Diverse, Topical, Enlightening and Entertaining, These Were the Best Brand Storytellers of 2019

Presenting Adweek's fourth annual Arc Awards winners, from Tinder’s Swipe Night to Adidas Originals’ Donald Glover Presents

a collage of Adweek's fourth annual Arc Awards winners
The ability to execute powerful, original stories becomes much more vital as audiences become more sophisticated and the variety of platforms multiplies.

Every year for the past four years, Adweek’s Arc Awards have honored the best in brand storytelling. And we find that each time, the bar is set higher and higher. As audiences become more sophisticated, the variety of platforms multiplies and the number of brands rises, the ability to originate and execute powerful stories becomes that much more vital. We don’t know what amazing brand stories the coming year will bring, but we do know that this year’s honorees have certainly set the challenge. —Kristina Feliciano

Agency: Creators League Studio
Client: PepsiCo
Campaign: Gatorade, Cantera 5v5
Award: Best Use of Long-Form Nonfiction Serial/Series

Great talent can come from the humblest places. Having founded the Global Gatorade 5v5 Soccer Tournament, an annual five-a-side soccer tourney for 14- to 16-year-olds from 23 countries, Gatorade has a pitch-side view of the raw talent, passion and dedication to the sport—even in the face of adversity—that comes from youth soccer leagues.

That perspective led the brand to create Cantera 5v5, an original long-form documentary series that tells the story of five aspiring athletes from around the world. “We wanted the audience to understand that Gatorade 5v5 is an important part in the development of the kids that take part in the competition,” says Jill Leccia Monsalve, senior marketing director, head of sports, nutritional and functional beverages at PepsiCo Latin America—noting that cantera, which means quarry in Spanish, is a term used for junior divisions and refers to how talent is developed, much like an artist coaxes a statue out of stone.

“Over the years many players that participated in the competition started playing professionally. We realized we had great human stories that deserved to be told,” she says. “Through the stories of Gisela, Daniel, Rodrigo, Yahya and Flavia, we were able to tell young athletes out there that there are kids like them all over the world, and inspire them to keep sweating for the sport they love.”

The five-episode series, which was showcased during the Tribeca TV Festival, was directed by multi-Emmy- and Peabody-winning filmmakers Jeff and Michael Zimbalist and produced in partnership with All Rise Films and PepsiCo’s in-house content unit, Creators League Studio. —Rae Ann Fera

Agency: UM Studios
Client: Johnson & Johnson
Campaign: 5B
Award: Best Use of Long-Form Film

In an effort to highlight the important work that nurses do and solidify the company’s position as a long-standing advocate for the profession, Johnson & Johnson created the feature documentary 5B. Produced by UM Studios and J3, UM’s dedicated media unit for Johnson & Johnson, the film tells the story of Ward 5B, the first AIDS ward in the United States, which opened in 1983 at San Francisco General Hospital, and the nurses and caregivers who treated patients with respect and compassion during a time of great fear and uncertainty.

“It was a bold proposal,” says Brendan Gaul, UM Studios’ head and global chief content officer. “A few minutes into our initial conversation, [the] client stopped us, saying she’d heard enough. Incredibly, the client had been on the ground at San Francisco General Hospital, inside Ward 5B, delivering whatever Johnson & Johnson products could potentially help the patients in the early AIDS crisis. Needless to say, the clients were all in and our journey was underway.”

5B was an official selection at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2019 and was acquired by Verizon for domestic and international cinematic release. It screened at 17 Pride celebrations across the country and is being incorporated into nursing curricula. The film even influenced Hollywood, as 20th Century Fox licensed portions of recovered archival footage of the ward to use in the hit movie Bohemian Rhapsody.

“While the story of Ward 5B is not a contemporary one, it is in many ways as relevant today as it was at the height of the AIDS crisis,” says Gaul. “In a period of division in domestic and international relations, when fear and hatred challenge our ability to accept those we perceive as different, 5B is an uplifting reminder of the power of love over hate.” —Rae Ann Fera

Agency: FCB Inferno
Client: Huawei
Campaign: StorySign
Award: Best Use of AI/Machine Learning in Storytelling

Learning to read is one of the building blocks of childhood. And yet, literacy is a problem for many of the world’s 32 million deaf children. That’s because they can’t learn phonetically and struggle to match words with sounds. It can take deaf children a staggering 21 years to catch up with their hearing peers.

