Best TV Spots of the Decade? Not in Terms of ROI

By Biff Burns, Senior Director, Corporate Direct Response, Mercury Media Boston

I just finished looking at Ad Age’s “Best TV Spots of the Decade.”  And although it can be debated endlessly, they were extremely well done, grabbed attention, held it, and even gave me a more solid emotional attachment to the brands they promoted (I love Skittles and there they were!).  But none of them sold me anything and it made me think about one of the cornerstones of advertising: support and sell products for the companies that are doing and buying the advertising.

I can’t help but wonder if the CMOs at all of the featured companies have been at their respective companies for the past decade.  How can any CMO possibly tie the time, effort and money spent to create and buy the media for those spots to actual, honest-to-God ROI?   In these hyper-competitive times, not “asking for the order” after all that time, effort and money spent seems less and less relevant.

I can’t wait to see Ad Age’s “Top 10 Direct Response Commercials” of the decade.  It must be being published soon.  CEOs will be demanding it!

Book of Tens: Best TV Spots of the Decade

The Staff of Creativity Unveils Its Favorites
Published: December 11, 2009

Sure, the future is here and it’s all about integration and digital and social media and yadda yadda yadda. But we still have a soft spot for the traditional spot. Here is Creativity’s best of the decade.

Cadbury “Gorilla”
Agency: Fallon, London
Director: Juan Cabral

No swirling fabrics, no dreamy ladies, no satisfied young snackers, no … chocolate. “Gorilla” didn’t contain the same ingredients as many chocolate ads before it. Instead, it contained a grape purple backdrop, a gorilla, a set of drums and a few key moments from a monster ’80s track. When it debuted in 2007, “Gorilla” engendered a fierce debate amongst industry types about what exactly has become of advertising. To fans — and fans were many: The ad has been viewed more than 4 million times on YouTube, inspired a host of tributes and captured the Film Grand Prix at Cannes — it was an exemplar of the new branded storytelling. Detractors, of course, asked what any of it had to do with chocolate. Fallon’s Juan Cabral (author of Sony “Balls”), who wrote and directed the spot, answers the question “Why?” simply: “It kind of makes sense to be honest. It’s a very powerful drum solo. So a gorilla has to play it.”

Sony Bravia “Balls”
Agency: Fallon, London
Director: Nicolai Fuglsig, MJZ

A bunch of colorful balls bouncing through the streets of San Francisco. Like Fallon London’s other big spot of the oughties, the genius of “Balls” was hard to convey on paper. But in the hands of director Nicolai Fuglsig, the idea resulted in two and a half minutes that could only be called art. Mr. Fuglsig, a former war photographer from Denmark, is known for his attention to detail — he regularly makes physical models of his sets before shooting — and he knew going into “Balls” that he would be conjuring the ball bonanza 100% in camera. Mr. Fuglsig marshaled 12 air-powered mortars to fire 250,000 balls into the air, adding tiny touches like a frog jumping out of the way of balls dropping through a drainpipe, and setting the artful imagery to a Jose Gonzalez cover the The Knife’s “Heartbeats.” The ad was by far the best ad of 2006 and one of the best of the decade.

Skittles “Touch”
Agency: TBWA/Chiat/Day, New York
Director: Tom Kuntz, MJZ

Singling out one of the Skittles spots produced under Gerry Graf’s reign at TBWA/Chiat/Day, New York, is sort of silly. It’s like, well, no, it is choosing between a candy-eating beard, a physically and emotionally wounded papier mache office worker and a singing rabbit (the agency’s dancing lad for Starburst probably belongs on this list too). All the Skittles work created by Mr. Graf, executive creative director, Group Creative Directors Ian Reichenthal and Scott Vitrone, and the creative team of Eric Kallman and Craig Allen deserves (and got) praise for reinvigorating the once mighty ad form called the TV spot. If Skittles work pre-2004 was all candy deluges and magic realism, Mr. Graf’s work was more grounded in everyday reality. A hilariously weird, sometimes troubling version of everyday reality. In 2007, “Touch” added a touch of melancholy to the hilarity with Tim, a video-store employee with a candy version of King Midas disease. Like all the Skittles spots, it proved that you could put the product front and center and still create something striking, entertaining and effective.

Nike “Move”
Agency: Wieden & Kennedy, Portland, Ore.
Director: Jake Scott, RSA

Nike has been setting new standards for spots since 1982 and a new century brought a new string of classics. Nike and Wieden kicked off the new millennium with one of its best efforts ever — the wry “Morning After,” directed by Spike Jonze, which showed us a man sticking with his morning run against a backdrop of every paranoid Y2K nightmare come true (the spot technically broke at the end of ’99). Among the many other ’00s highlights are “Tag,” the 2002 Cannes Film Grand Prix winner directed by Frank Budgen, and, more recently, David Fincher’s stunning “Fate.” “Move,” released ahead of the 2002 Olympics, is essentially a series of intimate athletic moments woven together against a piano and strings track. It sounds simple — and it is. But the agency’s creative rigor, Jake Scott’s direction, Adam Pertofsky’s editing finesse and a truly stirring original track from Elias made “Move” one of the more unforgettable embodiments of the Nike ethic.

Apple iPod “Hip Hop”

Agency: TBWA, Los Angeles
Director: Dave Meyers,

The dancing silhouettes are what most people think of when they think of iPod advertising. But the very first iPod commercial looked very different. It showed some dude grooving in his apartment and transferring a track to a futuristic looking white device. Not an embarrassing effort, certainly. But … this was the iPod, one of the most ground-breaking, industry-shattering gadgets of this or maybe any decade, the product of Apple’s legendary design ethic. In 2003, TBWA regrouped and created a series of spots based on a print and outdoor campaign. The spots depicted black silhouetted figures busting a move against vibrant backgrounds, with the only visible detail the bright white device and ear buds of the iPod. Music video director Dave Meyers translated the concept with style, using, in this case, “Hey Mama” from the (then good) Black Eyed Peas to drive the visuals. The white buds became epochal and the campaign one of the most recognizable — and parodied — of the ’00s.

