better opportunity to change the marketplace and improve advertising for consumers, for media companies, and for agencies and advertisers because we can have a single-minded approach to changing the market and bring new products that we think advertisers and agencies will benefit from, but do it in a much more directive way with just tremendous resources,” he says.

Xandr is central to AT&T’s larger vision to transform itself into what it calls a “modern media company”—with a vertically integrated stack of content, data, ad tech and distribution. Lesser says the company’s thesis is that streaming services can’t support the costs of producing content from subscriptions alone in the long run. And the current model of advertising isn’t cutting it—the industry needs to be less intrusive and more targeted and measurable, he says.

“The world needs advertising more than ever to keep up with the pace of content development,” says Lesser. “We think that because we have these content assets at AT&T … we cannot just rethink how advertising is targeted and measured but also reinvent advertising because we can start to experiment with things inside our distribution channels.” —Patrick Kulp

Creative of the Year
Darren Sugg

Darren Sugg, the creative visionary behind the Epic Games phenomenon Fortnite, has captured fans’ imaginations by creating a battle royale in which the environment, its characters and their weapons are constantly changing. But it’s not just about killing. Fortnite at times has a feeling of whimsy to it as players build and dance their way through the game—while trying to not die in the process.

Since its debut last year, the game has become a global sensation, attracting more than 125 million players in 10 months and amassing more than $1 billion in revenue from microtransactions such as character skins and other upgrades. Popularity is also cross-platform, from the PC to Apple and Android phones to PlayStation and Xbox consoles and now even Nintendo Switch. In fact, the game is so addictive that developers added a warning to the mobile version telling students to stop playing during class.

A spokesperson says Sugg—who told IGN earlier this year that his favorite Fortnite weapons include a hand cannon and a snowball grenade launcher—recently changed roles in the company and is now working on other projects. With Fortnite, he has set the bar high for himself.

“It capitalizes on things that kids today are super excited about in real life,” Celia Hodent, director of user experience at Epic Games, told Newsweek in June. “[Sugg] made sure we had the superhero feel mixed with Ghostbusters, Back to the Future and ’80s influences. It calls back to Doc Brown and his cool gadgets with makeshift stuff. It takes those elements and makes them goofy and hopeful. It’s a very hopeful game, and we all need something hopeful.” —Marty Swant

Game Changer of the Year
Marc Lore

Babies and animals have been good to Marc Lore. The Walmart U.S. ecommerce president and chief executive founded Diapers.com in 2005 and in 2011 followed up that success with the pet-centric Wag.com. The latter was a risky move—Pets.com went belly up in 2000 in part because dog food and cat litter are expensive to ship. But Lore told The New York Times his pets site could avoid a similar fate because it only offered free shipping above a certain threshold and it “obsesses” about logistics. He was right, and in 2010 Amazon bought parent company Quidsi for $545 million (and shuttered it in 2017).

Then Lore founded ecommerce platform Jet.com with a similar logistical concept in 2014. Orders below $35 have a fixed shipping fee of $5.99 because “small orders are more expensive to fulfill,” the Jet site states. Meanwhile, items that can be packed and shipped together are marked with a price-drop icon, incentivizing customers to choose them because they’ll lower the price of other items in their cart.

Lore grew Jet to a $1 billion gross-merchandise-value run rate, and in 2016 Walmart paid $3 billion for the site. He was named head of ecommerce at Walmart after the acquisition and is now focused on the corporation’s U.S. ecommerce presence, including grocery. Lore also oversees Walmart Labs, a tech unit that has worked on projects like in-store robotics, crowdsourced delivery and picking optimization. And he tapped Rent the Runway co-founder Jenny Fleiss to head up members-only text-to-shop service Jetblack.