To change the story of deaf literacy, Huawei created StorySign, a global app for the deaf that instantly translates books into sign language, complete with a charming avatar. Huawei’s Kirin AI technology makes the avatar’s translation faster and more accurate, reading text at up to 45 degrees with seamless image recognition, and even works in low light conditions—perfect for bedtime reading.

StorySign was created by FCB Inferno in partnership with Penguin Random House, which made its huge library of books available for translation, and Oscar-winning Aardman Animations created Star, an advanced signing avatar. Since sign language is different in every language, the agency also collaborated with 12 international deaf charities to ensure StorySign met the needs of children around the world.

“As a brand and a business, Huawei passionately believes that technology can enrich humanity and push the boundaries of what is humanly possible,” says Owen Lee, CCO, FCB Inferno. “Deaf literacy has a huge, disproportionate impact on deaf people’s lives, and this creative use of technology was able to change that.”

Since its launch, StorySign has had a global reach of over 1.5 billion and more than 1,000 instances of international coverage. —Rae Ann Fera

Agency: Courageous Studios
Client: Procter & Gamble
Campaign: Out of the Shadows
Award: Best Use of Long-Form Nonfiction

Through the years, Procter & Gamble has been working steadily to make the company more inclusive for LGBT+ employees. P&G first raised awareness of its changemakers in The Words Matter, a 2018 documentary about one man’s fight in the mid-’80s to have sexual orientation added to the company’s equal opportunity statement. In 2019, to mark the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising, the company went even further.

Out of the Shadows is a 25-minute documentary created by Courageous Studios that tells the true story of a group of gay and lesbian employees in the 1990s who fought for equal rights in the workplace. Launched on CNN’s documentary platform, Great Big Story, the film explains what happened next in the fight for equality at P&G.

Six additional video editorials, created for CNN digital, tell parallel stories happening elsewhere in the U.S. and around the world. The film was part of Queer City, a multimedia exhibit in New York staged to commemorate Stonewall.

“P&G believed it was important to acknowledge the significant contributions of their employees and share the lessons learned as a company to help inspire positive action and develop an even more inclusive company and community,” says Michal Shapira, svp of news content partnerships at WarnerMedia Ad Sales and head of Courageous Studios. Out of the Shadows reached 11 million people, generating 2.5 million views across Facebook and YouTube. Its video completion rate was 24%. —Rae Ann Fera

Agency: 72andSunny Los Angeles
Client: Tinder
Campaign: Swipe Night
Awards: Best Use of Brand/Product Integration Into Existing IP and Best Use of Mobile Video

After years of swiping, Tinder’s defining action had become passive and mindless among users. Looking to reengage Gen Z singles, the dating app set out to bring the magic back to finding the perfect match. Working with 72andSunny Los Angeles, the company launched Swipe Night, an in-app interactive content series that had viewers use Tinder’s famous swipe gesture to make narrative choices.

In a matchmaking twist, those choices, which ultimately revealed something about each person (given the option, would they save a puppy or a person, for example), helped match members to those who made similar choices.

“Ultimately, Swipe Night is content with a purpose. It’s not just about spending seven minutes watching something; it’s about making choices that drive the story forward and can change who you might match with at the end of each episode,” says agency partner and executive strategy director Kelly Schoeffel.

Swipe Night earned 4 billion impressions and saw a 1,600% spike in Twitter activity during its release. Member engagement showed a 26% increase in matches over a typical Sunday night with a 12% bump in messages in the U.S.

“As media landscapes continue to shift, there’s a huge opportunity for agencies and marketers to change the lens on what the potential of marketing can be,” says agency partner and ecd Matt Murphy. “Swipe Night isn’t an ad; it’s content that makes Tinder better at its stated mission of connecting people.” —Rae Ann Fera

Agency: VMLY&R
Client: Wendy’s
Campaign: Feast of Legends
Award: Best Sponsored Content

In its ongoing quest to vanquish frozen beef from the fast-food burger realm, Wendy’s set out to conquer new worlds with Feast of Legends, a tabletop role-playing game that allowed players to adventure on behalf of Queen Wendy.

