Where’s the Beef?

Is this it?” some of us asked as we sifted through more than 2,000 commercials to find our Best Spots of 2001. “There has to be more quality work out there.”

There wasn’t. 2001 was a defensive year, not a creative one. It was a dismal period for the agency business, and the body of work reflects that. Economic conditions frequently offer an avenue for complaint—the conservative client strikes again. But if there was ever a year when the gripe was more truth than excuse, it was 2001.

Reviewing his shop’s catalog for award-show entries, one West Coast creative director realized recently that his agency—a creative haven that most creatives would trade a left arm to work for—produced nothing exceptional. “I thought we had a good year of work,” he says. “But when we went through it all, it was as if we didn’t do anything.”

The delirious dot-com days brought a creative buoy to the industry. Yes, there were plenty of ads that had little—or no—strategy behind them. But there was also an energy and an enthusiasm that seem to have gone the way of those online marketers.

Few new ideas were introduced last year. There was little experimentation, either conceptually or stylis tically. Agencies mostly stayed on course with proven formulas. (The strongest work came from continuations of older campaigns.) Who could blame them? With little new business out there, who could afford to make mistakes with existing accounts? And it’s only natural that the negative environment—with threats of layoffs looming over every agency—would be reflected in the work.

The year’s brighter lights came from the usual suspects: Volkswagen, IBM and Mastercard, to name a few. After more than 17 years working on Nike, Wieden + Kennedy showed it can still find inventive ways to tell an athletic shoe’s story. Both athlete and couch potato alike can relate to the campaign, revolving around the need to “Play.” It’s smart and impeccably produced—and it feels right.

One of the most adventurous proj ects wasn’t a traditional campaign but an unusual collaboration between BMW and Hollywood that produced BMW Films, a series of Internet shorts made by feature directors such as Ang Lee and Guy Ritchie. Fal lon proved that the Web and TV (which teased BMW’s shorts) can be paired effectively to bolster brand awareness. It will be interesting to see who takes the concept a step further.

Much advertising these days has a decidedly retail feel. Rather than hiding in subtleties, price and product points are now blaring in the foreground. Advertising has to work hard and, ultimately, achieve sales goals. But no one said you can’t have any fun doing it. (Ogilvy & Mather and Young & Rubicam have managed it quite nicely in their current work for Sears.)

Leo Burnett has conducted sev eral studies that demonstrate the effectiveness of award-winning work. And the most inventive work, the work that attracts both consumer and industry attention, comes from the road less traveled. Unfortunately, it doesn’t come without risk.

Will this year again be filled with cautious work? Or can creatives and clients find a way, in this economic climate, to play?