The Annual offers us an opportunity to look back at a year of creative excellence in advertising, design, digital, music, and more. And what a year 2021 was, as Covid-19 continued to play havoc with our lives. No one who has projects featured in the Annual will have been unaffected by the pandemic last year, as the world experienced lockdowns, ever-changing restrictions and rules, and personal tragedies.
And yet, if you didn’t know the world was experiencing a global pandemic in 2021, you might not pick it up from the work featured here. It’s not that the world moved on – despite how much we discuss the ‘new normal’, it’s never really come to fruition in any coherent sense – but that brands and businesses managed to switch to producing work in spite of the pandemic, not because of it.
This means that 2021 saw the return of high production values, as teams found ways to work together around restrictions, and also became more attuned to the challenges (and joys) of remote working. While the world lurched onwards through the ongoing crisis, brands still needed new identities and incredible marketing campaigns, and audiences still wanted to be entertained and to shop, so creatives and designers kept on bringing the goods.
The showcase of Winners and Honourable Mentions offers a chance for you to have a look through some of the most powerful, inspiring and surprising work created in 2021. But before you get started with that, let’s examine what these projects might reveal about the state of the commercial creative industries today, and where we might be heading.
THE CREATIVE POWER OF ACTIVISM
Advertising creatives have long known that work made for charities, which is often done pro bono, offers a rich source of creative opportunity, plus that all-too-elusive chance – in the world of advertising and marketing at least – to feel that your work is doing some good in the world.
As a result, the charity sector has historically produced work that is ground-breaking, challenging, and excellent fodder for awards shows. Today is no different, with two of the nine pieces of winning work in this Annual produced for charitable organisations. Increasingly, this work now takes an activist approach, with a focus on both making money for a specific cause and raising awareness of social issues.
Engine’s Long Live the Prince campaign, for example, saw the ad agency partner with the Kiyan Prince Foundation (set up in the wake of the fatal stabbing of Prince in London when he was 15) and FIFA to create a truly unusual take on raising awareness of the impact of knife crime on people’s lives. Instead of focusing on the details of Prince’s murder, the campaign looked at the person he might have become, had his life not been cut short.
Prince was a youth player for Queens Park Rangers football club, and Engine’s campaign imagined him making it as an adult player – with his adult likeness joining the QPR squad on FIFA for a period of time, and appearing on a Match Attax card. The incredibly sensitive campaign was years in the making, though its results spoke directly to the audience that is most likely to be affected by knife crime, instead of talking past them to parents or carers, which is all too often the case.
Another winning piece of work, Greenpeace’s Wasteminster animation, addressed our damaging relationship with single-use plastic in a wide sense, but it also explored a more nitty-gritty political issue: how the UK government is managing our plastic waste. The stop-motion animation produced by the charity was funny but savage, with the figure of prime minister Boris Johnson ultimately drowned in the discarded plastic he is trying to offload to other countries.
With the rise in purpose marketing, such activist approaches are no longer solely the domain of charities either. This Annual contains work for global brands as varied as Canesten, H&M and Vogue that is rooted in raising awareness of social causes. Plus, in the creative effectiveness section, a project for Cadbury from 2019–2020 demonstrates how purpose approaches can result in business success too. The Donate Your Words campaign saw Cadbury’s Dairy Milk turn the tide on sales decline while at the same time raising £300,000 for Age UK, the leading charity for older people.
Purpose marketing can often come in for a bashing from critics (not least CR), and while it can certainly involve ideas that are overly short-term or experimental, and at times are active attempts at ‘purpose-washing’, there is increasing evidence that when done in earnest, customers will embrace it.
DESIGN AND THE OLYMPICS
As well as sports, the Olympics has had a long relationship with design and art projects, and when the long-awaited Tokyo 2020 Olympics and Paralympics took place last summer (after being postponed because of the pandemic), we saw some powerful, smart and unusual pieces of marketing arrive with them.
Channel 4 once again showed its prowess in promoting its Paralympics coverage, with a campaign that took its previous ‘Superhumans’ work in a thoughtful and unexpected new direction. Meanwhile, the BBC’s Olympics coverage was heralded by an intricate ident that has won a deserved top award in the craft section of this year’s Annual. The highly detailed campaign, created by Nexus Studios, features a homage to Tokyo and Japanese culture.
Also awarded this year is a public art project by Jason Bruges Studio, which was displayed in Tokyo throughout the Olympics and Paralympics. The artwork featured robots creating sand art drawings in response to sporting moments in the event, and proved that technology-based artworks can be more moving and surprising than we might have thought.
DIGITAL’S IMPACT ON BRANDING
It seems slightly surprising to say in 2022, a good two decades after the internet entered the mainstream, that there are still brands today that are only now starting to get their digital ducks in a row. The pandemic shone a harsh light on the brands that were not digital-ready when it arrived, and we are still seeing a wide number of businesses that are finally adapting their branding to be more successful on apps and smaller screens.
This year saw Visa launch a rebrand that refined its appearance considerably, while the influence of Instagram and other social channels could be seen in branding projects for new organisations including Squirrels, an offshoot of Scouts aimed at younger children, which launched with beautiful imagery designed for social. We also saw a continuing digital pivot for brands, including the unlikely arrival of Toblerone in the D2C arena, with the brand launching a bright, fun website where customers could gift their friends chocolate after airport closures in the pandemic severely curtailed its sales.
EXPANDING DIGITAL WORLD
While there has been much chatter in the past year about new digital endeavours such as the metaverse and NFTs, there is still little evidence of how this will play out in real terms. Perhaps we may begin to see some projects in these new horizons filtering into the Annual in time for its 20th birthday next year – certainly brands are dabbling with NFTs already. Or maybe it will take longer for coherent, thoughtful projects to come to the fore, who can say for sure?
For many, talk of the metaverse has felt a bit like a rerun of all the chatter around VR, AR and virtual spaces such as Second Life, which felt like all talk and very little action for an awfully long time. This can easily bring out cynicism, yet this year’s Annual shows just how far VR has come in recent years, with magical projects bringing new dimensions to art exhibitions, while gaming companies like Epic Games and Roblox continue to point the way to how the ‘multiverse’ might actually play out in the future. With as much excitement as scepticism emerging around Web 3.0, there is clearly much to play for.
DON’T GIVE UP ON PRINT
Despite all this talk of new digital universes, however, one surprising aspect of this year’s Annual winners is the ongoing resurgence of print projects. The success of stationery business Papier, a winner for its beautiful brand identity by Ragged Edge, demonstrates that for all our addiction to smartphones and WhatsApp, our love of paper endures.
This year saw interesting developments in magazines too, with the arrival of Inque, a new yearly title devoid of ads, and designed with print, not digital, at its heart. And over in books, winning works – from Paul McCartney’s The Lyrics to Virgil Abloh’s Icons – show how our fears for the demise of the publishing industry a few years ago were ill-founded.
Screens may dominate our lives and bring an array of wonderful, immersive experiences, but when it comes to storytelling, sometimes the best vehicle is still a (beautifully designed, natch) book.