The Year’s 23 Best Media Plans Sparked Conversation With Next-Level Innovation and Creativity

Brands used audacious tactics to effectively reach consumers

Starcom, PHD and Wieden + Kennedy (with Wingstop, Old Navy and Chiquita, respectively) are among the 2018 honorees.
Sources: Wingstop, Old Navy, Chiquita

In this ever-expanding brand marketing ecosystem, the challenge for advertisers to effectively reach their targeted audience calls for an audacious media plan. Sometimes it’s a simple execution with a powerful message, and then there’s a need for an off-the-wall, completely bonkers campaign to cut through the clutter. This year’s crop of Media Plan of the Year honorees celebrates 23 winning teams that check those boxes and everything in between with extraordinary campaigns that sparked national conversations. From Droga5’s quiet, yet impactful “The Free Press” campaign for The New York Times to MullenLowe MediaHub’s creepy, futuristic “Altered Carbon” bus shelter campaign (see the full story here), agencies’ next-level innovation and creativity continued to shine bright in 2018. —Lisa Granatstein

The Judges
Many thanks to our esteemed panel of jurors who carved out time to judge another record year of Media Plan of the Year entries (Check out these interviews with some of our judges about the challenges facing the brand-agency relationship). If you’re interested in serving as a juror in 2019, please contact Jemima Mendenhall at Jemima.Mendenhall@adweek.com.

PHD | Google, ‘Celebrity Voice’
Category: Campaign ($10+ million)

Going into the 2017 holiday season, Google and PHD knew that 60 percent of U.S. consumers didn’t yet see the need for a smart home device like Google Home to assist with personal searches, questions and playlist requests, and help with things around the house.

So the tech giant and its agency decided to highlight the features and utility of the device and voice assistance in general to audiences by weaving the voice assistant directly into key entertainment events from Halloween to Christmas. The two-month marketing blitz keyed on some unique media and celebrity-driven integrations tied to the tried-and-true scaled reach of network TV.

High-profile product placements in TV shows like NBC’s Will & Grace, The Ellen Show and ABC’s Modern Family saw celebrities like Eric McCormack, Sofía Vergara, Nick Offerman and Amy Poehler addressing the device during episodes and around events like the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree Lighting.

“We had so many of our favorite TV personalities and characters saying ‘Hey Google’ and using the Google Home in a wide array of situations,” says Nick Vernola, global media strategy director at PHD. They “showed just how amazing, magical and useful Google Home can be.”

And overall, they helped Google sell more than 7 million of its Home devices, increasing its market share from 23 percent to 31 percent.
Gabriel Beltrone

Initiative and Droga5 | IHOP, ‘Flipping to Burgers’
Category: Campaign ($5 million-10 million)

For a few weeks in June, it seemed “IHOb” was a social obsession: Was IHOP becoming a burger joint?

Coming into the campaign, Initiative managing director, client advice and management Robert Holtkamp says, IHOP had positive brand recognition but was pigeonholed as a weekend breakfast destination. It needed to convince audiences to consider IHOP for lunch and dinner. With a series of mysterious social media posts, Initiative sparked conversations in the lead-up to the big reveal.

During its first 10 days, the campaign accumulated 1.2 million tweets and over 15,000 earned media stories, generating 28.6 billion impressions. The campaign extended to signage, employee LinkedIn pages and even search.

Initiative and IHOP partnered with Tastemade for an event revealing Ultimate Steakburgers, inviting food bloggers, influencers and press such as Food & Wine to establish credibility. Positive reviews subsequently emerged on the same day that Droga5’s creative revealed to wider audiences that the “b” stood for burgers. Utilizing geolocation data about sit-down diners at IHOP restaurants and nearby locations, Initiative was able to “understand who was responsive to IHOP advertising” and successfully target those individuals, Holtkamp adds.

“We were able to understand the impact of all of our media placements on increased visitation to IHOP,” he explains. Skeptics of the activation aside, “IHOb” helped quadruple burger sales in the three weeks following the reveal. —Erik Oster

Wieden + Kennedy | Chiquita, ‘The Banana Sun’
Category: Campaign ($1 million-5 million)

The totality? Overrated! The real attraction during last summer’s solar eclipse was the crescent-shaped sliver of light visible from behind the moon, according to Chiquita. That phenomenon got its own cheeky name—the Banana Sun—and laid its claim on the astronomic pop culture event.

