Adweek Announces the Winners of Our First Annual Experiential Awards

Presenting the brands, agencies and creatives taking activations to a whole new level

From The Iconic Laundromat to Adidas 747 Warehouse St. to the Insect Concerto, these are Adweek’s Experiential Award winners. Photo Illustration: Dianna McDougall

There was a time when experiential marketing was a niche category, a simple add-on in a brand’s overall strategy. That time is over. Experiential activations have become more ambitious than ever—extraordinarily creative, inventive and engaging. With our inaugural Adweek Experiential Awards, we celebrate the talent behind the past year’s most impressive initiatives, and we can’t wait to see what next year brings.

X Award, Most Creatively Effective Activation/
xG Award, Best Experiential Activation by a Media Brand/
Best Pop-Up Experiential Activation
The Daily Show Presents: The Donald J. Trump Presidential Twitter Library
Brand: Comedy Central
Agency: In-house

It’s unusual for experiential activations to pop up multiple times, let alone six times in three years. But then again, there’s nothing usual about The Daily Show Presents: The Donald J. Trump Presidential Twitter Library, which Comedy Central has brought to life in New York, Los Angeles, Miami, Chicago, San Francisco and, most recently, Austin, Texas, for the South by Southwest festival this past March. The network has been able to not only build out this experience time and again but also bring in crowds so big that the line to get into the library lasts hours and hours each time.

The brainchild of The Daily Show writing staff, the activation is the show’s “unique editorial spin” on President Donald Trump’s tweets, explains Shawn Silverman, svp, brand marketing for Comedy Central, Paramount Network and TV Land, noting that the activation is much more than just printed out tweets on a wall. There’s also a nickname generator, for example, that features “multiple caricatures of multiple politicians that President Trump has given nicknames to.”

“The Daily Show came to us and said, ‘One day President Trump’s going to have a presidential library, but it’s probably going to be filled with all his tweets. Wouldn’t it be funny if we created that now and made it an experience?’ And I just loved the idea,” says Silverman.

The library has garnered tons of attention from press, fans (Silverman notes that it has scored hundreds of thousands of mentions on social and tens of millions of views of the content created for the library) and various awards, including Cannes Lions.

“The library is so unique because nothing like this has ever existed before,” says Silverman. “Nothing’s ever been done like this before. And you couldn’t just slap any brand logo on it and call it, you know, an official experience. This is something that is in The Daily Show’s DNA. That’s why when we do pop it up in different cities, we see this tremendous outpouring of people coming in wanting to wait in line because they know it’s not something that they’re going to see anywhere else or from anyone else.”

(Read about Experiential Brand of the Year Comedy Central and Experiential Rising Star of the Year Emily Albertson here.)

The Brave Heart Award
Experiential Activation by an Entertainment Brand
Brand: HBO
Agency: Giant Spoon

HBO’s SXSWestworld, created by Giant Spoon, set a new bar for experiential. The massive, immersive activation at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, transported festival attendees into the heart of Sweetwater, the town inside the hit show Westworld. People waited five to six hours just to witness the experience, which was staged on two vacant acres of land outside Austin and included taverns, live music, 444 pages of scripts for 60 actors and much more to promote the second season of the series. Even Elon Musk flew into Texas for the experience. “We built a world on a scale that I don’t know that anyone has done before outside of building theme parks,” says Giant Spoon co-founder Jon Haber.

Haber says going into it, the biggest fear the agency had was that people wouldn’t come. “We had to get people on buses, and they had to be on those buses for nearly an hour, in the hot sun on occasion, to leave the festival,” he explains. The weather posed another concern. There was a “massive” rainstorm during the final build of the activation a week before SXSW kicked off, “which was causing large construction issues,” Haber says. Luckily, the team was able to lay out special dirt that doesn’t turn to mud on the grounds to finish the build, and the sun was shining for the actual event. “Stay steady, calm and figure out a solution,” Haber advises of managing activations, “because it’s going to be unpredictable.”

(Read about Experiential Agency of the Year Giant Spoon and Experiential Executive of the Year Marc Simons here.) 

