These Innovative Agencies Deftly Delivered Impactful Messaging in Troubling Times

Presenting Adweek's 2020 Media Plan of the Year winners

Media Plan of the Year
Adaptability and versatility were the cornerstones of many of our Media Plan of the Year winners. Adweek

Amid a rapidly changing ecosystem, media agencies play an increasingly critical role in helping brands deliver marketing to consumers with maximum impact. Modern media agencies need to get particularly creative to cut through an ever more cluttered media landscape, and the best media plans of the past year found ways to innovate—from deepfakery and utilizing data to deliver ads 24 hours after a workout to barbershop screenings and Awkwafina lending her voice to New York’s 7 train. In 2020, media plans also had to evolve to meet consumers’ changing media habits as crises unfolded worldwide. Adaptability and versatility were more important than ever and were the cornerstones of many of our Media Plan of the Year winners, particularly those released during the Covid-19 pandemic. —Erik Oster

Comedy Central (Fallon) | Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens | Categories: Best in Show, Best Use of Alternative Media, Best Use of Experiential in campaigns spending less than $500,000, Total Campaign $5 million-$10 million, Best Use of Voice

Danielle Levitt for Comedy Central

Comedy Central and media agency partner Fallon went all out promoting Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens, including making its star the voice of New York subway system’s 7 train that runs through the heart of Queens.

The innovative stunt involved Awkwafina reading an original line written by Comedy Central’s team for each subway stop, leaning into the voice of the comedic star with original content rather than rehashing lines from the show.

The attention-grabbing activation paid off, attracting nationwide attention and leading to over $10 million in incremental media value and 36 million media impressions, and Comedy Central further supported the show’s debut with a social media campaign and a sequential YouTube campaign that made a skippable ad out of a full episode of the show.

The buzz generated by the campaign, including a social push timed around Awkwafina’s Golden Globe win for her performance in The Arrival, led to 3.8 million viewers for the show’s debut, making it Comedy Central’s biggest premiere since 2016. —Erik Oster

(Read the full story on Adweek’s Best in Show winner here.)

Comedy Central (Fallon) | South Side | Category: Total Campaign $10 million+

Comedy Central

To promote its new comedy South Side, Comedy Central and media agency partner Fallon focused on the show’s titular location with a promotional campaign designed to stoke local pride.

A large-scale OOH campaign included a station takeover at the Sox-35th L station near Guaranteed Rate Field, home of the Chicago White Sox, an activation Comedy Central claims 8 million Chicagoans saw.

Comedy Central also staged screenings at local barbershops, where patrons were offered free haircuts, set up a rent-to-own pop-up store at ComplexCon Chicago and added local radio, TV and print ads to the mix.

The approach was complemented by a national broadcast campaign on targeted networks, including a spot during the NBA draft that ran around the Chicago Bulls’ pick, and an online extension with video and amplified social placements.

The effort helped make South Side the No. 1 comedy premiere of 2019 with 2.2 million viewers and the top cable comedy among African-American viewers. South Side also debuted as the most socially engaged series in Comedy Central’s history at the time. 

It proved incredibly popular with local audiences, with ratings in Chicago up 444% for the series launch and 11% of YouTube views for the series coming from Chicago.

“We really strive to be creative and disruptive within our efforts to make sure not only are we checking all the boxes from a media buying and planning standpoint, but making some noise and generating some attention in a more unique and disruptive way,” Comedy Central svp, consumer marketing Shawn Silverman tells Adweek. —E.O.

Exverus Media | MasterClass, “Anna Wintour: How to Be a Boss” | Category: Total campaign $1 million-$5 million

Exverus Media/MasterClass

When Anna Wintour speaks, “Boss Girls” listen. These young professional women, living and working in New York, were identified—and nicknamed—as the prime audience for the iconic Vogue editor’s first MasterClass, “How to be a Boss,” according to Talia Arnold, head of media strategy and planning at Exverus Media.

Agency research found that the ambitious urbanites “are in a significant and shifting stage of life, taking on more responsibilities, getting pulled away from their passions and constantly trading between time, money and energy,” Arnold says.