August’s eclipse allowed the brand to play with alternate facts since “96 percent of America would look up in the sky and see something that looked like a banana,” minus the blue Chiquita sticker, says Jason Strickland, Wieden + Kennedy’s group media director.

The agency counted down the Banana Sun’s arrival for two weeks, using Snapchat, messenger bots, GIFs and news sites The Verge and NowThis, releasing six quirky short films and sending banana-themed swag to meteorologists. Promotion also included a New York Times full-page ad, a 10-market local news blitz, a 50-foot banana parked in New York’s Flatiron District (distributing banana-shaped protective glasses) and a Facebook Live stream with Funny or Die so the agency could “take the idea to completely absurd lengths,” says Wieden + Kennedy creative director Mike Weihs.

The stunt—the brand’s most successful after several quiet marketing years—snagged 372 million earned media impressions, 200,000-plus social shares and 1 million livestream views for a 666 percent ROI. —T.L. Stanley

Starcom | Wingstop, ‘Flying High’
Category: Campaign (less than $500k)

Every year, Wingstop would see a sales spike in the spring—on April 20, to be exact. That day is, of course, better known by its internet moniker as 4/20, a day dedicated to all-things marijuana (typically celebrated by smoking it).

To capitalize on that already-present sales boost, Wingstop rolled out a campaign, dubbed “4/20 High-atus,” all about embracing the culture of 4/20. Wingstop found that culture typically involves bingeing on one of two things after lighting up: either the latest Netflix offering or snacks. “We put those things together to make it a cultural event,” says LisaAnn Rocha, evp, managing director at Starcom USA, the agency behind the campaign. “It was a cool thing that cropped up we could take advantage of.”

Doing just that—capitalizing on something that feels organic to the brand—is Wingstop’s creative M.O. “You always hope for something organic that makes sense for the brand without having to force it,” Rocha adds. The resulting campaign was a series of ads, showing animated Wingstop products (a drink, a side of fries, an order of wings and a dipping sauce) walking to a Wingstop location. There are four 15-second spots, and each one gets progressively “trippier” over time, meant to mimic the experience of being high.

The ads ran throughout videos on streaming services like Hulu and in cinemas. That placement was an easy fit with the 4/20 campaign, seamlessly incorporating the binge-watching element, as consumers were likely binge-watching a show as the ad appeared on their screens.

“It was a great combination of medium and message coming together,” Rocha says. “We leveraged the cultural moment that was going on, and turned it into a lot of impact for Wingstop.” —Diana Pearl

Hearts & Science | P&G, ‘Walking The Talk’
Category: Cause Marketing ($1+ million)

P&G’s “The Talk” sparked one of the most critical conversations on race by a Fortune 500 company in recent memory this past year, spotlighting the discussions African-American parents have with their children to prepare them for prejudices they will face as they get older. With a message as sensitive as that, so too had to be the way in which it was introduced to consumers.

“We needed to be very, very careful,” says Jose Bello, senior director of total market planning, Hearts & Science. The agency initially identified “safe places” to release the campaign, then assessed in real time where next to place ads. A team monitored all social mentions beginning at 7 a.m. daily, ready to “pull the plug” if they became too hostile, explains Bello. There were “moments that were very difficult,” he admits, but P&G stuck to it. The CPG giant seemingly heeded the advice of one of the ad’s mothers who told her son to “keep showing up.”

Ultimately, “The Talk” garnered 95 percent positive feedback and 1.8 billion earned media impressions across 900 placements. P&G authentically reached both minority and mainstream audiences through integrations with the BET Awards, Oprah Winfrey and ABC’s Black-ish, which featured the full ad in an episode that alone generated more than 15 million views online and 4 million on TV. —Lindsay Rittenhouse

Wavemaker | Animal CARE Centers OF N.Y.C., ‘Borough Born and Bred’
Category: Cause Marketing (less than $1 million)

Each year, about 30,000 animals are taken in at the Animal Care Centers of New York City. As a city animal shelter, the organization doesn’t have a budget for marketing. But thanks to pro-bono work from Wunderman and Wavemaker—along with donated media from a few dozen publications like Imgur and Flipboard—the organization created a campaign to raise awareness about what makes dogs in New York unique.