Experiential Activation $5 Million Plus
Brand: Complex Networks
Agency: In-house

Started in 2016, Complex Networks’ ComplexCon—the youth-focused media platform’s annual two-day event in Long Beach, Calif.—has grown into a cultural phenomenon. In 2018, the conference expanded its grounds, allowing space for music performances to be held all day from the likes of Migos, Future and Vince Staples, and an additional 10,000 guests (to a total of 60,000) to attend. Two-hundred brands, including Nike and Adidas, debuted new products—Jaden Smith even unveiled his G-Star denim line. Celebrities like Pusha T also participated in the event’s “complex conversations”—which actually make up the heart of the conference—covering topics such as prison reform.

In fact, according to a Complex-conducted survey, most attendees responded that they don’t come to the event primarily to see their favorite celebrities or new products, but for the critical discussions taking place there. “As important as it is that they see Migos and Pharrell and all of these great music performances, complex conversations come at the top of our feedback,” says Isis Arias Clermont, executive producer of ComplexCon. “It’s a great testament to what Complex has been building in the type of content that we’re doing.”

Because of the investments Complex has made, Clermont says the conference, and the conversations it fosters, will continue to grow and reach more people, “creating the best experience for our attendees.” In 2019, ComplexCon will expand to Chicago, and Clermont’s team is looking at additional cities to target in the future.

Experiential Activation by a Spirits Brand
Amparo: An Immersive Theatrical Experience
Brand: Havana Club
Agency: Team Enterprises

The year is 1957, and the Cuban government has just seized the Havana Club rum factory away from the Arechabala family. What will they do? Where will they go? This is the drama unfolding around bar patrons in the present day who have become part of Amparo, an immersive theater experience. The Bacardi-owned Havana Club rum created the show to explain to bartenders and consumers the harrowing tale of the brand, which is sold only in the U.S.

“We wanted to tell the story in a way the story hadn’t been told before, especially for the Cuban community,” says Chris Ha, North American brand manager, Bacardi. “Its greatest asset, but also its greatest challenge, is its story.” Paul Ramirez, vp, ecd, Team Enterprises, the agency behind the activation, calls it a “dream brief” that encouraged the team to be “bold.” After pitching the Amparo concept to Havana Club, the agency hired playwright Vanessa Garcia and theater director Victoria Collado to bring the story to life.

Ninety percent of bartender guests who experienced Amparo said they were “likely/extremely likely” to purchase Havana Club, and there was a 40% increase year over year in sales volume in Florida. Following the success of the pilot, which ran in New York and Miami, Havana Club launched a two-month residency of the show in Miami.

Best Use of Commerce in an Experiential Activation
Adidas 747 Warehouse St.
Brand: Adidas
Agency: Kamp Grizzly

“Adidas wanted to win [NBA] All-Star Weekend,” explains Daniel Portrait, ecd, Kamp Grizzly, which meant the agency had to think beyond just another shoe drop. Instead, it delivered 747 Warehouse St., an immersive experience for sneakerheads. Using RFID bracelets, 18,000 attendees could earn points by visiting every inch of the activation, which featured pro athletes like James Harden, Damian Lillard and JuJu Smith-Schuster. Instead of waiting for hours in line, attendees used the points to enter a lottery for a chance to buy the latest sneakers. As for All-Star Weekend, Adidas topped Nike by sixfold in social mentions during the two-day period.

Experiential Activation by a Travel Brand
The Colorblind Viewer
Brand: Tennessee Department of Tourist Development
Agency: VMLY&R

A team of seven creatives at VMLY&R needed to answer a question for the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development: All the states where it spends its advertising dollars have fall colors, so how do we get people to see Tennessee’s autumn hues differently? The answer to that brief left people in tears and speechless.

VMLY&R developed a viewfinder for people with red-green colorblindness, allowing them to experience the vibrant hues of changing leaves for the first time. The tourism bureau placed 12 colorblind viewfinders throughout the state. To promote its innovation, VMLY&R brought about 15 people to Gatlinburg, Tenn., to experience the viewfinders. Then the agency captured their emotional reactions to create a film to roll out on social. “The third man that went up, you could feel his emotion,” says Allison Pierce, ecd, VMLY&R. “I was bawling just listening.”

The campaign totaled 9 million video views and garnered 662 million impressions and $2.5 million in earned media value, which is a nearly 15-to-1 return on investment. Hotel revenue increased 9.5 percent year over year. VMLY&R and the tourism bureau plan on rolling out the viewfinders in more states this fall.