Got Milk? “Birthday”
Agency: Goodby Silverstein & Partners, San Francisco
Director: Noam Murro, Biscuit Filmworks

Like a few other advertisers on this list, the California Milk Processors Board had an almost crushing creative legacy to live up to when it entered the ’00s. “Got Milk?” was created by Goodby in 1993 and the campaign birthed one of the most famous American commercials of modern times, the Michael Bay-directed “Aaron Burr.” The “Got Milk” theme was adopted nationally in 1998 and spawned hundreds of print ads featuring mustachioed celebrities. In 2003, Goodby did “Aaron Burr” and the mustache proud with a tale of a creepy clairvoyant kid and dark events at a birthday party. Director Noam Murro delivers a lush and genuinely eerie cinematic experience, channels ’70s horror classics such as “The Omen” and coaxes a brilliant performance from the kid and his father. Goodby has gone on to further “Milk” triumphs in the digital space, but “Birthday” stands as a testament to the agency’s legendary zeal for advertising craft.

Honda “Grrr”
Agency: Wieden & Kennedy, London
Director: Smith and Foulkes, Nexus Productions

Can hate be good? Can hate be great? What an absolutely nutty thing to be asking in a commercial. And yet the provocative question formed the basis for one of the freshest spots of the ’00s and surely one of the most memorable ads ever for a diesel engine. Legend has it that Honda engineer Kenichi Nagahiro hated the noise and dirt associated with diesel technology and insisted on starting from scratch for Honda’s eventual entry into the category. The idea of hatred as a creative motivator was translated by the team of Sean Thompson, Michael Russoff and Richard Russell, under the direction of Executive Creative Directors Tony Davidson and Kim Papworth, into a catchy tune. The lyrics were sung and spoken by Garrison Keillor in a sweet animated spot full of woodland creatures and flying diesels. The spot, which won the Cannes Grand Prix in 2004, was part of Wieden’s “Power of Dreams” campaign for Honda, which included another decade-defining spot, “Cog.”

Coca-Cola “Happiness Factory”
Agency: Wieden & Kennedy, Amsterdam
Director: Psyop

Released in 2006, “Happiness Factory” marked the return to form of one of America’s iconic, but creatively lapsed and internally struggling brands. After seemingly losing its way on the ad front for several years, Coke dug deep and, in 2005, sought a creative partnership with Wieden & Kennedy, in Portland and Amsterdam. The “Coke Side of Life” campaign from Portland yielded such gems as the Cannes Gold Lion-winning “Videogame” and the superb 2008 Super Bowl entry “It’s Mine.” In Amsterdam, meanwhile, “Happiness Factory” grew out of the “Happiness in a Bottle” theme that the agency had been working on. The agency partnered with animation wizards Psyop to bring to life a magical world inside a Coke vending machine. The ad went on to inspire a suite of “Happiness Factory” projects, including a charming behind-the-scenes film that featured interviews with animated versions of real Coke employees.

Fox Sports “China”
Agency: Cliff Freeman & Partners
Director: Traktor

“China” was part of a series of spots from Cliff Freeman & Partners promoting Fox Sports’ regional coverage. Creative director Eric Silver teamed up with Traktor to create depictions of ostensible sporting events from around the world. In “China,” we see the ages-old tradition of tree cathing; in “India,” we are witness to the solemn sport of blind clubbing; “Turkey” brings us professional dirt diving. The grainy footage and deadpan style made these absurd activities seem perfectly real, all the better to deliver the underlying message, that no matter what your arcane athletic interest, Fox Sports is on it. The campaign earned the Cannes Film Grand Prix in 2001 and was a classic example of the dear departed agency’s oeuvre.

E-Trade “Monkey”
Agency: Goodby Silverstein & Partners
Director: Bryan Buckley

One of many Gerry Graf/Bryan Buckley collaborations, “Monkey” is perhaps the ultimate spot symbolic of the go-go dot-com days. We could go on, but instead we’ll turn it over to Mr. Graf: “Here’s my favorite story about shooting the monkey: The day of the shoot … Bryan goes up to the monkey trainer and says, ‘In one take, I want the monkey to come out of the car, shut the car door, run up the sidewalk, jump over the boombox, turn around, bend down, turn the boombox on, climb up on top of the trash can, start clapping, and when I say ‘Cut,’ have the monkey stop clapping.’ The trainer is like, ‘OK, give me 45 minutes.’ Then Bryan goes to the two actors and says, ‘All you have to do is, when the music turns on, start clapping, when the music turns off, stop clapping.’ So the trainer is ready. OK, action. So the monkey jumps out of the car, shuts the door, runs up the driveway, jumps over the thing, turns it on, jumps on the trash can, starts clapping, Bryan yells ‘Cut’ and he stops clapping. And the two fucking guys are still clapping.”

William F. “Biff” Burns, Jr. is Senior Director, Corporate Direct Response for Mercury Media.  Prior to joining the agency, Burns served as VP of Marketing at ContextWeb, Inc., a contextual media and technology company based in New York, where he helped to launch the ADSDAQ Exchange, the largest private contextual ad exchange in the marketplace.  Burns also served as VP of Marketing for Burst Media, one of the first internet advertising networks, where he helped the company go public on the London Stock Exchange and developed three specific business units:  Burst Network, Burst Direct and Burst Ad Conductor.

Contact him at


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