With 10 hours of gameplay, Feast of Legends has participants join a food-based order—such as Order of the Baconator—and band together to save the nation of Frestovia in the land of Beef’s Keep.

The game follows Wendy’s earlier foray into gaming; the brand made waves when it infiltrated the world of Fortnite last summer and laid waste to freezers. Feast of Legends, on the other hand, invites players into an immersive food-based world.

“Instead of invading another gaming world, we wanted to create one that gamers would want to invade—one that would communicate our brand attributes in an entirely new and entertaining way,” says Jeremy Cline, senior analyst, strategy and insights at VMLY&R.

Feast of Legends was launched at New York Comic Con with a 97-page, fully illustrated game book, which was also downloaded over 250,000 times. News of the game generated more than 289 million earned media impressions. Fans viewed over 98,000 hours of livestreams, and the game has inspired fanart, cosplay, in-restaurant game nights and a Reddit community.

“Consumers usually spend minutes with Wendy’s in the drive-thru, but with Feast of Legends, consumers were spending multiple hours per week with Wendy’s,” says Cline, adding that “striking the right balance of brand communication and gameplay is an art, and that’s the balance we wanted to create.” —Rae Ann Fera

Agency: VMLY&R
Client: Wendy’s
Campaign: Keeping Fortnite Fresh
Award: Best Use of Broadcast/Livestreaming

What’s a brand to do when its target market avoids ads and is unmoved by traditional media? Find them and surprise them where they are. That’s how Wendy’s managed to capture the attention of its desired 12- to 24-year-old demo this past fall. To reach avid gamers, the burger chain created an avatar for its red-headed namesake, dropped in on Fortnite, started playing and streamed the game on Twitch.

Wendy’s joined Fortnite during a new mode called Food Fight. Gamers chose to battle it out on Team Burger or Team Pizza, each representing one of the Fortnite universe’s two restaurants. Wendy’s joined Team Pizza and began playing the game totally wrong. Instead of killing players, Wendy’s went ballistic on freezers, thereby ridding Fortnite of frozen beef. Soon, players caught on and joined the action. Momentum grew when Twitch created a highlight reel of Wendy’s best freezer kills.

“Viewers on Twitch questioned if this was real and what we were doing, but as soon as we destroyed the first in-game freezer the audience caught on and encouraged us to eventually destroy the whole in-game burger restaurant,” says VMLY&R senior analyst, strategy and insights Jeremy Cline.

Users watched over 1.5 million minutes of the freezer rampage on Twitch, Wendy’s Twitch stream was viewed live more than a quarter of a million times and mentions of Wendy’s increased by 119%. What’s more, Fortnite ultimately removed all freezers—and frozen beef—from the game.

“Our truest validation came from gamers playing with us,” notes Cline. “Fortnite getting rid of the in-game restaurant then became the icing on top of the cake.” —Rae Ann Fera

Agency: BBDO New York
Client: Sandy Hook Promise
Campaign: “Back to School Essentials”
Awards: Best Use of Short-Form Fiction, Best Charity/Pro Bono/Pro-Social Effort and Best Use of Viral

When kids go back to school each year, they return to a kid-life routine that’s independent of their parents. But in America, where approximately 15,000 are shot and injured every year, according to the Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund, heading back to class also means learning what to do during a school shooting.

To promote prevention over acceptance, anti-gun-violence group Sandy Hook Promise created a subversive PSA that shows parents what their kids face in an active-shooter situation.

Using the tropes of a back-to-school ad, “Back to School Essentials” starts off cheery as students show off their new school gear but quickly turns dark when it becomes clear that there’s a shooter in the school. Those new school supplies become survival tools as a sock becomes a tourniquet and a girl uses her new phone to text her mom a final message.

“We asked ourselves, If lockdown drills and school shootings are accepted as the new normal, what does the new back-to-school ad look like?” says Bianca Guimaraes, senior creative director at BBDO New York. “By twisting the conventional narrative of a back-to-school ad, we were able to bend deeper and deeper into our story and create a contrast between the acceptance of the new normal and how scary it is,” adds senior creative director Peter Alsante.

