Creative Ideas That Worked in 2018, From The New York Times to Nike

Top execs pick their favorite work of the year

We invited some top execs in the business to tell us their favorite creative ideas of 2018. They were allowed to pick one idea from their own company, and one idea from outside their company. 

See the full series at "Ideas That Worked."

Julianna CobbJuliana Cobb

Group creative director, Droga5

The two campaigns that stand out for me from 2018 both feed into a common theme: work that makes us remember the bigger, collective humanity we're a part of. 

Our idea that worked
The New York Times, "The Truth Is Hard"

Despite all odds, 2018 was even darker than 2017 from a political and sociological standpoint. Culture in America seemed to be crumbling wherever you looked. No one seemed to adhere to the same standards. No one could agree on anything, not even the truth. There were spittle-filled cries of "fake news" and "alternative facts" clogging partisan news feeds. And Twitter? A dark place. Don't go there.

What people needed more than anything was something real to believe in. Not spin. Not vitriol. Not subjective opinions. But facts. Objectivity. The hard work of uncovering what's really happening out in the world, from all angles. 

The New York Times "The Truth Is Hard" campaign from Droga5 kept its finger on the pulse of the cultural and political conversations, using razor-sharp precision with zero fluff to bring home just how important it is to have institutions and teams of people dedicated to bringing you that truth. 

So now, new "The Truth Is Worth It" ads are carrying on the campaign with equally powerful work that, in my mind, serves as a much-needed antidote to claims of fake news by showing the great and legitimate lengths that journalists go to in order bring us the truth. 

The Truth Is Worth It | Perseverance | Extended

The films take us inside the process, using existing footage and incredible sound design that combines audio clips of interviews with the sounds of the environments the journalists are in to create a sense of the rigor and perseverance it takes to uncover the truth. Dynamic supers carry the evolving narrative, and it gives you chills to arrive at the headline in the final super. 

The work always gets the world talking. But as a subscription-driving campaign, it's not only lifted public opinion of The New York Times, it has helped to drive conversion, too. In fact, the first quarter of 2017, when the campaign originally launched, became The New York Times' best quarter ever for subscriber growth, and in the second quarter, the paper passed 2 million digital-only subscribers, a first for any news organization.

Another idea that worked: Spotify, "Wrapped"

One good sign that this is an idea that works is that we've all started looking forward to the Spotify year-end "Wrapped" campaigns. They successfully navigate the tricky terrain of the data-privacy conversation by using our song preferences to forge a close connection with us—creating work with clever insights that doesn't vilify us; it actually surprises us, makes us laugh or, at the very least, makes us feel like we can relate. 

Spotify, to me, is one of the most culturally relevant brands out there because of how intimate our relationship with it is and how well they engage us. They know us, the sum total of us, like few others do. And therefore, they can reflect us like few others can. And it's weird and wonderful and actually poignant in some instances. 

One of my favorite out-of-home headlines this year showed the battle between two playlist titles. The ad showed how many people had created playlists using one of two titles: "God is a woman" and "God is a man." "God is a woman" had more than 28,000 playlists. "God is a man" had nine. (Bless you, Ariana Grande.) 

Those tiny little windows into our world became so meaningful and profound in funny ways. That's us. Even if I didn't make one of those playlists, I was living in that world where that conversation was playing out. I'm in it with you, you 28,000 "God is a woman" playlist builders. 

The wit of their ads reminds us not to take ourselves too seriously—it reminds us that we're in this thing together, even if "this thing" is just the pulse of a music-streaming service. It lets us feel a bit of the warm and fuzzies about humanity. And the fact that so many other brands have tried—with lesser success—to harness their own data to tell compelling stories is a sign that Spotify has landed something big and meaningful to all of us. 

2018. What a time to be alive. These two ideas, at least, are working to give us the optimism to hear that phrase in a good way.  

Tristan GrahamTristan Graham

Creative director, Goodby Silverstein & Partners

Our idea that worked
Xfinity Mobile, "Data in Dollars"

The brief: communicate the benefits of a cellular network that combines America's largest, most reliable 4G LTE with millions of WiFi hotspots. Using six-second YouTube bumpers. With a small production budget.

OK, so this was hardly a glamorous ask. But the thing is, sometimes briefs like this are where the best opportunities lie. In this case, the creative team we were working with, Otto Pajunk and Ricardos Matos, did something I really respect. Rather than diving into scripts, they stepped back and interrogated the problem. What they found was a lack of trust—there are so many cellular carriers pushing so many deals that it's all just become more noise for people to tune out.