Calling attention to the career-focused tutorials, the campaign took over all 22 digital screens at the World Trade Center’s train station. It plastered Wintour’s mantras—“Yes or no. Never maybe,” and “Take credit, give credit,” among them—on 54 columns in the New York commuter venue. 

It also aired Wintour’s first session on elevator screens in office buildings in midtown and lower Manhattan with the aim of “lifting these women up on mundane Monday mornings,” Arnold says. Outdoor ads and wild postings went up in bustling business districts and in Greenwich Village.

To capture “Boss Girls” on off hours and weekends, there were print ads in The New York Times Sunday Business section and The New Yorker, and media buys in digital editions.

Results were strong: Traffic to MasterClass jumped 30%, with brand mentions growing 11 times and positive social sentiment leaping 60%. There were 128 press hits on the campaign for $1.2 million in earned media. —T.L. Stanley

Carat | Mastercard, True Name | Category: Best Cause Marketing in campaigns spending less than $1 million 


Last year was a critically important one for Pride, as it marked the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots in New York, which are largely credited with launching the modern gay rights movement. And Mastercard saw an opportunity to lift up members of the LGBTQ community, especially those who identify as nonbinary and transgender.

The brand’s True Name is the first payment product that lets people use the name they identify with on the front of their card without requiring a legal name change. After its launch, attendees walked to the corner of Christopher and Gay streets near the iconic Stonewall Inn in New York’s Greenwich Village, where an inclusive street sign installation featuring names such as “Nonbinary St.,” “Pansexual St.” and “Intersex St.” was unveiled.

The campaign’s reach metrics were outstanding (over 2 billion impressions within the first three weeks, 15 million coming from bespoke Snapchat filters). With creative from McCann, the strategy from Carat celebrated the breadth and diversity of the LGBTQ community.

“Certainly we had the end users of the card in mind at the core,” says Sean Williamson, svp, group planning director at Carat. “We were certainly mindful of targeting the transgender community, but also the broader LGBTQ community as well as allies and those looking to advance the cause forward.”

According to Tara Marston, Mastercard’s media manager, being present on the ground during Pride was a strong addition to the already robust digital plan.

Overall, the campaign “ties into what we stand for,” she adds. “’Priceless’ runs deep within our brand, and True Name drives that home. This is priceless for people to get their true name on their card and what represents them.” —Doug Zanger

Carmichael Lynch | Subaru of America, “Make a Dog’s Day” | Category: Best Cause Marketing campaign spending $1 million+ 

Carmichael Lynch/Subaru

For Subaru, a dog is a brand’s best friend.

Subaru’s partnership with the ASPCA dates back to 2008, but its 2019 effort for the association trotted out some fresh new tricks.

For its “Make a Dog’s Day” campaign, Carmichael Lynch took the association to the next level, designating Oct. 22, which fell during Subaru Loves Pets Month, as a national holiday. The work promoted the adoption of shelter dogs while replacing Subaru’s cars on its homepage with “underdogs”—shelter dogs that are harder to find a home for because of their age, disabilities or other reasons—featured in a national out-of-home campaign.

The campaign included a partnership with National Geographic and renowned photographer Vince Musi, who captured the personality of Subaru’s “underdogs” with vivid portraits. Subaru’s 24-hour National Geographic Instagram takeover garnered 4.2 million likes, making it Nat Geo’s most successful partnership of 2019.

The effort also targeted audiences early in the day and included partnerships with Good Morning America and the Today show, first-view placement on Twitter and a promoted #MakeADogsDay hashtag. This fetched 4 million likes, 76,000 mentions of the hashtag and 98% positive sentiment. Half of those mentions referenced Subaru, and the effort helped generate 20,000 searches for “Subaru dogs” on Oct. 22. Meanwhile, a homepage takeover on Amazon was viewed by roughly 80 million customers, leading to $164,000 in donations to the ASPCA on the platform.

“It’s really simple, but it has an important mission,” Carmichael Lynch media director Neil Goodspeed says. “It’s a good reminder that simple works when you have a strong and pure objective like this.”