Experiential Activation by Auto Brand
Porsche Presents: The E-JOLT
Brand: Porsche
Agency: Cramer-Krasselt

Occasionally, a ride-share passenger will hit the jackpot and a luxury car will unexpectedly pull up, much to the passenger’s delight. Porsche wanted to re-create that feeling of amazing good fortune with its Panamera Turbo S E-Hybrid in an activation. But to show off its 680 horsepower, the brand couldn’t exactly unleash it on public roads. “For a lot of people, it’s just a fascinating moment to get in the car,” says Marshall Ross, CCO, Porsche.

So the high-end car brand created E-JOLT, an item on a café menu, that when ordered lets unsuspecting people go on a joy ride in the Panamera on a test track. Porsche looked at how hybrid cars are traditionally framed—“They’re very good for the environment, but not very fun for drivers,” says Ross—and aimed to change that perception.

Porsche also wanted to reach the next generation of drivers, so that when someone is ready to purchase a luxury car, Porsche is there to “get them out of something boring and into something thrilling,” says Ross.

The E-JOLT film was viewed more than 3 million times on YouTube, and searches for the car increased 57% on YouTube and Google. Porsche added the E-JOLT as a permanent item on café menus at the Porsche Experience Center in Atlanta and Los Angeles. Globally, its dealerships now use the film in marketing materials.

Experiential Activation Less than $1 Million/
Best Use of Influencers in an Experiential Activation/
Experiential Activation by Retail Brand
Brand: Payless ShoeSource
Agency: DCX Growth Accelerator

This activation was part advertising, part massive prank. Payless opened Palessi, a “shoe store” that proclaimed to sell luxury footwear, when in actuality, the offerings were $20 pairs from Payless. After guests and influencers who attended the store’s “launch event” lauded the shoes as sophisticated and elegant, the truth was dropped—creating a viral moment that ended up earning millions of impressions.

The idea for Palessi, explains Doug Cameron, chief creative and strategy officer for DCX, originated over tacos with his partner Tommy Noonan, DCX’s ecd, after the pair reflected on conversations with Payless customers, who lambasted the Kardashians and society’s growing materialism. “Payless customers ideologically identify against superficiality and identify with this no-B.S. pragmatism,” says Cameron. Palessi was a way to poke fun at influencers in a way that would resonate with Payless customers.

Palessi took over a former Armani store in Santa Monica, Calif., for the stunt, and once it made its way to the greater public, it took off quickly. The folks at DCX weren’t shocked that it got attention—”When we do work that leans into a big cultural tension, it does go viral,” says Cameron—but were still pleasantly surprised to see Questlove tweet it out. Within a few days, Payless’s CEO gave them a call to tell them that board members in China and Taiwan had seen the campaign covered on the news.

How did the influencers take being the butt of the joke? “They all found it funny,” says Cameron. “If you use humor in the right way, the people that you’re making fun of are often the people who identify with it most.” And if that fails, Cameron suggests another option: “When we gave them the free shoes, it was fine.”

Experiential Activation $1 Million to $2 Million, Best Use of Celebrity in an Experiential Activation and Best Use of Video in an Experiential Activation
Elton John Farewell Tour
Brand: Elton John
Agency: Spinifex Group

When Elton John announced that he’d be hitting the road for his Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour—which John has said will be his final global tour—Project WorldWide made what was effectively “a cold call to Elton’s people” to discuss creating an activation around the musician’s legacy, says Ben Casey, CEO of Spinifex Group.

“He saw this launch moment as an opportunity to not only get his loyal fans interested in buying the tickets, but also to get a generation of fans who don’t really know him for anything but The Lion King and his more recent achievements to be able to go to his concerts and connect with his music,” says Casey.

The resulting activation was a 360 virtual-reality time machine that took fans on a journey through John’s career. Concert attendees could experience a VR version of those shows from an onstage vantage point, experiencing seminal moments—such as John’s American debut at the Troubadour in Los Angeles—that few people had actually seen in person, as well as the most iconic ones, like his 1975 concerts at Dodger Stadium. A visual slideshow in the clouds took viewers through other important milestones, set to the soundtrack of “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.”

