It's the time of year for lists, and there are certainly many great contenders for the best ads of 2018.
Nike's print and digitally led Colin Kaepernick work from Wieden + Kennedy. Apple's "Welcome Home" film by Spike Jonze and TBWA\Media Arts Lab. P&G's "It's a Tide Ad" by Saatchi & Saatchi for the Super Bowl. Those are just three campaigns that immediately come to mind. A few dozen other traditional ads could easily be shortlisted for anyone's top 10 of 2018.
But instead of looking at traditional ads, we want to focus on the nontraditional—the ads that didn't look like ads at all.
Increasingly, this is the mandate for marketers: To make engaging content that doesn't look or feel like a sales pitch. To create a piece of music, or a game, or a movie. To open a store, hack a media channel, build a library. To make a technological leap. To give people what they want, even if they don't know they want it—something so valuable, they choose it for themselves.
The 18 campaigns below did that. They might not look like advertising, and that's the point. And they're all the better for it.
See the work below, alphabetical by advertiser.
Burger King, "Whopper Detour"
Agency: FCB New York
Burger King, Clio's Advertiser of the Year for 2018, has been on fire lately (which, of course, is very on brand). But "Whopper Detour" was particularly clever and different. Going beyond the viral hidden-camera videos and daring print work of its recent past, and even beyond the culture hacking of something like "Google Home of the Whopper," BK impressively fused creativity and technology in this project to nicely move the needle on a specific behavior—BK app downloads. The campaign's enticing 1 cent Whopper deal was available to consumers only within 600 feet of a McDonald's, and only on the BK app. The PR-friendly idea combined with impressive tech, which involved geofencing thousands of McDonald's locations, to propel the BK app to the top of the App Store charts in a matter of days—a remarkable result in a QSR category that had a very strong year overall.
Comedy Central, "The Daily Show Presents: The Donald J. Trump Presidential Twitter Library"
Agency: 23 Stories x Condé Nast
One of 2018's most delightful experiential activations gave people a glimpse—which turned out to be a deep dive—into what a presidential library would look like for a president who doesn't read. Condé Nast's in-house agency 23 Stories and the Comedy Central team crafted the experience wonderfully, with all sorts of multimedia exhibits in the space, which became a touring attraction after making a huge splash in New York. A Grand winner at the Clio Entertainment awards, it was envisioned as a marketing stunt for The Daily Show but quickly became its own revenue-driving property that now includes a best-selling book—the covfefe on top of the cake.
Deadpool 2, "Photobomb Packaging"
Agency: Neuron Syndicate Inc.
Deadpool 2 produced a slew of memorable marketing stunts beyond its trailers and posters this year. (Comic-Con toilet-seat cover, anyone?) But our favorite nontraditional execution was Fox Home Entertainment's partnership with Walmart, which replaced Blu-ray covers of more than 20 films from the Fox catalog with Deadpool spoofs. Our favorite was Cast Away, but lots of them were great. A Grand winner at the Clio Entertainment show, the stunt was a great example of not thinking outside the box but on the front of it instead. (OK, that's just lazy writing.)
The best fake news (and products) of the year came from Diesel, which created its own counterfeit brand, Deisel, and sold it on Canal Street during New York Fashion Week. Co-opting—and thus disempowering—the business of counterfeit products was a brave idea that fit Diesel's risk-taking DNA perfectly. It was also wonderfully high/low—conceptually brilliant, yet down-and-dirty in its storefront execution. (Footage of the clerks interacting with shoppers was as broadly entertaining as it gets.) The campaign, which multiple gold Clios, was many things—a PR idea, a commerce idea, an experiential idea, a video idea—but it all gelled into one of the year's most delightful productions.
Agency: Giant Spoon
We've seen plenty of case-study videos over the years, but this was the first to include a press testimonial describing the work as "an incredible mindfuck." And so it was. Building a large-scale replica of HBO's Westworld park for SXSW—without a single HBO logo on it—was an audacious idea. And the execution was just as brilliant—inventive, playful and amazingly detailed, with a largely vistor-led narrative worthy of the show itself. "The whole thing was meant to be livestreamed and Instagrammed. It was a 'You had to be there' moment," Steven Cardwell of HBO later told Muse of the campaign. Indeed, the Grand winner at Clio Entertainment was the FOMO-fueled experiential masterpiece of the year.
Lacoste, "Save Our Species"
The clothing company caused a stir in February by replacing its iconic crocodile with 10 endangered species on limited-edition polo shirts unveiled during Lacoste's runway show at Paris Fashion Week. It was the first time in 85 years that the croc had stepped aside. And while only relatively few shirts were made, the awareness of the project was enormous. "The crocodile is one of the 10 most famous logos in the world. ... This is why we suggested Lacoste turn this icon into a megaphone, drawing public attention to threatened animals in the wild," BETC executive creative director Antoine Choque told Muse of the double gold winner in Clio Fashion & Beauty. "Save Our Species" was one of several fashion campaigns this year that involved new manufacturing at the company—a welcome sign of creatively expansive thinking.
MGM Resorts, "Universal Love"
Agency: McCann New York
Musicians including Bob Dylan, Kesha, Ben Gibbard, St. Vincent, Kele Okereke and Valerie June rerecorded classic tunes as same-sex love songs—by changing the gender of the pronouns in the lyrics—in this inventive, heartwarming campaign by McCann. Plenty of brands embrace the LGBTQ community in meaningful ways, but this work was very special in its inspired idea and professional execution. Creativity infused with purpose—this gold winner at the Clio Awards and Clio Music was a truly modern work of art.