Best of all, the effort delivered on its objective, as thousands of dogs found homes. —E.O.

Haworth Marketing + Media | Alaska Airlines, Swell Deals | Category: Best Use of Data 

Alaska Airlines

With a limited budget relative to its peers in the airline industry and intense competition in California, Alaska Airlines tasked Haworth Marketing + Media with raising the brand’s profile while continuing to sell tickets, fill flights and drive revenue.

It found its solution in the waves, turning one of its most popular destinations, Hawaii, into a full-fledged fare tracker. Working alongside Surfline, one of the most trusted brands in the surfing community, the state’s most popular swells dictated the brand’s discounts, going as far as 30% off flights to Hawaii. The bigger the wave, the bigger the discount.

It worked: The campaign drove more than 450 million earned impressions and pushed new bookings 395% compared with the prior year’s promo.

“To make that kind of impact is really significant for us. It just shows that when we invest in California, we can move the needle,” says Natalie Bowman, managing director of marketing and advertising at Alaska Airlines. “It’s based on data, very West Coast and very leisure-oriented, which is very core to who we are. It’s all the elements of a perfect formula for us.”

The malleability of the data-driven campaign will allow Alaska to continue to run iterations of the campaign for the foreseeable future, including a partnership with Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson that will see fares fall 10% for every touchdown Wilson throws during home games.

“It was so successful with such a small amount of media because it wasn’t about how many dollars you could spend. … It was about finding something—via data—and continuing to use it to the best of its ability,” says James Monderine, director of media strategy at Haworth Marketing + Media. “It enables us to do something cooler besides just running a fare sale to run a fare sale.” —Ryan Barwick

Mediahub | Fox Sports, Driving Record Ratings by Colliding Gamers and Nascar Drivers | Categories: Best Use of Branded Content/Entertainment in campaigns spending less than $500,000, Best Use of Streaming Media/OTT 

Mediahub Boston/Fox Sports

When Nascar was looking to boost its TV viewership, especially among men ages 18 to 34, Fox Sports called on Mediahub to forge a meaningful (and lasting) connection, with a little help from the Super Bowl. 

Equipped with a modest budget and only one shot at the biggest live television audience of the year, the agency pored over behavioral data to gain a better understanding of this once-elusive demographic. Analytics confirmed that the group’s affinity for high-intensity sports with identifiable personalities extended beyond football. Additionally, many were gamers who would likely expend residual adrenaline by turning to their favorite Twitch livestream.

With that in mind, Mediahub decided to parlay the Super Bowl’s robust viewership into newly interested Nascar fans by sponsoring a Fortnite Twitch stream helmed by popular influencers Nick Eh 30 and SypherPK and special guests and Nascar drivers Chase Elliott and Austin Dillon. The event was a hit, garnering over 1 million viewed minutes and trending at No. 6 during its run.

“We saw that developing this relationship keeps these fans interested in, and watching, a sport,” says Betsy Rosenbloom, senior content creator for the R+D Lab at Mediahub. “For Nascar, this meant introducing the drivers to viewers in a way that let their personalities shine through, letting them be authentic, relatable and honestly, fun.”

Elliott and Dillon invited Nick Eh 30 and SypherPK to the Daytona International Speedway, where they livestreamed hours of content, including ride-alongs and racing simulators, to their massive audience. 

The plan returned glorious results: For the 2020 Daytona 500, Fox Sports and Nascar saw a year-over-year viewership boost of 3 million, Mediahub claims, and a doubling of viewership among 18- to 34-year-old men.

Mediahub senior content creator Scott McGowan believes the outside-the-box approach worked thanks in large part to the trust everyone involved put in the agency. 

“The work was huge and took a lot of effort from many places,” McGowan says. “But without that smallest thing—trust—none of our other victories would have been possible.” —Shannon Miller

OMD New York | State Farm/ESPN, Deepfake | Categories: Best Use of Branded Content/Entertainment in campaigns spending $500,000-$1 million 

When the Covid-19 lockdown prompted ESPN to move up the release date for its feverishly anticipated Michael Jordan documentary series, The Last Dance, State Farm and agencies Translation and Omnicom-owned Optimum Sports found themselves in a tight spot. 

