“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.”
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. they 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:
They 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.
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.”
On World Water Day 2007, UNICEF launched the “Tap Project” in New York with then relatively new agency Droga5. The idea was simple; a $1 donation tacked onto a restaurant bill could help UNICEF provide a child with drinking water for 40 days. Since then, the “Tap Project” has seen multiple iterations and has raised more than $2.5 million dollars.
The idea was borne out of a challenge, though.
“We’d just released our first piece of work under the Droga5 name,” said agency founder and creative chairman David Droga, referring to the “Still Free” campaign for Marc Ecko in which street artists appeared to be spraying graffiti on Air Force One. The work garnered the attention of many, including Esquire editor David Granger who sought to feature Droga in the magazine’s “Best and Brightest” issue. The turning point took place during the preliminary phone interview as they discussed the agency and the founder’s vision.
“I was talking about my ambition to build the most influential agency in the world. Things that sound good, you know? And to his credit, he was like, ‘I’m not just going to write about it, I’m going to give you a chance to prove it,’” said Mr. Droga. Rather than include a traditional write up, Mr. Granger gave him a page to do anything as long as it was good.
With UNICEF and its work already on his mind, Droga brainstormed. Naturally, the “Tap Project” idea came about in a restaurant during a lunch break when a server set a complementary glass of tap water before him “as they do in the U.S., as soon as your bum hits the seat,” he said.
Realizing that the biggest and most served brand in the country wasn’t branded, the wheels began turning. “I thought about not needing money, not needing distribution, just branding tap water,” he said. The trick would be to ask people to purchase it in an environment where they are used to parting with money. “In a restaurant you’re ready to make a transaction,” he explained, so providing the average person with the option to add a dollar to provide safe drinking water to disadvantaged children would not be unwelcome. “Who wouldn’t do that?” he asked, “It felt like such an obvious, low-hanging fruit, no-brainer idea. Just by uniting everybody behind a brand that doesn’t exist.”
CP&B CEO Andrew Keller, one of the judges to select this campaign, wrote, “Instead of paying for some clean spring water from somewhere in Greenland that we felt we had to buy due to cultural peer pressure and snooty waiters, we were given the opportunity to pay for our water in order to do something very good and very tangible. What a great flip. Impossible to resist.”
Another one of Ad Age’s judges, Robert Wong, CCO, Google Creative Lab, noted, “‘The Tap Project’ is simply one of the most brilliant ideas ever—hijack tap water served in restaurants to raise money and solve real world problems. Damn, I wish I came up with that.”
Droga returned to Granger with a simple sketch to submit for his page in Esquire, sharing his intent to launch an initiative that would require restaurant involvement. Granger gave the idea three pages.
Next, the idea was pitched to then UNICEF executive director Ann M. Veneman, who agreed to partner with the agency, and “it just sort of took off right from the get go,” Mr. Droga said. “Sarah Jessica Parker sort of announced it and media outlets donated to it.”
In its first year, the “Tap Project” was carried out in 300 major New York restaurants. “We started with the celebrity chefs, because we knew if we got them, then we would get the other ones,” said Mr. Droga. From there, the project scaled. The actual system that was implemented the first year, however, was not the way to do it. Only so many restaurants would or could get involved and retaining attention could have also become an issue. The most important thing, though, remained the cause. “It doesn’t matter what channel you use to raise money for these water issues, because it’s still about water,” he explained.
He reached out to peers in the advertising world, “because the idea was bigger than us,” he said, “you had Wieden doing it, TBWA in LA, 20 or 30 agencies. It sort of grew. The core tenet itself was the same, but how it manifested itself changed.”
What began as traditional messaging in restaurants and print ads has evolved since. This year, the “Tap Project’s” most successful fund-raising year yet, continued to look at everyday habits, namely phone use. “We just built a very simple phone app,” one that donated to the cause for every 10 minutes spent sans smartphone, sponsors and partners would provide a child with water for a day.
The impact is visible today in social good campaigns and initiatives. “People are creating actually proprietary ideas and programs as opposed to messaging and disposable advertising,” said Mr. Droga.