Explore the full 2022 list of Fast Company’s Most Innovative Companies, 528 organizations whose efforts are reshaping their businesses, industries, and the broader culture. We’ve selected the firms making the biggest impact with their initiatives across 52 categories, including the most innovative media, design, and branding companies.
The era of advertising in which we find ourselves largely revolves around advertisers trying to use platforms and pop culture to break through the never-ending cacophony of media noise that surrounds us. For too much of brand work, this ends up translating into thirsty trend chasing or simply shifting the interruptive ad approach from TV to social media, streaming platforms, mobile apps, video games, and everywhere else that we’ve taken our attention.
What sets this year’s most innovative companies in advertising apart is how each of these advertising firms has, in their own way, created content for brands across multiple platforms that not only hew to the goals of their clients but actually add to the experience of the audience as well. They’ve built buzz—like Wieden+Kennedy charging up anticipation for Ford’s electric truck, the F-150 Lightning. They’ve made us laugh—like SS+K’s pitch-perfect spoof of Mark Zuckerberg’s Meta announcement that promoted tourism in Iceland. They’ve made a difference—like Check My Ads keeping advertisers accountable and preventing ad dollars from funding hate and misinformation online. And in at least one case, they’ve even saved lives—like TBWA Worldwide’s campaign against domestic violence. These innovative firms are making the ads we actually want to see.
1. TBWA Worldwide
For going Hollywood—and saving lives
Advertising has never been described as life or death. But in November 2021, a missing teenage girl was rescued in Kentucky after a driver saw her making a hand gesture popularized on TikTok as a distress signal for domestic violence. That hand signal—seen and shared on TikTok millions of times—had been created for a Canadian Women’s Federation PSA campaign by Juniper Park\TBWA in Toronto. The global ad agency also once again served up a diverse array of culturally relevant innovative advertising—with a distinct Hollywood bent. It started at the Super Bowl, with TBWA‘s Lucky Generals creating the big game’s best ad, for Amazon’s Alexa, in which it put the virtual assistant in Michael B. Jordan’s body. TBWA\Media Arts Lab enlisted Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow to introduce Apple’s iPhone 13 Pro’s new “cinematic mode,” by shooting five different genre scenes (romance, war, gangster, space thriller, and Western) in a fantastic piece of work called “Hollywood in Your Pocket.”
2. Mischief @ No Fixed Address
For making the good kind of trouble
Opening its doors in 2020, Mischief has quickly established a reputation for making work that sticks out by refusing to play it safe. For the Jay-Z-owned cannabis brand Monogram, the agency created an innovative campaign called “The Hypocrisy,” using billboards and a docuseries to draw attention to how outdated marijuana laws have disproportionately impacted Black Americans. Stark print ads and outdoor billboards of white all-cap words on black backgrounds illustrated the absurdity with lines like, “The war on drugs worked, if systemic racism was the goal” and “Weed is a federal crime. Even in the states where sex with farm animals isn’t.” For the beauty and skincare brand EOS, the ad agency found a TikTok creator who made a viral, hilariously profane how-to on shaving one’s privates. It then quickly turned around and put her instructions on EOS’s shaving cream bottles, as well as her catchphrase, “Bless your f**king cooch.” TikTok deemed the results one of the best brand moves of the year on the platform. In both cases, Mischief was able to cleverly provoke and break through the noise, while also sending clear messages on what each brand stands for.