But re-creating those moments virtually wasn’t always easy—particularly for the show at the Troubadour, of which there were few photographs and little video available. Casey says they were able to pull it off through computer-generated re-creation, capturing zone data of John himself and “de-aging” the image. “We really wanted to bring the fidelity of that moment back to life,” he says.

Best Use of Music/Audio in an Experiential Activation
The Insect Concerto
Brands: Berlin Philharmonic and WWF
Agency: Scholz & Friends

Ever wonder what a performance featuring insects alongside a famous orchestra might sound like? To raise awareness about rapidly decreasing bug populations, this activation shared nature’s music with audiences. “From a production and recording perspective, the question was how can we trigger the insects to … chirp?” says Oliver Handlos, ecd of Scholz & Friends. “The other challenge was to actually teach the world-class musicians of the Berlin Philharmonic to … mimic the sounds of locusts [and] grasshoppers.”

Best International Experiential Activation
The Iconic Laundromat
Brand: The Iconic
Agency: Secret Sounds

Live Nation Entertainment brings its audience straight into an alternate reality in The Iconic Laundromat—sort of, anyway. What appears to be a regular, albeit 1950s-styled, laundromat is transformed into a nightclub once guests crawl through the dryers to enter the dance space. The activation’s intention is to drive buzz around the Byron Bay, Australia, annual arts and music celebration, Falls Festival, which is taking place Dec. 31–Jan. 2.

Best Use of Partnership in an Experiential Activation
Stay Home to the Movies
Brands: HBO and Bumble
Agency: Mekanism and Giant Spoon

Bumble and HBO partnered to create the epitome of a low-stress, relaxing first date, allowing couples to watch movies together in a brownstone full of six cozy living-room cinema theaters. “We realized that for a lot of people, a perfect night out isn’t going to a sweaty club and getting drinks spilled on them. It’s just staying in and watching an HBO movie on the couch,” says Alex Riezebeek, associate creative director at Mekanism.

Best Community-Focused Experiential Activation
Stop Traffick
Brand: Street Grace
Agency: BBDO Atlanta

With Atlanta flooded in Super Bowl advertising, BBDO knew it would take a striking spectacle to cut through the noise and help expose one of the event’s unsavory externalities, a spike in child sex trafficking, for nonprofit Street Grace. Stop Traffick, a massive billboard made of 72 school buses, achieved just that while also serving as a memorable metaphor by shutting down literal traffic in the city.

Best Long-Running Experiential Activation
Camp Jeep
Brand: Jeep
Agency: George P. Johnson

What started as a means of compensating for a lackluster placement at the New York Auto Show in 2003 has grown into a vibrant regular gathering of Jeep enthusiasts spanning 15 countries on five continents. George P. Johnson’s Camp Jeep has provided millions with ride-alongs in interactive off-road experiences that show off the brand’s versatility and durability. “People come to auto shows,” says John Tulloch, svp, global account director of the Fiat Chrysler automotive account at George P. Johnson, “and the first thing they do is head for Camp Jeep.”

Experiential Activation $2 Million to $5 Million
Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan Experience
Brand: Prime Video
Agency: In-house

Prime Video took experiential marketing to new heights with Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan Experience, a full-scale, virtual-reality theme park spanning an entire 60,000-square-foot city block. Masterminded by the streaming service’s in-house team, the attraction exhilarated Comic-Con attendees with simulated helicopter jumps, zip lining and car chases in a blend of VR and elaborate physical props.

Best Use of Out-of-Home Media in an Experiential Activation
Art in Progress
Brand: Bombay Sapphire
Agency: BBDO New York

In a prime example of how experiential marketing can uplift the environment around it, BBDO set out to turn some of New York’s 7,000-plus construction sites into open-air galleries featuring up-and-coming artists for Bombay Sapphire’s Art in Progress activation. “We saw these unsightly green panels [that typically surround work sites] as open canvas for creativity,” says Mariana Oliveira, associate creative director at BBDO New York.

