Creative leaders dish on the year’s most groundbreaking OOH work

The work that stood out this past year was current, purposeful and hyperlocal.

Despite spending most of our time indoors this year, out of home remained one of the most compelling mediums for brand storytelling. 

As the world faced a global pandemic and a national reckoning over racial injustice, advertisers took to the industry’s biggest canvas to tell stories of relevance, purpose and local flavor to connect with consumers with authenticity and grace.

That’s the consensus of top creatives who sat on the judging panel for the Out of Home Advertising Association of America's (OAAA) OBIE Awards this year, which honors groundbreaking creative work in the out of home space. Winners will be announced on May 24.

“We had an appreciation for what outdoor is, because we've all been inside,” said Tiffany Rolfe, global chief creative officer at R/GA and OAAA OBIE jury chair. “There's a shared conversation we haven't been able to participate in. All of us were a bit nostalgic for that.”

The judges sat down with Campaign US to discuss what stood out to them from this year’s submissions, with four key takeaways.

1. Current event stole the show

In a year unlike any other, work that stood out responded directly to current events. 

“The work re-lived 2020 in the most profound and impactful way,” said Jim Wilson, CEO of Talon North America. “It spoke to what we experienced as a country, or as individual communities.” 

Work spoke directly to essential workers, commemorated significant cultural moments and made tributes to the lives lost in 2020. But brands that did it best had something authentic to say that was relevant to their business. 

Google’s 2020 Black History Month campaign stood out, for example, by using search data to show that across categories ranging from art, to music, to sports, that Google users were most often searching for famous Black Americans.

“The work was actually using data to say that Black Lives Matter,” said Kevin Grady, EVP head of design at FCB. “It's such a powerful statement from a brand who is in the business of allowing searches to happen.”

Other brands used out of home to encourage voting in the 2020 election. Reddit, for example, encouraged its community to get out and vote rather than sit home on Reddit and upvote.

Brands focused less long-term brand building ideas in favor of saying something relevant, said Jonathan Mildenhall, co-founder and chair of TwentyFirstCenturyBrand.

“Everything was newsworthy, topical and current,” he said. “It really was like an outdoor archive of what 2020 represented.” 

It’s a trend that’s likely to set the tone for branding in the future. 

“I don't know that we'll ever go back to having brands live in a parallel universe to culture,” R/GA’s Rolfe said. 

2. Purpose packed a punch

This year’s creative crop had a heavy dose of purpose. That meant less shilling and more empathizing.

“The idea of crass consumerism not being in the best taste was pretty consistent,” artist Shepard Fairey said. “I think moving people was a higher priority than moving units. Good will matters when we're resilient and people start shopping again.” 

This stood out most in the work’s celebration of the Black community. According to Leslie Wingo, president and CEO at Sanders & Wingo, stories of Black America were “real, honest and not one-dimensional” for the first time.

“There were beautiful layers in how those stories were told,” she said. “I hope it is because we're hearing and seeing different voices and stories.”

Again, Google’s work, created prior to COVID-19 or the muder of George Floyd, stood out, because it wasn’t simply a reaction to what was going on in society. “It’s very pure, positive and optimistic in its treatment of the cultural contribution of the Black community,” Mildenhall said.

Of course, purposeful messages must be backed up with action — or consumers will see right through them. 

“Brands have figured out that people will judge whether they have a slash-and-burn, exploitative approach, or whether they're more of an incubator, sponsor and ally,” Fairey said. “That's part of the evolution of culture.”

3. OOH as a jumping off point

OOH used to be about getting the point across in three seconds or less. But much of this year’s best OOH work felt like the start of a larger story. 

“A lot of the work was like the start of a conversation,” Rolfe said. “It sat with you, and you wanted to search and find out more, rather than fully taking away the message in that moment.”

Out of home is adapting to the fact that people experience brands across multiple touch points. One example: a hand-painted mural in Brooklyn, depicting the events of 2020, that includes a QR code allowing people to register to vote or donate to communities in need. 

“That full equation of hand-painted art, current events and using QR codes for audience participation was really robust,” Fairey said.

4. Local took on new meaning

In 2020, as people navigated COVID-19 restrictions and regulations specific to their neighborhoods, local took on new significance. 

Out of home is a relevant way to speak to local communities, and the work that stood out this year was no exception. One example was a campaign by Cheetos, that enlisted a local paint shop in Brooklyn to create paint for a mural using Cheeto dust.

“Outdoor can be part of the community and talk to the community,” Wingo said. “When you put that secret sauce of something only the locals will get [in the messaging], that's where outdoor shines.”

Hyperlocal marketing, especially in out of home, will likely remain a trend long after the pandemic, as brand communications and experiences become more personalized.

“Historically, work has been personally relevant and culturally relevant,” Mildenhall said. “Now brands have to ask, is it also community relevant?”

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