The persuasion industry was largely defined during the pandemic year by images of empty city streets set to the soundtrack of swelling piano music. We really were all in it together, right? That’s why this year’s crop of most innovative companies in advertising stands out, because they transcended the cliches and produced exceptional, noteworthy work that succeeded in getting attention amid a universe of distractions.
1. Goodby Silverstein & Partners
For balancing Super Bowl hits with anti-racist PSA work
In February 2020, prior to the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the shooting of Jacob Blake at the hands of police, the San Francisco-based agency introduced the fantastic “Not a Gun” campaign for Courageous Conversation Global Foundation, a company that leads bias training. The campaign raised awareness of the fact that Black people are three times more likely to be killed by police than white people and asked people to sign a petition to encourage police de-escalation training. Amid the protests after the Floyd and Taylor killings, GS&P created a film, Being Black Is Not a Crime, and accompanied it with a print ad for Tulsa protesters that appeared in the oldest Black-owned newspaper, the Oklahoma Eagle. Once torn out, the ad could be used as a protest sign during the rallies in Tulsa during Trump’s visit. Courageous Conversation has experienced triple-digit growth, which founder Glenn Singleton attributes to GS&P’s work. “If you have the best creatives in the world,” says Goodby partner and chief creative officer Margaret Johnson, “it’d be a crime not to use their powers to try and make the world better.” The agency was also a founding member of the “Stop Hate for Profit” campaign against Facebook and all the while, the agency held its reputation as one of the strongest Super Bowl specialists with big game work for Doritos, SodaStream, Pepsi, and Cheetos.
For pushing creative boundaries for massive brands
The world’s top independent ad agency continues to make the best work in the world for some of the biggest brands. This year W+K managed to do so while acknowledging and helping brands navigate the pandemic, first with Ford, which made one of the best and first pandemic ads, Nike’s “Nothing Can Stop Us” campaign, and helped Michelob Ultra make an impact in its first year as official NBA beer sponsor with great ads, and made the brand a winner of Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods’ high-profile face-off in The Match II. Also for Ford, the company helped steer an unprecedented content partnership rollout across Disney-owned networks to announce the highly anticipated new Bronco. It also picked up U.S. creative duties for McDonald’s, as the fast feeder aims to make more creative, culturally relevant work, and promptly did just by helping to launch the Travis Scott meal.
For giving Apple two of the best ads of the pandemic
The agency’s most laudable work this year was for Apple. First it was an amazing five-hour spot—filmed in a single take—that was essentially a full tour through Russia’s iconic Hermitage museum. Then, in order to illustrate the potential of vertical video, they enlisted Oscar winner Damian Chazelle to shoot a nine-minute vertical romp through cinematic history. The agency is now working with Moderna on its first-ever consumer marketing efforts.
For giving State Farm throwback flair for The Last Dance
By creating a State Farm ad mixing ’90s SportsCenter footage with a modern script, Translation helped create the most talked-about commercial that ran during ESPN’s 10-part documentary series The Last Dance, one of the most popular and talked about TV events of the year. In November, it helped Beats by Dre rediscover its creative heart with “You Love Me,” directed by Melina Matsoukas (Queen & Slim), written by Lena Waithe, and with music by Solange Knowles, that addressed the gulf between America’s love of Black culture and the systemic racism still inflicted on its Black citizens. The agency also signed a multiyear deal with Disney, to work with brand marketers across all the company’s media properties like ABC, Hulu, and National Geographic, to create more culturally relevant work for more diverse audiences.
For pushing branded content to the next level
Observatory has done fun work this year tying film, TV, and pop culture to brands, including with Chipotle on the next chapter of its “Cultivate A Better World” brand work, and teaming up Netflix and Ben & Jerry’s to create flavors for the show Space Force (Boots on the Moooo’n) and Netflix Is a Joke (Punch Line Hotline). But its biggest achievement just became public, working with Nike to create the brand’s in-house entertainment division called Waffle Iron Entertainment. So far, Waffle Iron has more than a dozen projects in development, and in partnership with Ron Howard’s Imagine Entertainment, sold the documentary The Day Sports Stood Still to HBO.
6. Maximum Effort
For making Ryan Reynolds an advertising MVP
Ryan Reynolds and Co. have so consistently been able to make entertaining ads for Aviation Gin, Mint Mobile (as well as Samsung and Netflix) that subvert advertising while remaining fully self-aware as commercials themselves . . . and making us laugh the whole time. Maximum Effort turned Peloton’s lemon of a Christmas ad into viral “Peloton Girl” lemonade. The year ended with a hilariously charming video hyping Reynolds and Rob McElhenney’s acquisition of a U.K. soccer team for the purpose of producing a doc around the entire endeavor.
For showing how small and independent can still win a Super Bowl
This 30-person, independent, Chicago-based agency managed to win the 2020 Super Bowl by convincing Bill Murray to relive his Groundhog Day for Jeep, which was nominated for an Emmy. Also for the big game, Highdive convinced Jason Momoa to shed his muscles for Rocket Mortgage. The rest of the year further proved how major brands don’t need a big agency to create attention-getting work, and helped Highdive boost its total revenue growth by 35%.
8. Uncommon London
For getting Britain talking during a pandemic
This small independent U.K. agency Uncommon London created award-winning work for The Guardian (“Hope Is Power”), a quirky as hell, Iggy Pop-narrated campaign for travel company On the Beach, and “Scents of Normality,” a limited-edition line of candles with home fragrance brand Earl of East, that addressed the pandemic by giving people the scent of things they miss like a local pub, a music festival, and the movies, with profits donated to Hospitality Action, an org supporting UK hospitality workers who have been affected by COVID-19. But the agency’s biggest piece of work was a pandemic mental health campaign for broadcaster ITV called “Britain Get Talking.” It included convincing the broadcaster to pause the live broadcast of one of its most popular prime-time shows—Britain’s Got Talent—to have the hosts talk about mental health and encourage the audience to call friends and family to check in with them.
For making the most of TikTok celebrity
For Dunkin’, BBDO New York established an innovative influencer partnership with the most-followed TikToker, Charli D’Amelio, to bring her favorite Dunkin’ beverage to the menu as “The Charli,” giving her millions of fans something to rally behind. Obviously tapping the biggest star on TikTok isn’t exactly genius-level strategy, but it also the kind of obvious move many brands miss completely or mess up the execution. This one was flawless, and further illustrated the mainstream brand strength of a new-gen celebrity.
10. You & Mr Jones
For building a new kind of advertising holding company
Over the past year, the New York-based “brand tech” company You & Mr Jones has raised $260 million at a $1.36 billion valuation. It’s acquired influencer marketing agency Collectively, and along with its other content acquisition, MoFilm, is decentralizing content creation by tapping into thousands of creators and filmmakers on its platform. The company also invested in Blacktag, a Netflix-YouTube hybrid for Black audiences and creators, adding to its investment portfolio that includes Pinterest and Niantic. Oliver, another You & Mr Jones company, helps major brands establish in-house marketing and content operations, such as Unilever’s U-Studio, which increased its digital content production by 40% during the pandemic.