Here Are the Most Indispensable Executives in Marketing, Media and Tech

  • No. 1: Imran Khan

    Chief strategy officer, Snapchat
    2016 revenue: $367 million

    At the Cannes ad festival last summer, Snapchat chief strategy officer Imran Khan could be spotted moseying down the Croisette by himself, seemingly just another ad-sales guy in jeans and a tucked-in collared shirt. Meanwhile, lesser industry notables ran around with entourages rivaling some rap stars. Never mind that Khan shepherds the hottest digital platform around. Choosing simplicity over pizzazz is part of what Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel admires about his executive sidekick, who, eMarketer predicts, will turn the mobile app into a $1 billion business next year. The 39-year-old is advertising’s newest star—whether he knows it or not.

    “I think people are most excited about our company,” deflects Khan, when asked about how he feels being named to the No. 1 spot on the Adweek 50. “People are excited about our community and pace of innovation.”

    His company’s stats tell a much less humble story. Snapchat now counts more than 150 million daily users, making it more popular than Twitter. Netflix’s recent geofilter effort on the app targeted people in or around 200 cafes, and the ad was viewed 880,000 times in less than 24 hours. When it comes to a limited, location-based endeavor, that’s impressive scale. And then there’s Taco Bell’s national, one-day video ad campaign last May, which shows what can be done when the Snapchat spigot is truly opened up, as the burrito slinger garnered 224 million views.

    “We can reach audiences based on their interests, with matching look-alikes, as well as with gender, location, device and [mobile] operating-system targeting,” Khan adds. “We’ve made it very efficient for advertisers to reach their most desirable audience.”

    In less than two years with Snapchat, Khan has opened offices in Paris, London, Toronto, Sydney, Chicago, Detroit and Dallas. Just as important, he also poached industry vet Jeff Lucas from Viacom to lead global sales. But perhaps his most notable achievement in the last few months is the launch of Snapchat Partners, an ads API (application programming interface) that lets two-dozen digital players create and sell video ads. Industry players say that Khan deserves credit for helping awaken the industry out of its “organic-marketing daydream,” as one agency exec put it, and getting players focused back on actual advertising.

    “The Snapchat team is doing the right thing by guiding brands to the ads products early in the adoption cycle,” says Ken Kraemer, CEO of Moment Studio. “Khan and team have done a good job selling the API, and the market wants it.”

    Earlier this fall, Snapchat surprised the industry by renaming the company Snap Inc., while simultaneously unveiling sunglasses called Spectacles, which record video of the wearer’s POV—think Google Glass for Gen Z. Khan says it’s too early to speculate about what such devices could mean, if anything, to his advertising platform. But the gadgets—expected to be released this month—underscore how the company continues to spark new ideas.

    “They have positioned themselves as the incubator, the crucible, of content accessorizing,” says Justin Hood, vp of digital platforms, DDB Chicago. “This social jewelry gains legs on Snapchat’s own platform, then radiates out across the entire sharing ecosystem. For a company that refuses to call itself a social network, it’s generating more inherently social activity than the other platforms care to do anymore.”

    So what’s next for Khan? While he declines to comment on the rumored IPO, a Wall Street road show is likely afoot. If that endeavor goes swimmingly, his days of walking alone anonymously at Cannes will likely be over.

    “2016 was a good year,” Khan says. “But we have a lot to do, and we need to stay focused on the destination.” —Christopher Heine

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