Minecraft, "Coral Crafters"
Agency: 215 McCann
One of the most inventive ideas in gaming this year, this campaign for Minecraft's Update Aquatic—which brought more sea life to the game—involved partnering with Minecraft influencers to design in-game artificial coral reefs that were then built for real and dropped into the oceans off Mexico. The initiative included a special Aquatic Skin pack and a $100,000 challenge to players to place 10 million coral blocks underwater in the game—both benefitting The Nature Conservancy. "Coral Crafters," a Grand winner in gaming at Clio Entertainment, was as creatively playful as purpose-driven work gets.
You can count the success stories in film-length branded entertainment on one hand, but Montefiore's Corazón was a true standout. New York agency JohnXHannes assembled an all-star team of talent—director John Hillcoat, cinematographer Bradford Young, actors Demian Bichir and Ana de Armas, and others—to create a 48-minute film that stands up as a compelling piece of art, while also promoting Montefiore and recruiting organ donors. The gritty, believable story about a sex worker in need of a heart transplant premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, and had a clever digital tie-in that made it easy for moviegoers to become donors. Corazón was remarkable piece of healthcare marketing, a Grand winner at both the Clio Awards and Clio Health, and a big step forward for branded entertainment.
Palau Legacy Project, "Palau Pledge"
This was one of 2018's big award winners worldwide (including two Grand Clios), and for good reason. The Palau Pledge is a passport immigration stamp reimagined as an environmental oath. Visitors to the Micronesian archipelago must sign the stamp—a legal promise, dedicated to Palau's children, to act in an environmentally responsibly way during their visit—to gain admittance. Those who break the pledge can be fined up to $1 million. An incredible media hack as well as an impressive innovation (Palau is the first country to incorporate environmental practices into its immigration laws), the Palau Pledge is one of the most creative and compelling tourism campaigns ever.
Philadelphia Flyers, "Gritty"
Agency: FlyLand Designs
This NHL team mascot was so new and different—so weird—that its creators fully expected a strongly negative reaction from fans at his introduction. And they got it, but only for about 24 hours. Soon enough, largely thanks to this one tweet, fans embraced the monster with the bizarre visage and elevated him to folk hero, meme-buster and unparalleled conqueror of the internet. In the business of sports, where the stakes are high and unconventional thinking isn't always rewarded, Gritty stands out as a paragon of creativity—a postmodern character whose time has come.
Reese's, "Candy Converter"
Vending machine stunts are very 2012, but this one felt fresh anyway, thanks to its clever real-world execution of a couple of solid insights—that kids love trading candy at Halloween, and that every other candy pales in comparison to Reese's. The Reese's Candy Converter accepted your unappetizing candy as payment for some sweet Reese's. Putting itself at the core of a cultural truth, Reese's easily won Halloween (aka, the Super Bowl of candy)—one of many moves by Anomaly that got the candy brand into the broader conversation this year.
Skittles, "Exclusive the Rainbow"
Agency: DDB Chicago
The most notable hacking of Super Bowl advertising since Newcastle's "If We Made It" was based around an oddball premise indeed: to make a commercial that only one person would ever see. To its credit, Skittles, an oddball advertiser if ever there was one, leaned into the shenanigans. There were traditional overlays to the campaign (teasers, a celebrity component, fan engagement), but the core of it—watching someone you don't know watch an ad you can't see—was just crazy enough to work. The Grand winner in Digital/Mobile at the Clio Awards this year, the work earned the brand a ton of media at the busiest time of year for ads, and was widely praised in the industry for a spirit of craziness so often missing from today's data-driven advertising.
Sonos, "Nasdaq Bell"
Agencies: Edelman, Anomaly
When Sonos went public on Aug. 2 and started trading on the Nasdaq, it did so with an irresistible creative flourish. The sound technology company marked the occasion by creating a new sound for the Nasdaq bell, comprised of more than 100 different individual sounds.
The idea came from Sonos, and was executed by Edelman and Anomaly, with input from Nasdaq. It was a great "Show, don't tell" moment that embodied the spirit of the modern audio company in an unexpected way.
Spotify, "David Bowie Is Here"
Spotify turned New York's Broadway-Lafayette subway station into an extension of the Brooklyn Museum's "David Bowie is" exhibition, with wall-sized images of Bowie-inspired art, from fan-made pieces to works on display in the exhibition itself. Codes on the art led viewers to the Spotify app, where they could explore the late singer's music in depth. There were even Bowie Metrocards. A gold winner in Clio Music, the effort showed Spotify at its best—bringing artist and fan together in a galvanizing and unexpected way.
Tesla, "Live Views of Starman"
Elon Musk's year went south pretty quickly, but not before he pulled off this remarkable stunt in February, which saw a Tesla Roadster piggyback on the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket. SpaceX livestreamed footage from the orbiting Roadster, and its stargazing Starman mannequin, for about four hours. (The car was blasting David Bowie's "Space Oddity" as it traveled through the solar system, according to Musk.) Say what you will about the stunt and its creator—this was an epic product shot unmatched in the history of car advertising.
Agency: Droga5 London
A performance, dance and sculpture piece featuring Solange Knowles, choreographed to capture the beauty of everyday human movement—that's about as far from a traditional clothing ad as you can get. This beautiful work from Uniqlo and Droga5 London premiered at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles in April. It was commissioned by Uniqlo as part of its "Art and Science LifeWear" collection, and featured clothes from the series. For a retailer obsessed with art, this was one of the more fascinating experiments it's ever done.
Wendy's has developed an enviably witty and sharp-tongued social media voice, and it led—circuitously—to one of the most creative projects of the year outside of social. After engaging in an impromptu rap battle on Twitter with chicken-wing chain Wingstop, Wendy's decided to take things further—releasing a five-track EP mixtape to the delight of hip-hop fans everywhere. The result? Over 800 million earned impressions in just the first 10 days, from more than 215 media placements. Oh, and a Grand Clio in Clio Music. Mic dropped.