You may note that there are things on this list that aren’t ads, per se. But the concept of an "ad," is a fluid thing now, to say the least.
The best advertisers have the kind of holistic approach to brand experience that ensures every expression—from product to corporate culture to communications—is part of a master creative vision. For these companies, marketing is not a department; it’s a genetic part of the brand itself. Whether it’s the company’s approach to sustainability, its devotion to service, its aptitude for using social media to listen to its customers, or, yes, its knack for making great messages, it all demonstrates an ability to harness creativity and a will to get a creative idea through the gauntlet of corporate process. You don’t have to call them ads but you can call them the best brand ideas of the year.
Patagonia "Common Threads"
It’s an understatement to say that Patagonia was green before green was cool. And once again, the company is out in front of another big brand imperative—marketing in an age of less. There’s going to have to be a big discussion in the coming years about making better things instead of making more things, and about the unquestioned goal of growth at all costs. With "Common Threads," Patagonia becomes the first major brand to start that conversation. It’s our campaign of the year that isn’t a campaign at all, really. There were ads involved—like a buzz-generating New York Times page depicting a Patagonia fleece accompanied by the headline, "Don’t Buy This Jacket." But the initiative is an extension of Patagonia’s core brand philosophy of "Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis."
Common Threads asked customers to think twice before buying new stuff, and to instead reuse, repair and, finally, recycle the stuff they have. The genius part is, Patagonia’s sales went up in the wake of the project, providing a nice case study for the big, non-Patagonias out there demonstrating that responsibility is good business.
Red Bull, The Art of Flight
Is it an ad for Red Bull? Is it a pure-play entertainment product designed to generate revenue? Yes!
Red Bull stands alone as a brand that’s become a full-on media company. It didn’t happen overnight: For 25 years, the company that invented the energy drink has embedded itself in the action sports world and photographed, recorded, and filmed every rad moment.
In 2011, the content strategy went to a new level with the feature-length mind-melter, The Art of Flight. Red Bull spared no expense on production—partner Brain Farm Digital Cinema used state of the art Cineflex and Phantom cameras to give the death-defying stunts from Travis Rice, et al., an almost otherworldly epicness. The result was a film that transcended the hardcore snowboarding scene and grabbed a bigger, mainstream audience (the film was number one overall on iTunes the week it was released).
Seventh Generation Packaging
Anything that cuts our plastic consumption can be considered among the most important of brand initiatives, in this or any year. It may not be a perfect solution (there’s still a plastic liner) but the Seventh Generation paper-based cartons reduce plastic by a reported 66% and set an important precedent for packaged good marketers.
Volkswagen "The Force"
Enough’s been said about this one. But that’s no reason to leave it off the list now, is it?
Chipotle, "Back To the Start"
Co.Create enforces a strict no crying in the office policy but this one had us sitting wanly in front of suddenly blurry screens, cursing our craving for flesh. The video, created out of CAA and directed by Johnny Kelly, shows the evolution of a family farm in affecting animation. Chipotle made the film’s track—a Willie Nelson rendition of Coldplay’s "Back to the Start"—available for purchase on iTunes, with $.60 of the cost going to the Chipotle Cultivate Foundation, which supports sustainable farming.
Usually, social responsibility ads from fast food companies elicit nothing but cringes (and it still made us really sad that the pigs end up in the same state in the end), but coming from a brand with some cred in ethical farming, this film works, as an awareness-raising vehicle and, simply, as a great piece of entertainment.
Pacific Standard Time, Ice Cube Celebrates the Eames
The pinnacle of an excellent campaign from TBWA/Chiat/Day L.A. for Los Angeles art exhibit Pacific Standard Time features one Ice Cube, former architectural drafting student, celebrating the work of Ray and Charles Eames. The art world has been responsible for some of the freshest campaigns of recent years as museums try to engage a younger generation of fans, and TBWA stepped up the game with this series of videos that paired well-known cultural figures of today with artists featured in the PST exhibit. Other videos saw John Baldessari haunting Jason Schwartzman, and Anthony Kiedis taking a drive with Ed Ruscha.
Dead Island Trailer
We never did play the game but can only assume that this was one of those cases where the trailer was the best thing about it. A truly gripping reverse-chron look at a vacation gone zombie.
AT&T "Taco Party"
Let’s be honest. When someone asks "what’s your favorite movie?" you’ve got your "official" answer (e.g.: Last Year in Marienbad) and you’ve got your real, if-it’s-on-Sunday-afternoon-I’m-watching-it-every-time answer (e.g.:When Harry Met Sally). This AT&T spot is the one that you want to watch over and over again, and it’s all down to the great performances captured by director Randy Krallman, the maestro who gave us "The Little Lad" for Starburst and the (original) ETrade baby (and who will go on to direct his first feature, Bullies, out of Danny McBride’s shingle, Rough House Pictures).
Cravendale, "Cats With Thumbs"
The Internet loves its cute cats, but has anyone stopped to consider, what if they had thumbs? Would we love them then? This spot for Cravendale Dairy out of Wieden + Kennedy London takes a glimpse into a possible feline future and the result is chilling, like a cold bowl of milk.
K-Swiss Kenny Powers, MFCEO
Eastbound and Down’s Kenny Powers returned for round two of his K-Swiss campaign, this time as the MFCEO, and once again we saluted K-Swiss for embracing a "difficult" character in efforts to connect with its audience. Read about the campaign here (oh, and season three February 19! )
KLM Social Media
KLM Royal Dutch Airlines demonstrated a big commitment to listening, and talking back, to customers in 2011, making headlines with several socially driven initiatives, some planned, some not. The highest-profile project was put in motion by a tweet from a Dutch DJ, requesting that the airline step up its plans for an Amsterdam-to-Miami service so that he could catch the Miami Ultra Music Festival. KLM did more than listen and send a consoling response—it challenged the music enthusiast to take to his social network and get 150 friends to commit to taking the new flight. He did and they did and KLM honored its promise to get a plane to the festival. Another campaign, "Tile Yourself," encouraged fans to design special tiles and post to Facebook, with the best chosen to adorn a KLM plane for the rest of the year.
Xbox Kinect, "The Kinect Effect"
The spot itself, from Xbox agency Twofifteen McCann, is lovely. But it earns a nod for what it represents—Microsoft’s decision to embrace the creative explosion that was happening around Kinect hacking.
Volkswagen, "Blue Motion Roulette"
Norwegian agency Try has distinguished itself with several campaigns this year (like this cute spot for DnB Bank). But our favorite was this interactive way to promote the VW Golf Bluemotion’s great mileage. The agency sent a Golf on a trip up the country’s central highway and invited people to guess where, on a Google map, it would run out of fuel. Of course to make an educated guess, participants had to flock to the VW site to find out all they could about the car (which came to a halt at km 1,570).