The PSA received 26 million views in the first 24 hours and generated 3.9 billion media impressions. —Rae Ann Fera

Agency: Mamag Studios; Royalty of Wolf + Rothstein
Client: Adidas Originals
Campaign: Donald Glover Presents
Awards: Best Use of Short-Form Fiction Serial/Series and Best Use of Influencer/Creator Marketing

When Donald Glover launched a line of sneakers with Adidas Originals last spring, his three deconstructed classics featured seemingly irregular details like uneven stitching and inside-out eyelets. “Rich is a concept,” said Glover in a press tour about the value of telling a cool story with your scuffed-up kicks.

To sell that idea to consumers, Mamag Studios and Glover’s creative collective, Royalty of Wolf + Rothstein, created five branded shorts. In them, the multihyphenate celebrity gets his shoes messy in various scenarios—running, tending bees, painting—while Oscar-winning comedian and actress Mo’Nique hilariously rips on him. (There’s also a biting cameo from skateboarder and fashion designer Na-Kel Smith.)

“We wanted to subvert some of the shoe-culture rules we all personally grew up with, which were more along the lines of ‘clean and new shoes [equal] good shoes,’” says campaign writer Jamal Olori. “Kids bully each other for having dirty shoes, and even steal and hurt one another for new shoes. We felt we could shift culture to make it OK to ‘rock dirty sneakers,’ if you will.”

By staying honest to at least one snapshot—nerdy, surrealist and subversive—of Glover’s fast-evolving persona, the films put Adidas sneakers at the center of a story that’s natural and credible—without overselling them. It was a challenge “convincing a sports brand to fund a series of short films that barely showed any product,” admits Sylvia Zakhary, founder and executive creative director at Mamag, who produced the cuts with Wolf + Rothstein’s Fam Rothstein. It worked, though: Retailers sold 15,000 pairs in the first weekend, and fans temporarily crashed the Adidas site rushing to snap them up. —Gabriel Beltrone

Agency: Africa, São Paulo
Client: Ambev Corona
Campaign: “Listen to the Ocean”
Award: Best Use of Audio Storytelling

The dire state of plastic pollution in the oceans is widely acknowledged, but what if the world’s seas could sing humans a song about what we’re doing to them?

To build on Corona’s beach-vibes equity, the brand’s sponsorship of the World Surf League championship in Rio de Janeiro and its global work with nonprofit Parley for the Oceans, Brazilian agency Africa developed “Listen to the Ocean”—a tune with a unique compositional method.

It started with an algorithm designed to translate the polluted ocean waves at Barra da Tijuca into sound waves. These became the basis for the melody in a song written by American musician and surfer Donavon Frankenreiter with Brazilian singer Céu. For the lyrics, Corona and the team turned to social media, drawing input from its audience online.

“Eight million tons of plastic are dumped into the ocean every year,” says Sergio Gordilho, the agency’s co-president and CCO. “This is a big number. But we wanted to get people’s attention to something that they can connect with, and even more important, to something that they can share. So music was the way. Especially if you are in a country as musical as Brazil.”

For every share of the resulting ditty and video, the brand committed to cleaning 10 square meters of polluted beach. The campaign netted 100,000 square meters total, along with 16 million views, an additional 1 million earned impressions and status for Corona as the most talked-about beer brand in Brazil during the campaign. —Gabriel Beltrone

Agency: TBWA\Media Arts Lab Los Angeles
Client: Apple iPhone
Campaign: “Don’t Mess With Mother”
Award: Best Use of Short-Form Nonfiction

Over the years, Apple has enjoyed huge success with its “Shot on iPhone” campaign. And it keeps finding ways to up the ante. Last April, TBWA\Media Arts Lab launched “Don’t Mess With Mother,” a campaign featuring badass Planet Earth-style documentary footage filmed using the iPhone XS, with an assist from outdoor production specialists Camp4Collective.

