For reflecting our modern culture back at us. The Los Angeles–based ad agency’s best work, of which there’s been a lot lately, is “about behavior, not messaging,” says CEO John Boiler. “It starts with a cultural truth.” Its insights produce eminently insightful (and shareable) content, and often feel like art projects rather than capital-A advertising. Among its highlights from the past year: It posted signs at New York landmarks like Brooklyn Bowl, with frequently asked questions that users might want to directly ask their voice-activated Google app (“Ok, Google, how many holes can a bowling ball have?”). In The Honest Truth, vets ask for job opportunities as a way to illuminate the mission of Call of Duty Endowment, the video game’s not-for-profit arm. In Meet Me at Starbucks, 39 filmmakers capture a day in the life of the coffeehouse around the world. And the agency’s talent incubator, called 72U, produced an award-winning documentary about Lolita fashion, a movement that began in Tokyo and has found a following in Los Angeles.
For building big, with giant blocks. It may seem now like a foregone conclusion that The Lego Movie would be a huge hit, but anyone who’s seen a great book, comic or toy turn into a terrible movie knows better. Before this, the sentence “It was a 90-minute infomercial and it was awesome” could never have been written. But the marketing around the movie—with elaborate the behind-the-scenes videos and teasers—was a master class in branded content, helping it become a $468 million global hit. Combined with Lego’s continuous onslaught of content online at Lego.com, clever licensing deals (including Guardians of the Galaxy) and plans for Lego Movie 2 already hatched, Lego has clearly solidified a 10-year comeback that began with it on the verge on bankruptcy. Though, the numbers tell that story too: It reported first-half profits last year of $273 million on revenue of $2.03 billion.
For winning the holidays, again. This London-based agency was heavily awarded last year for creating arguably the best holiday campaigns in 2013—for John Lewis and Harvey Nichols—and it carried that momentum through 2014 with work such as a very cool interactive project for Manchester United and Google, the campaign and site for Google’s U.K. Impact challenge, and perhaps the first-ever ad for shepherd’s pie that made anyone weepy. The agency was then able to amazingly pull off a repeat of its holiday success in 2014, seamlessly waltzing between feel-good tearjerker and absurd laughs to create three of the UK’s top Christmas ads: a spot for John Lewis about a boy and his best-friend penguin, a Harvey Nichols campaign advertising awkwardly honest holiday cards, and a #WinChristmas campaign for luxury brand Mulberry. The new year is also off to a hot start, with the agency launching its first ad for new client Virgin Atlantic.
For making Big Media cool (and profitable). Vice has been making huge moves—selling 25% of the company for a combined investment of $570M (to Fox, Technology Crossover Ventures, and A&E, respectively) for a $2.5 billion valuation; putting together a $100 million partnership with Canadian broadcaster Rogers to create news, drama, documentaries and more; and teasing a potential IPO in 2015. On the creative side, its been busy winning awards for its HBO show (and signed on for third and fourth seasons), and growing respect for its news operation, particularly thanks to its embedded work in Ukraine and a five-part reporting series on the ground inside ISIS. It also maintained its title as perhaps the best publisher/agency purveyor of branded content, with continued excellence on The Creators Project for Intel—expanding to Italy, Japan, Mexico, and Spain, and growing its presence in Australia, New Zealand, France, and the UK. Vice helped create short documentaries on private military contractors for Activision’s Call of Duty, and another on Monkey Island, a refuge for apes used in medical research, to help promote the movie Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Meanwhile, Vice Films presented one of the hottest films at Sundance, the black-and-white Iranian vampire western, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, directed by Ana Lily Amirpour, who Vice creative director Eddy Moretti called “the next Tarantino.”
For nailing the millennial voice. As the fast food field gets tougher, Taco Bell just keeps getting better at connecting with, rather than just pandering to, those coveted Youngs. The company has become a category leader in better, funnier ads: With help from agency Deutsch L.A., it created a zag of a Super Bowl spot featuring octogenarians, a buzzy breakfast-wars campaign featuring real-life men named Ronald McDonald talking about TB’s new sort-of-awesome-looking a.m. offerings, and cultivating an active Snapchat following. But it is also leading in product innovation: See the culture bomb that was the Doritos Locos taco and the recent launch of a new restaurant concept, US Taco Co, a next-level grasp of social media. The pinnacle of its achievement came with the introduction of its slick new mobile ordering app in October of last year, an event that was met with the kind of media attention that normally attends the latest launch out of Silicon Valley. And that’s no accident. All across adland, marketers talk about embracing the ethos of startups—but Taco Bell has become the unlikely innovator that’s actually done it.