“I’m really excited with how we’re growing and how we’ve improved what we offer our customers—a much larger assortment, fast and free shipping and services like grocery pickup and delivery, which now blanket most of the country,” Lore says. “It’s an honor to receive this award, but it’s really a recognition of work done by incredible teams across the company from our stores and ecommerce. With Walmart’s physical presence, there’s still a ton of opportunity to delight customers in new ways. And it’s exciting to think about the not-too-distant future when tech will enable truly transformational ways of shopping, like voice/text and virtual reality.” —Lisa Lacy

Hottest Digital Obsession
Instagram Stories

It started out in August 2016 as a blatant rip-off of a Snapchat feature with a similar name, but Instagram Stories has evolved into the place to be for brands and influencers. Some 400 million people are now sharing their daily lives in a format that disappears after 24 hours, with one-third of the most-viewed Stories coming from the 25 million-plus businesses that are also using the feature. Full-screen, visually captivating ads were introduced in March 2017, and shopping stickers rolled out globally this past September. Parent company Facebook is pushing the format on both its flagship social network and messaging utility WhatsApp (where the feature is known as Status). —David Cohen

Hottest App

Even if you don’t play it yourself, you’ve likely had friends or colleagues huddled around their smartphones for a few minutes every day or every night playing what’s become the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire for the millennial generation. In the past year, HQ Trivia and its eccentric host Scott Rogowsky have at times topped more than 1 million players on occasions such as New Year’s Eve, and have attracted celebrity guest hosts including Kevin Hart, Jimmy Kimmel and Robert De Niro. In March, HQ announced it raised $15 million and in September expanded beyond its flagship trivia game with a new Wheel of Fortune–style competition beginning this month. —M.S.

Hottest Acquisition
AT&T and Time Warner

The close of AT&T’s $85 billion deal to buy Time Warner—now WarnerMedia—laid a solid foundation for the telecom’s newfound quest to reconstruct itself as a “modern media company.” While the blockbuster acquisition is still facing a legal challenge from the Justice Department, AT&T has wasted no time plotting an ambitious course for the former titan, including more investment in HBO’s premium content, an eventual targeted TV ads marketplace and a new $15 per month streaming bundle. More broadly speaking, AT&T is drafting a blueprint for what the vertically integrated media giant of the future might look like—a marriage of content, data, ad tech and distribution. —P.K.

Hottest Game

Epic Games’ Fortnite has proven to be one of the most successful franchises of all time, with its Save the World and Battle Royale meeting commercial and critical success since last October. Analyst firm SuperData Research maintains that the key to its billion-dollar-plus success is its ability to draw market share from rivals, generating $718 million in revenue in the month of May alone. The title’s intuitive gameplay and ubiquitous availability across myriad platforms have all combined to make it a cultural phenomenon. And its success shows little sign of abating—Epic Games claims August was its best month yet, with Battle Royale attracting 78.3 million players. —Ronan Shields

Hottest Platform

One billion: that’s the ad-sales target that streaming platform Twitch is setting its sights on. Acquired by Amazon in 2014, the livestreaming service has 15 million daily active users who on an average daily basis spend 95 minutes watching content created by more than 2.2 million users. Once solely focused on games, Twitch has expanded to Bob Ross marathons and Thursday Night Football, and is trying to draw YouTubers to the platform by promising them revenue from subscription and advertising sales. The company is even offering “programmatic guarantees,” proving that Twitch’s ad-grabbing promise is just getting started. —Ann-Marie Alcántara

Hottest Gadget
Google Home

Multiple studies have demonstrated Google Assistant is more likely to answer a question than Alexa (although the latter is improving). And while Alexa may have an advantage in commerce, research shows consumers are more likely to search, check the weather or news, play music or set a timer with a voice-enabled device than to shop with it. That may be why market analysis firm Canalys found Google Home surpassed Amazon Echo for the first time in Q1 2018, shipping 3.2 million voice-enabled devices to Amazon’s 2.5 million. Google maintained its lead in Q2 as it claimed 32 percent of the market. Meanwhile, Amazon’s share was cut to 24.5 percent, down from 82 percent in the year-ago quarter. —L.L.

Check out all of this year’s honorees:

This story first appeared in the October 15, 2018, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.