The Year’s 22 Best Media Plans, From Netflix and Hulu to GoPro and Google

The most innovative ways brands reached consumers

For “Batman Barges In,” the character interrupted ad breaks on Channel 4, the second-largest commercial channel in the U.K.

With a constant stream of information inundating consumers at every turn, it’s becoming harder than ever for advertisers to reach their target audiences in meaningful ways. That’s where our Media Plan of the Year honorees come in. Whether they were turning social media outrage into candy sales like Snickers (see more on our Media Plan of the Year here) or showing beer drinkers how their empty bottles can help save the environment, these 22 winning teams took media planning innovation to new heights in 2017, proving that creative thinking and bold strategies are still able to cut through the clutter.

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. If you’re interested in serving as a juror in 2018, please contact Jemima Mendenhall at

Sasha Savic (chair), MediaCom
Kamran Asghar, Crossmedia
Neil Goodspeed, Carmichael Lynch
Carmen Graf, GSD&M
Trevor Guthrie, Giant Spoon
Sarah Kramer, Spark Foundry
Lynn Lewis, UM
Maureen McCloskey, Kinetic U.S.
Rachel Mercer, Deutsch New York
Sheri Roder, Horizon Media
Neil Smith, 360i
David Song, BARKER
Mel Stern, J3
Jeff Tan, Dentsu Aegis Network USA

UM | Hulu, “The Laws of Gilead”

Categories: Campaign ($10 million +); Best Use of Native ($1 million +)

To promote the dystopian world of The Handmaid’s Tale, where women have no voice, Hulu and its agency UM Los Angeles tuned in to and amplified female-driven conversations from social media and the post-election protest marches early this year.

“We wanted to be bold but empathetic and in the right tone,” says Kacie Sage, UM’s svp, group partner, “so we listened to how people on the front lines were thinking, feeling and speaking out about women’s rights.”

The result was “The Laws of Gilead,” a digital, social, editorial, radio, experiential and TV effort that drove home the oppressive rules of the near-future drama (women aren’t allowed to read, they must wear the color of their caste, they’re subservient and powerless) by linking them to current-day events.

One highlight of the campaign involved having a group of women in red cloaks, the signature handmaid outfit, roam the South by Southwest festival and other high-traffic events. Costume exhibits with partners Vogue and Vanity Fair emphasized the harsh symbolism of the apparel so that potential viewers could “feel the impact in a relevant context,” Sage says.

An art installation on New York’s High Line encouraged people to take one of the 4,000 stocked copies of Margaret Atwood’s novel on which the series is based, while thought leaders spread provocative quotes from the once-banned book.

Fans responded immediately. The Handmaid’s Tale was the internet’s most-discussed show during its launch week, with 1.8 billion earned social impressions. Awareness skyrocketed among nonsubscribers, the series premiere drove the highest daily subscriptions to the streaming service year to date, and the drama became the most-viewed debut of any series on Hulu. —T.L.S.

MullenLowe Mediahub | Netflix, Earn Your Power

Category: Campaign ($500,000-$1 million)

Netflix knew that the sweet-spot audience for its new Iron Fist series wasn’t going to be easy to reach. The people most aware of the Marvel comic book—and likeliest to watch its TV adaptation—were overwhelmingly male, millennial and hard-core gamers.

“Gamers are highly aware of product placement and integrations, and if done wrong it can be pretty lame,” says Shauna Spenley, vp for marketing, licensing and merchandising, North America at Netflix.

The platform and its agency, MullenLowe Mediahub, found a way to engage gamers by inviting them to activate a code on the gaming news and info sites IGN and GameSpot. Once the code was accessed, users were treated to footage from the series. The campaign continued with a livestream of two gaming superstars, Justin Wong and Daigo Umehara, facing off on the platform Twitch.

The campaign resulted in 215,000 views of the Twitch stream, which was 58 percent above the benchmark, while Iron Fist became the most-binged Netflix drama during first-quarter 2017. One key takeaway: “By leaning into cultural gamer insights—their love for nostalgia and competition—we could create experiences that the audience loved and appreciated,” Spenley says. —Janet Stilson

MullenLowe Mediahub | Netflix, Black Mirror, Season 3: Unblockable Ads

Category: Campaign (less than $500,000)

Targeting an audience that is highly skilled at avoiding ads certainly was a head-scratcher for Netflix and MullenLowe Mediahub when they were looking to develop a campaign for the third season of Black Mirror.

Research showed that about two-thirds of the audience in their sight lines—tech savvy sci-fi fans ages 24-34—used ad blockers. So Netflix simply went around the ad blockers. The company worked with Mashable, The Next Web and Slate to build a native content message directly into the publishers’ CMS in order to avoid triggering ad blockers. The message was appropriately eerie: “Hello ad blocker user,” it read. “You cannot see the ad, but the ad can see you. What’s on the other side of your Black Mirror?”

If applied improperly, the strategy might have backfired, given the target’s aversion to ads. “With the anti-blocker concept, we felt it struck the right balance of getting what the show was about and reaching its intended audience,” says Shauna Spenley, vp for marketing, licensing and merchandising, North America at Netflix.

The results were strikingly better than the previous season’s campaign had been, driving five times more search volume and 30 times more conversation—or more than 1 million posts. The series also became a top 15 original streamed show in 2016, according to Symphony Advanced Media. —J.S.

Mindshare U.K. | Marks & Spencer, Love Mrs. Claus

Category: Campaign ($1-5 million)

After five years of declining Christmas sales, Marks & Spencer needed to make a change. So the British department store decided to refocus its holiday advertising on a core demographic it had been neglecting: women over 45.