For putting its purpose to work
Most often, ad agencies are called upon to communicate their clients’ purpose and good deeds to the masses. In 2021, Wieden+Kennedy, which was also one of last year’s most innovative companies, turned its eye for social good inward by partnering with the Roc Nation School of Music, Sports & Entertainment at Long Island University to teach a course in the fall 2021 semester on how culture gets made, in an effort to inculcate a new generation of talent. And in that same community-minded spirit, the company is in the process of transforming all of its global outposts to be certified B Corps, with its Amsterdam office the first to earn the designation. When it comes to the work, it wouldn’t be W+K without a Nike mention, and the creative agency continued its long streak of impressive work for the swoosh in 2021, including a tribute to Black women called “The Real Thing” that hit on International Women’s Day and was integrated into TNT’s broadcast of NBA All-Star Weekend. Nike athletes like Serena Williams, A’ja Wilson, and Naomi Osaka engaged with their social audiences on the topic, further shining a light on the conversation about Black women. The agency also helped Ford launch the F-150 Lightning—the electrified version of America’s best-selling vehicle. Its first ad, called “It’s Time,” launched in May 2021, heralding the venerable automaker and its century’s worth of innovation while also pointing it at the next century. Duly revved up, Ford received 48,000 preorders for the electric F-150 in the first 48 hours people could reserve one. The agency continued to put a modern twist on Americana when it paired Anheuser-Busch with President Biden for its “Let’s Grab a Beer, America” initiative designed to motivate Americans to get the jab, offering a free cold one to every American adult if the U.S. reached the national vaccination goal of 70% before July 4. (The U.S. fell short, but the brewer still honored the effort.) The campaign ended up giving away tens of thousands of free beers, and attracted more than 2 billion media impressions.
For releasing sick beats to help people with cystic fibrosis
When we talk about culturally relevant advertising—the kind of thing that really breaks through—very rarely do we cite healthcare ads. But impact and innovation hit a bit differently in this category than, say, another Super Bowl beer ad. FCB‘s healthcare unit, Area 23, proved that with a project for sound company Woojer called “Sick Beats,” to help people with cystic fibrosis. CF is a chronic, lifelong, and life-shortening disease that involves heavy mucus buildup in the lungs. A primary goal of treatment is to keep the airways clear to avoid serious infection, and especially for kids, these treatments can be incredibly uncomfortable. Area 23 worked with Woojer to design an innovative haptic vest that syncs to a curated Spotify library of 40Hz songs that help loosen the mucus in kids’ chests. The product is currently in clinical development, and the agency says it’s dedicated to making this technology a reality for kids with CF.
For unbottling creativity
Close your eyes and picture this: ketchup. Be honest, did you see a Heinz bottle or logo? That was the premise of one of the most earnestly fun brand initiatives of the year. Rethink’s “Draw Ketchup” campaign for Heinz asked people to do just that—draw ketchup—and an overwhelming number came up with a Heinz bottle. For Coors Light in Canada, the agency created a weighted hoodie so Raptors fans could relax as they watched stressful games. It also gave people the chance to win a trip to the coolest home office ever: a Wi-Fi-enabled, 8-foot-by-8-foot glass cube atop Quebec’s Chic-Choc Mountains. And for Ikea, the agency created “Repurposeful Instructions,” instruction manuals for finding fresh utility in some of its products. Each execution for these major brand clients manages to involve and integrate the brands’ products creatively while being clever enough to get our attention. Win-win.
6. The Community
For filling cultural spaces with Oreos
Too rarely, ad agencies that focus on American Hispanic communities are given the chance to show how their ideas could resonate more broadly across the culture. The Community began as a Hispanic agency two decades ago, but it’s now producing innovative first-rate work for major brands of all stripes, for all audiences. Over the past year, through a clever approach to both product and experiences, the agency’s work for Oreo, in particular, stands out. After a viral joke tweet from a brand fan about saving Oreos from an asteroid heading toward Earth, the agency went to the Arctic Circle and built an apocalypse-proof Oreo Doomsday Vault, inspired by the Global Seed Vault in Norway, which attracted global media coverage. After last year’s COVID-relief bill included a provision that the Pentagon had to disclose UFO findings by June 27, 2021, the ad agency made an Oreo-themed crop circle in Kansas as a peace offering to the aliens and then created an ad around it that earned more than a billion media impressions. In July, the agency unveiled an “Oreo Thins Protection Program,” disguising packaging for Oreo Thins cookies by teaming up with other companies like Ford, Hanes, Green Giant, and Better Homes & Gardens to make the cookies look like packages of T-shirts, cauliflower rice, a cookbook, and even a truck manual, attracting almost 850 million media impressions, and growing social conversation around the brand by more than 1,000%.
