Score one for advertising, and for anti-advertising too.
Plenty of campaigns—in all sorts of styles, themes and textures—found the perfect formula of idea and execution to produce something brilliantly compelling in 2014. But it was Droga5 and Newcastle Brown Ale's meta takedown of the industry, and its biggest night, that represented the pinnacle of ad creativity this year.
Droga5's Under Armour campaign also makes our top 10 list this year—the only agency with two entries. And in fact, it was a strong year for sports advertising generally—largely thanks to the World Cup, from which we've included our favorite execution.
Elsewhere in our top 10, we have a prank, a food spot, more comedy, a Christmas ad, a short film, a celebration of family and a brutal PSA. Four spots came from outside the U.S., and fifth was made without an agency at all. Also, there's not a single traditional 30-second spot in the bunch, as if we needed more proof that the shape of advertising is changing.
See the full top 10 list below. And congratulations to all the agencies and marketers for making the year's best work, and raising the bar for everyone.
American Greetings “World’s Toughest Job”
Agency: Mullen, Boston
Director: Amir Farhang, Caviar
Prank videos and mom videos. They've been trending, separately, for a couple of years in advertising. But Mullen ingeniously merged them in this heartwarming four-minute gotcha film for American Greetings' Cardstore. It shows people interviewing for what they're told is the "world's toughest job." And indeed, it sounds brutal—135 hours a week; no vacations; medicine, finance and culinary degrees required; and a big fat salary of $0.
Mullen posted the job listing online, and 24 hardy souls inquired. Interviewed via webcam, they become increasingly horrified until the big reveal, when the interviewer tells them—to their sudden, emotional surprise—that this is a job mothers do every day.
Countless tears and 22 million YouTube views later, it was one of the year's big feel-good success stories.
Lurpak “Adventure Awaits”
Agency: Wieden + Kennedy, London
Director: Dougal Wilson, Blink
The kitchen is the cosmos in Wieden + Kennedy's latest mini-masterpiece for Lurpak—a stunning piece of film for the brand's Cook's Range of oils and butters.
"Tonight, as we stand on the edge of possibility, we choose the path less trodden," the voiceover begins as Richard Strauss's "Thus Spake Zarathustra" (aka, the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey) starts to swell. And we're off on an otherworldly journey that makes cooking feel like a tour of outer space.
Expert camerawork and spectacular sound design combine to make close-ups of fruits, vegetables and a table of flour feel like alien landscapes. Stove burners are lit, and it's like rockets igniting at Cape Canaveral.
This is the food ad Carl Sagan would have made—a triumph of imagination, a technical marvel and a true feast for the senses.
HBO “Awkward Family Viewing”
Agency: SS+K, New York
Director: David Shane, O Positive
You've been there. Watching TV with your parents. A sex scene comes on, and everyone squirms. Or worse, you squirm and your parents don't. In fact, they start commenting on the action.
SS+K's hilarious "Awkward Family Viewing" ads for HBO recreated that vibe perfectly, with an oblivious mom and dad who pipe up with embarrassing observations while watching racy or graphic HBO programming—from Girls to Game of Thrones—with their young-adult son and daughter.
The pitch? Get HBO Go, and enjoy it all "far, far away from your parents."
The ads, aimed at millennials, skillfully promoted not just the service but the edginess of the network. And with great acting, pacing and broad, relatable humor, it was the most painfully funny advertising series of the year.
Beats by Dre “The Game Before the Game”
Agency: R/GA, London and Los Angeles
Director: Nabil Elderkin
A music brand, not a sports brand, made this summer's best World Cup ad?
Yes, and it shouldn't have come as a total surprise. Beats by Dre and R/GA had been churning out powerful sports ads for months by then. "The Game Before the Game" was on another plane, though—a five-minute tour de force showing Brazil's Neymar Jr. and a host of other World Cup stars using music to get ready for battle.
Nike's "The Last Game" was arguably more virtuosic in its execution (and got 73 million views to Beats' 25 million). But the Beats ad, propelled by a pulsating Jamie N Commons & The X Ambassadors soundtrack, had more soul and swagger. It also had Bastian Schweinsteiger, who captained Germany to the title. (Nike's ad had no Germans.)
An advertising upset? Perhaps. But on this day, the best team won.
Under Armour “Misty Copeland”
Agency: Droga5, New York
Director: Johnny Green, Reset
The year's best campaign targeting women—Droga5's work for Under Armour—wasn't just empowering—it was astonishing, upending the notion of what a sports endorsement could look like.