Cue Mrs. Claus—the empowered and relatable 11th-hour heroine of a heart-tugging two-minute spot from Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R, then the brand’s creative agency—brought into the real world last winter through a wide-ranging media campaign from Mindshare.

A keystone TV partnership with Britain’s Channel 4 kicked off the network’s Christmas programming during hit reality show Gogglebox, placing Mrs. Claus in custom advertising with the broadcaster’s own talent. A social response activation saw Mrs. Claus take over Marks & Spencer’s Twitter feed to interact with fans. A line of Mrs. Claus products—including her outfit from the main spot—quickly sold out from the retailer’s online and brick-and-mortar stores.

“To have this iconic character who was a bit older but still super glamorous and really inspirational, for us that was a really exciting part to play,” says Fleur Stoppani, client partner at Mindshare. “We knew we had to bring her to life in more ways than simply the ad.”

Most importantly, it worked. A 5.9 percent year-over-year increase in quarterly sales reversed the brand’s holiday sales slump—proving Mrs. Claus really was the heroine the brand needed. —Gabriel Beltrone

UM and McCann Worldgroup | U.S. Army, ‘White Hats Wanted’

Category: Best Use of Insights

The stakes were high when Dan Donovan and Mat Bisher developed the “White Hats Wanted” TV campaign for the U.S. Army. That’s because the duo, who serve as executive creative directors for McCann Worldgroup, knew that over the last 10 years, cyber attacks on U.S. government institutions have risen 1,300 percent.

The campaign’s mission was tough: convince the best and brightest hackers to turn a new leaf and help fight cybercrime.

Donovan and Bisher developed a TV ad that featured lines of code being rapidly typed out on an unmanned computer screen. To the untrained eye, it didn’t look unusual. But the code contained a secret message, challenging hackers to solve a decryption puzzle that was created by Army Cyber Command personnel.

In a sense, the Army became McCann’s production partner. “The Army wanted to have control of how the back-end experience worked,” explains Bisher. “So we weren’t in complete control once that user journey happened of trying to crack the code.”

All told, 700,000 hackers participated, and the Army invited the best among them—a mere 1 percent—to explore the opportunity of becoming a White Hat. Of that select few, 30 percent contacted the Army—a conversion rate that was 15 times higher than the Army’s average. —J.S.

Mediabrands S.F. | GoPro, ‘There’s a Hero in All of Us’

Category: Best Use of Programmatic

How do you rouse people’s passion for taking pictures? The answer to that question became a complex one for GoPro when it examined the varied interests of its wide target audience: consumers in 14 different countries who speak nine languages and use five different types of currencies.

For the online campaign “There’s a Hero in All of Us,” GoPro’s creative team and its agency, Mediabrands San Francisco, analyzed research on what consumers in specific countries liked to photograph. They then built out the campaign with 1,600 different pieces of addressable content.

“Not only were we trying to find imagery that spoke to each of the audiences that we were targeting, we were also trying to highlight the product attributes of our Hero5 camera,” explains Sacha Coates, GoPro’s global advertising manager. A consumer in Germany, where people love travel photography, might receive a message featuring the camera’s waterproof design, for example.

The results: over 153 million impressions. For every dollar spent on advertising, GoPro earned nearly $7 in return, which was a surprise to J.P. Aguirre, evp, managing director, global managing partner at UM San Francisco. “The actual intent of this work was more prospecting, trying to drive people down the purchase funnel. It wasn’t intended to drive immediate sales,” he says. —J.S.

Starcom | Airbnb, Community-Powered Trips Launch

Category: Best Use of Social ($1-2 million)

Airbnb’s quest to become a travel company instead of just a hotel competitor includes offering access to hip-hop battles in Seoul, truffle hunting in Tuscany and other activities that veer more bucket list than prepackaged tourism.

The company’s new Trips program aims to move Airbnb “beyond homes into experiences,” says Rob Davis, Starcom USA president, and its debut late last year was critical to the fast-growing brand.

To spread the word about curating on-the-ground activities and providing insider access to hot spots, Airbnb turned its Facebook Live feed into a community-driven broadcast network for 24 continuous hours so that hosts from around the world could share their trip concepts with travelers.

Starcom’s campaign used location-targeted digital and out of home to maximize talk value in a short burst, similar to a news cycle, and partnered with The New York Times and Condé Nast. Trips’ movie-style trailers fanned out over Snapchat Discover, top sites and social networks.

The launch generated 1.3 million Trips-related searches, nearly a million visits to the new Trips page on Airbnb’s site and a 6 percent increase in top-of-mind awareness among millennials. Videos racked up 38 million views, with 31,000 shares, while the campaign overall scored 130 million impressions. —T.L.S.

PHD | Excedrin, ‘Debate Headache’

Category: Best Use of Social ($500,000-$1 million)

Flash back to October 2016, just for a minute. With three major presidential debates in a never-ending election cycle, you probably noticed a growing amount of complaining on Twitter—and so did Excedrin. Taking advantage of the increased chatter around politically induced headaches, aches and pains, Excedrin created surveys and messaging for public relations use. Soon, Excedrin and its agency, PHD Media Worldwide, realized that there was an even bigger opportunity than they had noticed at first. In early October, Twitter let Excedrin and PHD know there would be an opening for a Promoted Trend on the day of the third and final presidential debate, Oct. 19.

This story first appeared in the Sept. 18, 2017, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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