7. Check My Ads
For defunding the disinformation economy
Founded in 2020 by Sleeping Giants cofounder Nandini Jammi and her business partner Claire Atkin, the Check My Ads consultancy has become an antidote to the unrealized hype and dangerous consequences of a broken digital advertising ecosystem that pours anywhere between $250 million and $2.6 billion into misinformation every year. Atkin and Jammi have taken on a billion-dollar adtech industry in an effort to clean it up for client brands, seeking to defund the disinformation economy, one bad ad at a time. In addition to individual client work, Check My Ads investigations have found U.S. adtech companies placing ads on Russian propaganda outlet SouthFront, which the Biden administration had placed on the U.S. sanctions list, uncovered media agency loopholes that sites like Breitbart News had been exploiting for advertising revenue, and successfully led YouTube and Google Ads to ban controversial conservative media personality and Fox News Channel host Dan Bongino content. Over the past year, it launched the Check My Ads Institute, a new nonprofit focused on ending the ad-funded disinformation crisis, home to its Branded newsletter that aims to inform marketers about where their spending could be going.
For traveling to the metaverse—to puncture it
When Facebook rebranded itself as Meta last October, part of that announcement was a long, infomercial-like fever-dream peek inside the mind of Mark Zuckerberg and his vision for the future of his company and internet culture. As the news cycle was still spinning around the implications around Meta, the New York-based agency SS+K dropped one of the funniest, timeliest spoofs of the year, maybe of all time, for its tourism client Visit Iceland. Over the two-and-a-half-minute “Icelandverse,” an Icelandic Zuck doppelganger named Zack Mossbergsson walks viewers through the actual reality of the Nordic nation, from feeling the real water of hot springs to horseback riding and waterfalls, all while expertly invoking the awkward pacing and tone of Facebook’s original videos. This innovative pitch-perfect spot, with expert casting, illustrates the power of keeping up with culture and the ability to do so incredibly quickly—and in a way that isn’t super weird or borderline creepy to everyday humans. You’re human, right?
For fulfilling the promise of branded content
The term “branded content” has been applied to everything from a 30-second commercial to a TikTok ad, but few agencies specialize in seamlessly blending brand goals with actual entertainment that people want to watch like Observatory. In 2021, the creative agency spearheaded work from Nike’s internal film division, Waffle Iron Entertainment, with the HBO Max premiere of the documentary The Day Sports Stood Still, directed by Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, The Equalizer), and produced by NBA star Chris Paul and Imagine Entertainment. There was also a six-part docuseries on Crackle called Promise Land, following Memphis Grizzlies’ guard and NBA Rookie of the Year Ja Morant, and a recently announced doc following the final season of WNBA star Sue Bird. The agency’s pride and joy in 2021 was revisiting Chipotle’s decade-old stop-motion animation classic, reteaming with the burrito slinger for a sequel to its award-winning 2011 short “Back to the Start,” which managed to capture the magic of the original, this time with a Kacey Musgraves’ Coldplay cover.
For resurrecting a young athlete to campaign against knife crime
A great PSA campaign finds a way to engage our emotions in order to raise awareness and spark action on a specific issue. Engine did just that in 2021 while also making it a part of one of the world’s most popular video games. Kiyan Prince was arguably the brightest young soccer prospect in England before he was stabbed to death 15 years ago. For the Kiyan Prince Foundation (KPF), a nonprofit that has been campaigning against knife crime and for better support systems to prevent it, the agency created “Long Live the Prince,” which brought Prince back to life within EA Sports FIFA 21, allowing players to select Prince for their teams in career or “Ultimate Team” mode, or play him as a member of his childhood club, Queens Park Rangers. Players could also access contact information for KPF and learn more about its services from within the game. According to an Engine survey of players aged 16 to 25, 60% have now heard about Kiyan Prince, 95% said knife crime was a serious issue in the U.K., and 89% said they would try playing FIFA 21 as Prince. The campaign drew worldwide media attention, including a 12-minute segment on BBC, raising significant awareness for an organization fighting to make sure what happened to Prince doesn’t happen to more kids.