Experiential Activation by a Packaged-Goods Brand
Reese’s Halloween Candy Converter
Brand: The Hershey Company
Agency: Anomaly

On Halloween night, everyone wants to trade for Reese’s, and Anomaly’s Candy Converter, a vending machine that treats unwanted confections as currency, gave people exactly that opportunity. With “a ton of creative problem solving” and “some seriously complicated proprietary technology,” the agency brought the stuff of childhood daydreams to life. Anomaly partner, CCO Eric Segal calls the effort “proof you don’t need millions of dollars and a giant media buy to make something that lands big. Just a simple truth and a great idea.”

Best Cause-Related Experiential Activation
Prescribed to Death
Brand: National Safety Council
Agency: Energy BBDO

Energy BBDO’s Prescribed to Death put a face to America’s opioid epidemic via pills etched with the visages of those who overdosed. The approach viscerally communicated the scale of the 22,000 people in the U.S. who died last year from overdosing on prescription painkillers and the fact that one out of three users taking opioids doesn’t understand that’s what they’re ingesting, striking a chord with audiences in seven cities and achieving over 2.4 billion earned impressions. “When people started realizing how close to home it is, it changed the conversation,” says Energy BBDO CCO Andrés Ordóñez.

Best Experiential Activation in Support of Diversity and Inclusion
Pantene Gold Series Tour
Brand: Pantene Gold Series
Agency: Arc Worldwide

Pantene’s Gold Series Tour set out to convince audiences that Pantene made a meaningful commitment to black consumers, and a traditional sampling rollout wouldn’t suffice. So Arc went on a tour featuring the black female scientists behind the product, a concept that functioned as a declaration that Pantene “was there to celebrate black beauty in all its forms” and left audiences feeling “respected and seen,” explains Arc CCO Chris Cancilla. “The conversations that we had with people left the team inspired and humbled,” he says, citing having a diverse team “from insights to execution” as “critical to its success.”

Best Use of AI in an Experiential Activation
Real-Time Exception Spotting
Brand: New Balance
Agency: VMLY&R

Footwear brand New Balance wanted to celebrate stylish individuals during Fashion Week, so it tapped brand experience agency VMLY&R to build an AI that analyzed fashion in real time. The brand used the technology to evaluate 17,000 passersby in New York’s SoHo and identified 32 individuals as “exceptions,” or those with truly unique style. The experience netted 87.5 million earned media impressions. “Fashion Week was the perfect time and a place where we could truly contribute value toward fashion culture,” says Craig Elimeliah, executive director of customer experience at VMLY&R. “Exception Spotting … used technology and innovation to let people directly take part in New Balance’s commitment to celebrating those who truly stand out and are fearlessly independent.”

Best Event/Conference Experiential Activation
Blockchains Global Launch Event
Brand: Blockchains
Agency: R&R Partners

Blockchains wants to build a city on 67,000 acres in the desert that runs on an open-source, public, blockchain-based computing platform. In order to attract developers and investors, it teamed with advertising firm R&R Partners on an immersive tour of the yet-to-be-built city during a 2018 conference in Prague. To appeal to an extremely skeptical audience of blockchain developers—and blow their minds—they used CG interpretations of architectural plans, which appeared on an LED screen with synced responsive lighting fixtures that acted as an extension of the stage. The result: a 6,100% increase in website traffic, 289% increase in Twitter followers and 2,283% increase in Twitter profile views. At first, the city of Prague denied the agency’s request to cast digital projections on its historical landmarks. “But we happen to have what most agencies don’t—a dedicated government affairs team,” says Arnie DiGeorge, who holds the title of new agency animal, evp at R&R. “Our guy … was able to go there on a moment’s notice and change their minds.”

Best Ecologically Responsible Experiential Activation
Brand: Microsoft
Agency: Listen

The mixed-reality experience Unmoored depicted what it would be like if climate change continues unchecked and New York City ends up 26 feet underwater. The work of artist Mel Chin, combined with Microsoft’s HoloLens VR headset, enabled 4.9 million participants to see boats and plankton floating above them in Times Square. “In a world that is so rapidly making things simplified for digestion and media digestion, maybe we have to do something that is powerful enough that it would stay in the mind and say, ‘I really want to understand what is going on here,’” Chin says. “And this is where you bring surrealism into life so it can actually interact with realism.”