That led to “Borough-bred,” a campaign focused on neighborhoods in each borough based on who might be most likely to adopt. (Areas like SoHo, the Upper West Side and various Brooklyn locations were targeted, based on Wunderman’s data-driven modeling that led to geofenced digital ads in select parts of each borough.)

The campaign included photographs that showed another side of shelter dogs, which while often neglected can be just as photogenic as pets in the home. The campaign amassed more than 15 million impressions, and even targeted dogs themselves, with out-of-home ads lower to the ground designed to encourage owners to bring another pooch home.

“New Yorkers themselves are very proud and resilient,” says Sara Bailer, group planning director for Wavemaker. “And we wanted to be sure we captured the shared DNA of the people of New York and these animals. We’re all mixed breeds, we’re all proud to be here, and we all love these animals.” —Martin Swant

MediaCom | Gillette, ‘Holy Rollers’
Categories: International Campaign (less than $1 million), Best Use of Insights

In advertising deodorant to Israel’s Orthodox Jewish community, P&G’s Gillette had an unusual problem—reaching a demographic that’s largely insular, and generally doesn’t have TVs or computers at home. So it decided to enlist the help of an even bigger messenger—God himself.

How? MediaCom knew from the beginning that it wanted to focus on Shabbos, which forbids observers from anything resembling work—even flipping a light switch, or rolling on antiperspirant—for 24 hours every week from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.

But when Michal Bar-tal, a religious colleague from another Gillette agency—publicity shop Stern Ariely Saar—consulted her observant father and discovered a little known piece of scripture stipulating that the faithful shall not pray in a place of foul odor, the team realized it had struck gold.

MediaCom started by consulting with Israel’s rabbinical authority, gaining its backing to post flyers—sans Gillette branding—emphasizing the commandment on the popular bulletin boards posted outside synagogues and on kiosks throughout Orthodox communities. Then, it ran a side-by-side Battle of the Synagogues—testing two congregations (one wearing Gillette’s 48-hour protection, the other a competitor) using a high-tech Japanese odor-meter (purchased at MediaCom’s own expense).

Cue the media blitz: MediaCom promoted the biblical decree and test results (it won, naturally) through the pre-Sabbath radio ad slots. It sponsored the candle-lighting schedules marking the start of each week’s Shabbos in religious newspapers across the community (towns vary minute to minute to match the precise time of the sunset), sending readers a fridge magnet with a checklist of pre-Shabbos preparations (including putting on their Gillette).

Gilad Kat, MediaCom’s regional planning director for P&G, says while the agency could’ve run an “OK campaign” without the key insight, “the fact that the bible doesn’t want you to pray in a foul-odor environment” meant the audience wouldn’t “need to listen to Gillette anymore, telling them that we are better, and that we have this special formula. It’s suddenly ‘Listen to somebody else’—to a higher authority.” In the end, it worked—Gillette grew its share in the Orthodox community from just 3 percent to 15 percent in two months. —G.B.

Universal McCann | Tourism Australia, ‘Cheeky Dundee’
Categories: International Campaign ($1+ million, Aussie News Today),
Best Use of Social ($2+ million, Son of a Legend)

Kangaroos and koala bears are getting ogled by more international tourists in the land down under these days, thanks to two vastly different media plans from Universal McCann and Tourism Australia (TA).

“Both of the campaigns focused on showcasing the personality of Australia and Australians, which are quite unique to most people,” explains Geoff Ikin, TA’s general manager of global media and PR.

The cheeky side of Aussies was definitely on display in both. And the TV spot added a bit of mischief. Prior to its Super Bowl broadcast, UM dropped word in a number of ways to suggest the ad would tout a new sequel to the iconic Crocodile Dundee movie that would feature Paul Hogan (the original Dundee), Chris Hemsworth and Danny McBride—all of whom are in the commercial.

“We spent a ridiculous amount of time to ensure the legitimacy of the concept, so people couldn’t tie the campaign back to Tourism Australia,” says Chris Colter, UM’s global strategy director. But about a week into the tease, people began speculating that TA was behind it. “Originally, we were like, ‘Oh no, game over!’ But the thing that surprised us is it just fueled more conversation,” says Colter.