There are stunning-but-treacherous landscapes, majestic and fierce animals and devious plants. Avalanches tumble, alligators snap, sharks feed, horses stampede, hawks swoop, lightning crackles and lava sputters. It’s all perfectly set to the wailing, rapid-fire guitars in “Last Rites” by Megadeth, and it’s as riveting as it was difficult to create.

“The nature of the film’s production was inherently challenging because of the unpredictability of the natural world,” says Brent Anderson, global CCO at the agency. “In order to capture all of these potentially dangerous moments in nature—from sandstorms in the Outback to river rapids in the Amazon—we had to go out there and find them.”

Why take the risk? Because it was a chance to show Mother Earth’s mettle at a time when the planet is threatened by climate change. Also featuring billboards, the campaign was meant as an illustration of the camera’s power and durability, as well as a bit of a soapbox: that “Mother Nature is worth caring about,” says Anderson. “We hope that people are inspired by the potential of the iPhone as a powerful megaphone for important topical issues, or aspects of culture that the world might be delighted to find out about.” —Gabriel Beltrone

Agency: TBWA\Media Arts Lab Los Angeles
Client: Apple AirPods
Campaign: “Bounce”
Awards: Best Use of Music Video and Best Use of Short-Form Film

It’s a simple conceit: Wireless headphones that can charge without a cord make it that much easier to get your groove on.

To illustrate this key feature of Apple’s Airpods—and build on Apple’s long lineage of music-based advertising—TBWA\Media Arts Lab created “Bounce,” a two-minute black-and-white film featuring a young commuter bounding through the streets while bumping his tunes.

The joy of the spot, set to “I Learnt Some Jazz Today” by up-and-comer Tessellated and paying homage to Buster Keaton, is in the twist: The entire gray, hard cityscape is a rubbery trampoline wonderland. The hero springboards off of concrete traffic barriers, steel cellar doors and manhole covers. He hangs from a metal lamppost like it’s a cartoon sapling tree, bending it to land softly on the ground.

“We felt very strongly with this idea that it shouldn’t be a VFX fest,” says Brent Anderson, global CCO, TBWA\Media Arts Lab, “but rather feel very practical and real. Like you were a kid bouncing around at a playground, and the playground just happened to be the city you lived in.”

Shot in Kiev without computer effects, the ad required renting the largest warehouse in Ukraine and raising the entire set six feet above the ground so the crew could install trampolines beneath. The net effect perfectly captures the sense of lighthearted freedom the agency was after. “It didn’t hurt that we found a great track also,” says Anderson. Audiences agreed: The video racked up 26 million views in its first week, and continued Apple’s tradition of boosting lesser-known musical acts into the mainstream. —Gabriel Beltrone

Agency: TBWA\Media Arts Lab Los Angeles
Client: Apple MacBook
Campaign: “Share Your Gifts”
Awards: Best Use of Animation and Best Use of Cinema Advertising

It’s a powerful recipe: one part heartwarming holiday story about a young writer struggling to come out of her shell, one part stunningly vivid animation and one part crushingly emotive Billie Eilish song.

Apple MacBook’s “Share Your Gifts” ad from TBWA\Media Arts Lab—part of its broader “Behind the Mac” campaign aimed at boosting creativity—is an inevitable home run featuring extraordinary craft.

It follows Sofia, a baker by day who toils tirelessly at her true passion all other times, but is never quite satisfied with the fruits of her labor to let the world see them (until she gets a bit of a push from an unlikely ally). Created with animation house Buck Design, it mixes a meticulously handcrafted miniature set with characters created using computer graphics. The result is crackling with energy.

“Creating a Pixar-level animated film that mixed live action and stop motion in just a few short months was definitely a massive challenge for everyone involved,” says Brent Anderson, global CCO, TBWA\Media Arts Lab.

Appropriately, the laptop plays a supporting role, out of the way of the message. And the original song, “Come Out and Play,” created for the ad by Eilish and brother-producer Finneas O’Connell—Mac users both, and the royal family of bedroom pop—couldn’t be a better fit. “Watching the campaign inspire people of all ages around the world to post their own creations, with over 1,300 cover videos and thousands of pieces of art inspired by the characters posted online, as well as watching concert footage of a massive crowd singing along,” made the challenge worth it, says Anderson. —Gabriel Beltrone

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