With "Data in Dollars," the team had found a way to personalize our savings message to each viewer by showing them exactly how much their upcoming YouTube video was about to cost them in cellular data to stream (with their specific cellular network). 

Data in Dollars

The campaign did pretty well for us at Cannes and the Clios, but it also worked its butt off for our client, tripling online searches for Xfinity Mobile during the campaign. 

I attribute this to something our agency talks a lot about—the idea of "mass intimacy." With YouTube's targeting capabilities, advertising can now talk on a more personal level with people than ever before. And when you can show that you understand someone, they tend to listen. And buy your stuff. 

Another idea that worked: Nike, "Dream Crazy"

God, I love this commercial. 

Brett Rolfe, a brilliant strategist, once told me this Peter Drucker quote, which I've repeated biweekly ever since: "Culture eats strategy for breakfast." This spot demonstrates the effectiveness of that philosophy nicely. 

I say spot, but really, it's more of a point of view expressed in two minutes. A point of view that the world was ready to listen to, and talk about, at precisely that moment. 

Nike - Dream Crazy

By celebrating footballer and activist Colin Kaepernick, Muslim female boxer Zeina Nassar, openly queer skater Lacey Baker and other athletes facing discrimination, Nike was telling us, once again, that its products are the ones we should buy not just if we want to go faster or jump farther, but if we want to take on the world. 

I've read that this campaign, although polarizing (sidenote: if people care enough to comment, it's a sign of good work, I'd say), has been incredibly effective for Nike, lifting their online sales by 31 percent. This doesn't surprise me at all. Their cultural strategy has effectively turned every item on into a wearable billboard that reads, "My individual willpower trumps hate." And who wouldn't want their clothes to say that? 

Brett CraigBrett Craig

Chief creative officer, Deutsch Los Angeles

Our idea that worked
Taco Bell, "Web of Fries"

For Deutsch, the "Web of Fries" parody trailer for the launch of Taco Bell's Nacho Fries was one of our best this year. In an age of conspiracy and distrust of institutions, it posited that "Big Burger" was out to suppress Nacho Fries in order to protect their french fry monopoly.

Web of Fries

It worked because it took itself absolutely seriously. We could have cranked up the silly and telegraphed to the audience that it was all a big joke in second 5, but instead, we kept our poker face. Consequently, people got so engrossed that they thought it was quite literally a movie. 

Sometimes an idea like this overshadows the product, but in this case, the product is exactly what people wanted to know more about after viewing the trailer. Nacho Fries went on to become the best-selling product launch in Taco Bell history. 

Another idea that worked: The new Gerber baby

Gerber choosing a child with Down Syndrome as its newest "Gerber baby" was a beautiful affirmation of the value of all people. It demonstrated how a brand's actions can say more than any contrived ad ever could. 

Lately, it seems to be all the rage for corporations to tell the world what they believe, but often the action behind these beliefs is not there. Gerber took action and it communicated the brand's belief better than any virtue-signaling ad ever could. It worked because it's an inarguably beautiful statement and it was inherently PR-able, as evidenced by the massive amount of news coverage it received. 

ScrappersJustin "Scrappers" Morrison

Creative worker, North

Our idea that worked
Columbia Sportswear, "Orca Songs"

In 2018, the universe expanded a little bit further to make room for all the new creative ideas. North nudged the expansion a little bit further with a video project we did with Columbia Sportswear. We took pop icon Kesha kayaking with orca whales and made her cry. 

Yes, the idea was so good that we made Kesha cry! The video also got almost 2 million views, 1,100 likes and 101 comments, including, "This video is everything!!! Columbia chose a beautiful person to do this video. Kesha I love you and who you are and Columbia, I see you. ❤" 

Why did this creative idea work so well? We took a step back from this beloved celebrity, saw what made her such a compelling person aside from her popularity, and dove in deeper to highlight her connection with nature.

Another idea that worked: Mean Jeans, "Jingles Collection"

2018 gave birth to another great creative idea; Portland punk band Mean Jeans released an album titled Jingles Collection of unsolicited ad jingles for brands they love. Lyrics such as, "Camel Lights, Camel Lights, yeah, they do me just right," "Leeet's goooo to Kinkoooos!" and "Best Western is the greatest place on Earth" express this weird world of ad jingles. The songs feel like a Nascar racer looking in the mirror after a tragic high-speed crash inspecting the logos on their burn jumpsuit. It works as pure art mirroring ad life.

Tim Nudd
Tim Nudd was editor in chief of the Clio Awards and editor of Muse by Clio from 2018 to 2023.

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