For bringing strategy to brands’ chaos. Noah Brier and James Gross launched Percolate in 2011 as a content platform for marketers who were facing a shift from creating a few long-lead campaigns a year to orchestrating a 24/7, multi-platform conversation. Since then, Brier and his 180-person team have built Percolate into a one-stop marketing CMS for brands that enables the likes of GE, Unilever, Coke, and eBay to plan, publish, manage and measure their increasingly broad range of content. Last year, the company raised $24 million in funding toward that end. “We’re trying to build the system or record for marketing,” says Brier. “Marketing has changed more in the last five years than it probably changed in the first 50. And part of that change is the scale of the whole thing can no longer be managed in a kind of ad hoc way. You need systems.”
For consistently releasing culturally relevant, varied creative with a purpose. How can a mission-driven organization cut through an internet cluttered with brands and their big budgets? Greenpeace has some ideas: In one video, it faded all the animals out of the opening sequence of Disney’s Lion King to imagining a world with robot honeybees (because we’ve killed all the real bees). In another, it used orphan baby orangutans to flip the script on P&G’s viral “Thank You Mom” campaign, to shame the company’s use of palm oil and its contribution to tropical rain forest destruction. It also recruited celebrity cats Lil Bub, Princess Monster Truck, Venus the Two-Faced Cat, and others for a video to raise awareness of the plight of wild tigers. Comedian Reggie Watts starred in the #ClickClean campaign to nudge web giants like Amazon and Twitter to use cleaner, renewable energy to power their businesses. And its biggest hit of 2014, a viral video swipe at Lego’s partnership with Shell Oil called Everything is Not Awesome, showed a Lego-made arctic animals suffering from an oil spill—and sparked a reaction that ultimately ended the toymaker’s relationship with the oil company.
For making industrial science and technology fun. GE has been touting its industrial applications of science and technology to the curious masses for years, whether on its GE Adventure Blog or later on its surprisingly artful Tumblr. But now the brand’s push into content has gone social in a huge way, with interesting, accessible, and artistic content featuring things such as jet engines and shipping containers. The GE Instagram feed is always fresh, and it’s offering six-second science lessons on Vine. CMO Beth Comstock said last year that GE’s content marketing gets 30% extra value for every dollar spent. But the brand hasn’t forgotten about traditional media: Its fake infomercial for the Link smart lightbulb, directed by Tim & Eric’s Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim and starring an incredibly dapper Jeff Goldblum, was one of the funniest ads of the year.
For stylishly showing the bonds between music and sports. Beats’ headphones grew because of word of mouth, influencers like LeBron James, and co-marketing deals with phone makers, car makers, and others. Co-founder Jimmy Iovine famously said the company sold half a billion worth of product before paying for one ad. Since then, the brand has used a masterful approach to more traditional marketing to maintain its cool, tapping into the bond between sports and music in ways that would make even Nike jealous. The brand produced emotionally-charged ads starring the NBA’s Kevin Garnett and Barcelona FC’s Cesc Fàbregas that quickly went viral, as well as a short film for the World Cup that exploded online, essentially stealing the global ad show with its inspiring look at the pre-game rituals of a laundry list of soccer stars. Brand CMO Omar Johnson says its these close relationships with world-class athletes allow the brand to create these intimate portraits of the pro sports experience, such as a series of ads for LeBron’s return to Ohio, and following Seattle Seahawk Richard Sherman to each playoff game on the way to the Super Bowl. Read more about Beats’ marketing.
For making a mockery of beer advertising. With a hearty mix of self-deprecating humor and wink-wink swipes at advertising culture, Newcastle has become one of the coolest brands without boasting or braggadocio. It started down this path with agency Droga5 in 2013 but really hit its stride last year. It made the best ad of the 2014 Super Bowl—a spot featuring Anna Kendrick being disappointed that she was cast in a Super Bowl commercial, only to learn the brand doesn’t have the budget for one. (It was shown online only.) Newcastle’s award-winning “If We Made It” campaign was a playful jab at American beer marketing, while its Independence Day “If We Won” campaign showed comedian Stephen Merchant rhapsodizing on what America would be like if the Britons won the Revolutionary War. The brand also mocked user-generated content campaigns by asking people for their mediocre travel photos, and offering to pay people to follow the brand on Twitter. And for 2015’s Super Bowl, it used Aubrey Plaza to recruit other smaller brands (with equally small ad budgets) to form a “Band of Brands” and pool their money to buy some ad space during the big game.