Its first and best execution was a 60-second spot with a very unlikely star: Misty Copeland, the American Ballet Theatre soloist who was always told she'd never be a dancer. "You have the wrong body for ballet. And at 13, you are too old to be considered," she is told in voiceover, echoing things she heard as a child. But the visuals tell the opposite story, as Copeland, now 32, is seen powering across a stage—the image of raw strength and grace.
In a flash, the word "ballerina" became a sporting term, and the tagline, "I Will What I Want," felt just as unique and defiant—the howl of inner strength overcoming fate.
John Lewis “Monty the Penguin”
Agency: adam&eveDDB, London
Director: Dougal Wilson, Blink
Christmas ads in Britain are like Super Bowl ads here—overhyped and quite often underwhelming. But this year's spots were stronger than usual, and John Lewis and adam&eveDDB delivered the best of the lot with "Monty the Penguin."
Everything about it is wonderful—the premise, the storytelling, the CGI, the music (John Lennon's "Real Love," as sung by Tom Odell). But it's the quiet reveal at the end that achieves something actually magical—it makes you realize you've just seen the world through the eyes of a child.
That's remarkable for any ad. For a Christmas ad, it's perfect.
The campaign was an inspired bit of merchandizing genius, too: Monty toys have been flying off the shelves at the department store, and overall sales are up 7 percent over a year ago.
Wren “First Kiss”
Director: Tatia Pilieva
The one advertisement this year that was a true pop-culture phenomenon came, of all places, from the fashion world—typically a wasteland of artifice and empty style. Yet "First Kiss," showing strangers being asked to kiss on camera, couldn't have been more emotionally fascinating.
"I couldn't decide if it was the best idea I'd ever had or the worst," Tatia Pilieva would later say about her three-and-a-half-minute, black-and-white short film for Wren, a small L.A. clothing label. It quickly became clear which—the video got 5 million views in its first day, and has almost 100 million to date.
Whether you thought it was cute or cringeworthy, it was undeniably affecting. "It was probably the human vulnerability that touched people," Pilieva said, "watching the possibility of love play out in front of your eyes."
Coca-Cola Life “Parents”
Agency: Santo, Buenos Aires
Director: Pucho Mentasti, Blue Productora
A million ads have tackled the highs and lows of first-time parenting, but none quite so magnificently as this Coca-Cola Life spot from Argentina.
It begins with a couple ecstatically celebrating a positive pregnancy test. Leap forward a year, and it's utter chaos. No one is sleeping, the house is a mess, and life is unraveling fast. The parents suffer all manner of annoyance and indignity, from stepping on Legos to being interrupted in bed to finding mystery goo inside the record collection.
Then, the absolutely perfect ending. Mom holds up another positive test, and Dad starts to scream—in horror, we think. But we quickly realize he's roaring with delight, and they embrace—ready for round two.
Simple, adorable and completely relatable, it's classic Coke and the best family ad we've seen in a long time.
*Note: This spot broke in December 2013, but was eligible for this year's list because Adweek's 2013 list of best ads had already been published.
Save the Children “Most Shocking Second a Day Video”
Agency: Don't Panic, London
Director: Martin Stirling, Unit9
In a remarkable year for charity fundraisers (led by the largely unbranded juggernaut of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge), the most powerful PSA of all addressed the civil war in Syria—and its toll on more than 5 million children.
To make the horror feel real, Save the Children brought it home to Britain, quite literally, by imagining if the war were happening in London. The craft is phenomenal. The heartbreaking film uses the structure of popular one-second-a-day videos—it fits 65 brief scenes into 90 seconds—to show a middle-class girl's life falling apart over a year as she becomes a homeless and fatherless refugee.
It got 42 million YouTube views, helped to raise more than $100,000 for the cause and shined an important light on the youngest victims of one of the great humanitarian crises of our time.
Newcastle, “If We Made It”
Agency: Droga5, New York
Director: Randy Krallman, Smuggler
Winning the Super Bowl without even being on it?
That's some task. But Droga5 and Newcastle did it this year with an ambitious expansion of their self-consciously meta "No Bollocks" anti-advertising campaign. "If We Made It" brilliantly and hilariously skewered advertising's biggest night—and the breathless media mania behind it—in a well-rounded, pitch-perfect parody.
Doing more with less. Leaving the herd behind. Delivering fresh, funny, self-aware content to a new generation of savvy viewers. This is where great advertising is headed—and Droga nailed it.
How did they do it? Read our big new feature on the Newcastle campaign at this link:
The Best Ad of 2014 Was Brilliant and Subversive, and It Wasn't Even Real