When the ad ran during the Super Bowl, it became clear that the movie “news” was a ruse. The week following the ad’s telecast saw a 35 percent growth in searches for flights to Australia, and “Dundee” was the most-viewed Super Bowl commercial.

While the “Dundee” campaign aimed to bump up Australia’s share of U.S. tourism, which has been stagnant at 1.3 percent in recent years, “Aussie News Today” was focused on youth travelers, who make up 46 percent of international visitor spend. Europe was a particular focus, Ikin says. A native partnership with BuzzFeed was formed, and a global search for eight influencer correspondents took place.

All told, the budding reporters produced 200 news spots from all over the country. The campaign tweaked some noses by pairing up the bad news in various overseas markets with fun info about what people might do or see in Australia. “Aussie News” has generated over 27.5 million video views and 2,400 shares. And it garnered traditional media coverage that UM values at $3.6 million.

Colter was surprised by how virile some of the posts became: “Even a small Melbourne café got millions of views. Sometimes the small things can perform as well as the bigger acts.” —Janet Stilson

Wavemaker | United Airlines, ‘Taxi Service’
Category: Best Use of Out-of-home Media ($500k+)

While JFK and LaGuardia aren’t always seen as everyone’s favorite airports, New Yorkers don’t always think to make a trip across the Hudson River to EWR. To help change that, United Airlines decided to take over ads on more than 100 taxi tops across New York City.

To pull it off, United and its agency partnered with Verifone Media and Kinetic to attach GPS software to each taxi that showed exactly how long it took to get from Manhattan to New Jersey. The displays, based on data from the app Curb, were meant to promote the recent $120-million upgrade to United’s new terminal at Newark Liberty International Airport, where the airline moved all of its JFK flights and employees. (Along with the taxi tops, the campaign also included billboards and phone kiosk, bus shelter and airport ads.)

“The entire campaign existed strictly on the fact-based argument that Newark was always more convenient than JFK, supported by live data displays that travelled around Manhattan at all hours,” says Mark Krolick, United’s vp of marketing. “Ultimately, the campaign was rooted in convenience. United wanted to help customers simplify their travel schedules and, instead of making them go digging on their own, presented the data to them directly to help make the decision easier.”

The campaign was a success, with Edelman’s reputation tracker finding that brand favorability grew to 55 percent from 39 percent the previous year. According to Port Authority data, new United passengers also increased at EWR, rising 810,000. It was also a success in the eyes of the Cannes Lions judges. This summer, United won two awards in France, including one for use of real-time data and another for data-driven targeting. —M.S.

UM | KFC, ‘Weathermatic Chicken’
Category: Best Use of Data

Going against accepted wisdom was a sticking point for Universal McCann when it figured out how to improve KFC’s track record in Malaysia. Sales were at a 10-year low for the first half of 2017, even though KFC had the QSR category’s highest media spend and top-of-mind recall in that country.

“People think that during bad weather, people spend more time indoors, which means that TV consumption grows,” says Aparna Krishnan, UM director of digital and strategic planning in Malaysia. That, in turn, suggests that TV buying should increase. UM discovered data showing that during bad weather, mobile video accounted for 64 percent of sales, with TV coming in at a mere 13 percent. When the weather improved, those numbers flipped, with TV outweighing mobile video.

It took some doing, but Krishnan and her colleagues convinced the skeptics and shifted to a buying strategy based on weather and media usage patterns. KFC’s revenue rose 8 percent and servings went up 6 percent, increasing media ROI threefold in H2 2017.

“We’ll continue to use it in our performance and optimization strategy,” says Rina Low, a UM vp, in speaking of the “weathermatic” buying process. She and Krishnan believe it just might work for other products or in completely different countries. —J.S.

Exverus Media | Suja, ‘The Living Wall’
Category: Best Use of Out-0f-home Media (less than $500k)

According to the CDC, 90 percent of Americans don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables, which increases their risk of health problems. But rather than preaching about the power of produce, cold-pressed juice company Suja and media strategy firm Exverus Media sought to increase consumption by presenting plants in a vibrant, playful way.

This story first appeared in the September 17, 2018, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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