Jurors © ‘Hate’

Last year, an epic commercial showing people climbing on top of each other to form and top a human mountain, TBWA London’s “Mountain” for PlayStation 2, swept the industry’s creative award shows. This year, a feel-good spot about hate is warming jurors’ hearts.

As members of 2005 award-show juries assess the ad industry’s creative output from last year and contemplate larger questions about the power of the 30-second spot, integrated media campaigns and alternative media, it’s a 90-second animated commercial featuring flying diesel engines, bunnies wearing earmuffs, penguins wielding sledgehammers and dancing flamingos to the folksy sing-along “Hate something, change something” that is primed to top the shows this season.

Honda’s “Grrr,” from Wieden + Kennedy, London—the agency that created “Cog,” another award-show topper for Honda last year—is generating much excitement in the judging rooms for its inventive introduction of Honda’s first diesel engine last fall. Telling the story of how designer Kenichi Nagahiro’s “hate” of diesel engines inspired the creation of the new VTEC engine, the ad shows diesel engines flying through a rainbow-adorned Technicolor ’60s-style animated world to a catchy tune sung by NPR personality Garrison Keillor that asks, “Can hate be good?” The answer, apparently, is yes. The ad took top honors at the British Television Advertising Awards in London last month, and if preliminary feedback from the juries of U.S.-based shows is any indication, it will likely garner many more accolades this year. The spot even elicited applause in one competition’s jury room.

“The idea of the spot—of hate something, change something, make something better—for a brief that was probably pretty engineering based, was really smart. I thought the execution was really nicely done; the song was great—everything about it,” says Jim Nelson, executive creative director of Carmichael Lynch in Minneapolis, who participated in the judging for the 2005 International Andy Awards in Maui, Hawaii, in February, and the 24th Kelly Awards last month, which honors magazine advertising.

Offering a common refrain among agency creatives, Nelson says he judges the work of his colleagues based on how jealous it makes him. The Honda “Grrr” ad, he says, “just made me insanely jealous.”

Kirk Souder, former president and ecd of Publicis & Hal Riney in San Francisco, now freelancing out of Granite Pass in Topanga, Calif., judged The One Show last month in New York, and echoed Nelson’s praise about Wieden’s Honda effort. “What a fresh, novel way to look at the problem. It stays with me,” he says. “It’s the piece that I want to take out and show creative people.”

The “Grrr” spot, say jurors, has all the elements of a winner: a smart idea, compelling execution, infectious music track and an optimistic message to boot. “The Honda spot was very fresh and it had great content,” explains Ann Hayden, worldwide creative director on General Mills at Saatchi & Saatchi in New York and a One Show judge who will also evaluate the TV and film entries at the International Advertising Festival in Cannes in June. “It was beautifully written, used great animation and dealt with a subject that felt very important.”

Though “Grrr” is a front-runner in TV, many judges point to specific executions in the sneaker category—a perennial favorite at award shows—such as Adidas’ “Unstoppable” and Nike’s “Michael Vick Experience” as some of the medium’s best. However, overall judges groused that 2004 was a somewhat lackluster year in advertising. Some blame creatives’ confusion over the myriad of media choices; others the holding company era of doing business. But there were few outstanding pieces to excite jurors this year—another sign that creatives are playing it safe.

“There was a lot of work that was kinda good. With the exception of one or two pieces, I don’t think there was an extraordinary amount of stuff that you saw and said ‘What the heck was that?’ or stuff that you said ‘I wish I had done that,'” says Souder, who adds he was personally impressed with the Honda ad and Butler, Shine, Stern & Partners’ Converse campaign, which is based on films made by brand fans that run on TV and the Internet. “There were a few pieces, but not as many as I’m used to. When our industry feels comfortable swinging really hard, you find a lot of real bad misses and real big hits. Because everyone is gun shy, you see a lot of work that is in the middle. There aren’t a lot of big hits.”

“It was tough,” says Mark Tutssel, vice chairman and regional creative director of Leo Burnett in Chicago, a member of the Andys jury and The Clio Awards’ Content & Contact jury, which honors integrated media campaigns. “You’re always looking for innovation, stuff that really does move the dial, not stuff that repeats and replicates what’s been done before.”

Award shows are trying to catch up with the times and are putting more credence in non-traditional and integrated campaigns this year. For example, this June, at Cannes, integrated work will be judged by its own jury for the first time in the Titanium competition. “A lot more attention is being paid by the advertising community—not just to interactive, but to integrated Web sites, as an integral part of the winners,” says Tracy Wong, chairman and creative director of WongDoody in Seattle, an Andys judge who remembers a time not so long ago when many creatives didn’t have the patience to judge interactive elements of campaigns. “It’s nice to see judges will spend time on it now. They have to.”

Justin Barocas, partner at Anomaly in New York, who judged the Clios’ Content & Contact competition last month, which honors integrated media campaigns, says that while there were a lot of interesting targeted efforts, “most of it was like a new take on an existing vehicle—taking something traditional and familiar and reinventing it—as opposed to creating something completely new.”

Comparing the current industry output to past decades, when several different agencies were producing forward-thinking, ground-breaking work for far-reaching clients, Mike Hughes, president of The Martin Agency in Richmond, Va., and a member of the One Show and Kelly Awards juries this year, notes that while there are “examples of really special work being done today, it tends not to be broad enough. They don’t have big enough shoulders to carry the industry.” Additionally, he says his concern is that “old style work is good and solid, but not very fresh, and the new work is often fresh but not very good. I’m not saying that we need to return to the olden days, but to the broader viewpoint.”

When it comes to fresh thinking, Hughes, like others, admits, “I’ve got a lot of Bogusky envy,” referring to Alex Bogusky, ecd of Crispin Porter + Bogusky in Miami, the agency that created the “Subservient chicken” interactive phenomenon and the “Lunch Break” office friends commercial series for Burger King, as well as standout print for Mini and Molson beer and non-traditional pieces for Virgin Atlantic. However, the agency’s successes have inspired many pale imitators, Hughes adds.

Souder sees similar mimicking in film series-based Web efforts. “Big brands like BMW did some major initiatives, and people saw how popular it was,” he says. “So rather than have those initiatives come out of a need from the brand, it feels like a lot of it is coming out of a manufactured need from the advertising community for the sake of doing something in that space. As a result, it doesn’t feel real.”

“What we aren’t seeing is consumer consideration,” adds Saatchi’s Hayden. “In trying so hard to find new ways of doing things, which oftentimes are not the best solution, we might be forgetting the people we’re trying to communicate with.”

While the Honda spot and its message were overwhelmingly embraced by the ad community, some jurors wonder if the award shows, with their increased emphasis on integrated communications, will recognize the full diesel effort. Centered on a traditional execution—the TV and cinema spot—the campaign used other media to further engage consumers. Wieden extended the concept with an online game in which players gathered carrots to make unpleasant things more likable. And using interactive TV, viewers could record their own comments about what they hate and how they would like to change it.

“There were a lot of judges who wanted to see more and more [integrated work],” notes Paul Keister, creative director at Crispin, Porter + Bogusky in Miami and a One Show judge. “When this idea of integrated debuted, people didn’t know what to make of it. This year people were definitely embracing it as much as TV and print.”