Chipotle: Back to the Start, one of the Best ads of the 21th Century.

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“Historians and archaeologists will one day discover that the ads of our time are the richest and most faithful daily reflections any society ever made of its whole range of activities.”
–Marshall McLuhan

In 1999, as the 20th century came to a close, the Ad Age staff set out to examine all the ways in which advertising has entertained, moved and motivated us over the years. We decided to rank the 100 best campaigns of the century, in a special issue, to celebrate their creativity and impact.

Now, Advertising Age is updating this list with 15 of the best ad campaigns of the 21st Century. In the last 15 years, advertising and marketing, and the media it used to get out its messages, has experienced an incredible upheaval as digital media and interactivity changed the dynamics of how consumers see and pay attention brand messages.

Control shifted from marketers and traditional media timing their messages and forcing consumers to see ads as a trade-off for the content they wanted to see to the consumer wielding remote control and computer mouse. Traditional media found itself scrambling to stay relevant as digital media wreaked havoc with the guarantee that consumers were likely to see ad messages. Expensive journalism distributed free online amassed audience but not ad dollars and wiped out a whole generation of magazines and newspapers, while DVRs, podcasts, streaming video services like Netflix and Hulu challenged TV and radio models. Out of this massive shift, marketers and agencies got very innovative in turning these new tools to their advantage.

Several of these winning campaigns are on this list because they led the way in thinking about how to use these new tools effectively and entertainingly. Some of these ad campaigns are here because they changed the way consumers thought about the world around them and some are examples of great solid marketing built on spot-on insights and beautifully, perfectly executed.

Advertising Age tapped the expertise of leading creators and marketers to derive this list of 15. We asked our judges to consider three criteria, the same three questions that were used for the original Top 100 Ad Campaigns of the 20th Century:

  1. Was it a watershed ad or campaign, discernibly changing the culture of advertising or the popular culture as a whole?
  2. If it itself was credited with creating a category, or if by its efforts a brand became entrenched in its category as No. 1.
  3. Was it simply unforgettable?

We gave the judges a list of 50 nominees from which to vote on their top 15 and then rank them. These winning campaigns are those that got the most judges’ votes to be on the list, and ranked the highest. Ad Age Members were also asked to weigh in on their picks, and you can see the results of that poll here.

One of the judges, Greg Hahn, CCO, BBDO New York, noted of the finalists, “Looking at this list you can see what these executions have in common. They all have a strong voice, a POV, and a client that was willing to go outside of the tried and true. These all broke through because they broke out of the norm. They remain as standouts because they were inherently right for the brand. There are a million logical reasons why each of these shouldn’t have worked. Thank God the right people ignored all of them.”

Chipotle: Back to the Start

For something that was initially created to be an introductory video for a new-fangled loyalty program, Chipotle’s “Back to the Start” made a splash beyond what the chain—and adland as a whole—ever expected.

“It was never intended to be an ad,” said Chipotle chief marketing officer Mark Crumpacker. Maybe not, but it was the chain’s first national TV spot, and it made a massive splash. The video ended up airing in full—more than two minutes long—during the Grammys in 2012. The animated video, created by CAA, featured Willie Nelson’s cover of Coldplay’s “The Scientist,” and took viewers through one farmer’s change of heart, from running a huge industrialized farming compound to one with more sustainable and humane practices. Chipotle encouraged viewers to download the song at iTunes, with proceeds going to the Chipotle Cultivate Foundation.

Chipotle created an unorthodox loyalty program, Mr. Crumpacker said, that didn’t reward customers who frequent the chain; it rewarded customers who had knowledge of food-industry issues. So creative that illustrated some of those issues was essential. “We didn’t think about it as an ad campaign—it was an introductory video,” said Mr. Crumpacker. The spot resonated enough—beyond its loyalty-program intentions—as an online video that the company decided to buy some media around it. So in fall 2011, the video aired in some 5,700 movie theaters.

“We put it on YouTube, and the next morning, I woke up to messages from people who had seen it saying things like, ‘We didn’t know you could do something so powerful,” Mr. Crumpacker said. “It just spread so quickly and virally. So then, we thought, let’s put it in theaters, and when we did, we got reports back that people were applauding in theaters.”

Chipotle execs knew they wanted to push the video even further, so it bought time during the Grammys—a move that upstaged some of the performers that night. The video impressed so many people in the ad industry that it contributed to Chipotle winning the first branded content Grand Prix at Cannes.

“I remember seeing the video in cinema,” said Andrew Keller, CEO of CP&B and judge for the 21st century campaigns. “What a bold move to say it out loud—to challenge the heart of American farming and the food industry. Through events and in-store, it created more than a shared-values platform. It was an action platform.”

“Chipotle’s ‘Back to the Start’ is perfect. It says a commercial is not limited to 30, 60 or even 120 seconds. How about 140?” said Robert Wong, executive creative director, Google Creative Lab. “This film captures a company’s beliefs and ideals in a truthful, inspirational and hauntingly beautiful way. This is the ‘We’d like to teach the world to sing’ of the 21st century.”

“Back to the Start” was the dawn of a branded-content era for Chipotle. The chain went on to create other long-form videos, including “Scarecrow,” also created by CAA and was accompanied by an interactive game. “Scarecrow,” which was produced by Moonbot Studios, earlier this year led CAA to win a PR Grand Prix at Cannes. Chipotle also launched a series, “Farmed and Dangerous,” a four-part satirical comedy series on Hulu, earlier this year.


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