The network and brand had planned to collaborate on promotional ads, but the lead-up to the series was cut short, and production capabilities were reduced to Zoom cameras in far-flung living rooms.

With the clock ticking, the team turned to a nascent technology more widely known for its nefarious potential: AI-powered deepfakery—in this case, facial mapping and vocal engineering. 

Using expertly doctored footage, SportsCenter anchor Kenny Mayne was made to appear as if he were sitting at a late ’90s-era news desk with a vintage State Farm logo. There, he predicted the precise circumstances the documentary would detail some two decades later. The entire spot was created in just a few weeks using footage from Mayne in his home.

“The amount of revisions that it went through and the perfection that went into it was amazing,” says Optimum Sports project lead Amy Adelbush. “It was a big risk, but it was one that we were willing to take because we thought the concept paid off.”

The ad fit into the broadcast so seamlessly that it prompted many social media users to do a double take. The smash-hit viewership of the documentary premiere and the attention-grabbing nature of the ad garnered viral success to the tune of more than 1 million unpaid views. —Patrick Kulp

UM Canada | Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, Reese the Movie: A Movie About Reese | Category: Best Use of Branded Content/Entertainment in campaigns spending $1 million-$2 million 

UM Canada/Reese’s

Which of these tactics is gutsier: launching a piece of branded content like it’s a Hollywood blockbuster or daring to make an 82-minute ASMR film about candy in the first place?

According to UM Canada, the answer is that both fit the criteria of “thinking differently and being bold” for client Reese’s, a 90-year-old heritage brand in need of a millennial-targeted makeover.

“Traditional tactics deliver traditional results,” says Andrea Neale, the agency’s director, connections planning. “We wanted to throw the rule book out the window.”

The team accomplished that by creating Reese the Movie: A Movie About Reese, directed by cinematographer André Turpin and starring five top ASMR creators, dubbed ASMR-tists, and treating its debut like a big-budget superhero flick.

Among the media placements: multiple trailers during the Season 3 premiere of The Handmaid’s Tale; a YouTube homepage takeover; profiles on Rotten Tomatoes and IMDb; OOH and in-theater ads across Canada; a national press junket with the movie stars; and an industry-first premiere on the Crave streaming platform, followed by a YouTube run.

The risk paid off, with 62 million earned impressions, worth $10.4 million in free media. The program spawned a 70% bump in Google searches for “Reese,” a 3% lift in brand affinity and a 0.4 point growth in market share for the top-selling brand. 

The movie itself pulled in more than 500,000 views, with a stunning completion rate north of 50%, affirming the agency’s research insight that found “people could relate to the rituals of eating this candy, and they really wanted to engage with the sensory experience.” —T.L.S.

UM New York | Johnson & Johnson, 5B | Category: Best Use of Branded Content/Entertainment in campaigns spending $2 million+ 

UM New York/Johnson & Johnson

Johnson & Johnson has long supported nurses via scholarships and training. In 2016, the brand asked UM to help create something that would reiterate its commitment to the profession and change perceptions.

“It’s really hard to find a film or TV show that portrays a nurse as the hero of the story,” says Brendan Gaul, global chief content officer and head of UM Studios. “More often than not, they’re a love interest or a secondary character.”

Instead of creating a traditional ad campaign, the agency collaborated with directors and producers to make a full-fledged documentary. Called 5B, the film told the powerful story of the nurses who worked at the first AIDS ward in the U.S.

5B premiered at The Castro Theatre in San Francisco to a sold-out audience.

“We had to hold the show so that they could open up the balcony for more seats because there were so many people waiting outside,” Gaul says.

The film was subsequently screened at the Sundance Film Festival and the Cannes Film Festival. Celebrities including Julianne Moore and Priyanka Chopra Jonas attended the event in France to show their support.

“We took an entertainment strategy to it,” Gaul says. Verizon acquired the film for distribution, and it is now available on Amazon.

This story first appeared in the Oct. 19, 2020, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.