Experiential Activation by a Beverage Brand
Philly Philly
Brand: Bud Light
Agency: Wieden + Kennedy, New York

It started with a single tweet that Bud Light execs figured could translate to “a small spike in social conversation and some fun headlines,” says director of marketing communications Miles Ritenour. In fact, Philly Philly became a potent combination of viral beast, cultural touchstone and gridiron legend—in short, “what every brand hopes for,” says Wieden + Kennedy creative director Brandon Henderson.

The backstory: Philadelphia Eagles’ offensive tackle Lane Johnson offered via tweet to buy beer for the whole town if his team won its first-ever Super Bowl in 2018. (Prospects were extremely dim at that preseason point.) Bud Light, muscling in on Miller Lite’s stronghold, backed the bet.

The Eagles, miraculously, started and continued winning (#BrewGoals?), eventually upsetting the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LII with a trick play dubbed Philly Philly. Bud Light, and its Bud Knight, took over the city’s postgame celebration, launched special-edition packs (24,000 sold out in a week), combined Philly Philly with its iconic “Dilly Dilly” advertising in skywriting and erected a bronze statue at Lincoln Field commemorating the quarterback’s pivotal on-field call. Bud Light, snagging upward of 3,700 news stories during the promo, saw a 20% sales bump and a 1.24% uptick in market share year to year in Philadelphia.

Best Sports-Related Experiential Activation
Victory Fridges
Brand: Bud Light
Agency: Fusion

Getty Images

Bud Light loves a scrappy underdog (see also: Philly Philly), turning the Cleveland Browns’ nearly two-year winning dry spell into an opportunity to reward the team’s long-suffering fans. The marketer, via agency Fusion, created 37 giant, chain-wrapped, digitally locked Victory Fridges and placed them in local bars and at FirstEnergy Stadium, set to open (and dole out icy, free beer!) as soon as the Browns snapped their losing streak.

Launching the stunt at 2018’s season opening with media and influencer support gave the fridges “time to simmer, building hype and interest,” says Nick Kelly, head of Anheuser-Busch InBev’s U.S. sports marketing. And when the Browns beat the New York Jets 21 to 17 in September, smart technology and “the simple push of a button dramatically unlocked all the fridges,” Kelly says, adding, “Pandemonium ensued,” but only the joyful, law-abiding kind. “It was a good day to be a Browns fan.”

The stunt proved more impactful than the brand’s Super Bowl spot earlier that year, Kelly says, with 940 million-plus total impressions, upward of 100,000 mentions on social media and 1,015 media stories.

Experiential Activation by a Technology Brand/
Best Use of Social Media in an Experiential Activation/
Best Use of Mobile in an Experiential Activation
Storyscape by Es Devlin
Brand: Instagram
Agency: We’re Magnetic

Aiming for something ambitious and “mind-expanding,” Instagram and artist Es Devlin wanted to pack the history of storytelling, with nods to its universal impact, into a seaside installation that would compete for attention with overbooked, overstimulated crowds at the Cannes Lions last summer.

“There was so much we wanted to include—too much—but it needed to be edited to a few minutes,” says Damien Baines, Instagram’s experiential marketing lead, “while balancing the cerebral with the emotional for a truly visceral experience.” And the physical footprint, per the city’s commandment, could be no more than 20 by 20 by 10 feet. What Instagram, partnering with agency We’re Magnetic, did with that abbreviated real estate earned the distinction from Adweek of being “the most powerful thing you’ll see at Cannes” in 2018.

Devlin’s Storyscape, inspired by a zoetrope, gathered eight hours of Instagram Stories from around the world and used them as the core of an immersive, 360-degree video experience, complete with projection mapping, mirrored walls and reflecting pool. Included were references to the very first stories (handprints on a cave’s wall 40,000 years ago) and the current digital versions (vertically shot, scrollable pieces of 21st century life), with viewers peeking at the content through 242 custom-carved windows grouped to look like the facades of city buildings.

The foot traffic over four days, lured mostly by word of mouth, swelled to nearly 3,000 people, who used Instagram Stories to share the work. Attendees, captured with audio on GoPro 360 cameras, called it a showstopper that elegantly blended technology and design with stirring insights about storytelling. “We have to lead with emotion” as experiential marketers, says Baines. “If we don’t truly feel anything, neither will our audience.”

This story first appeared in the April 29, 2019, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.