The past year has taught us a lot about what really matters, and the same goes for advertising. As productions were canceled or pushed back, agencies around the world were forced to take a second look at the brief and come up with something they could create with resources at-hand. What they came away with was the fact that you don’t need a massive production to tell a compelling story. You need a message and a creative way to deliver it.

Enter production-free ads. This genre has been around for years, but 2020 kicked it into high gear because it was the only option many creatives had. So, like many of us, they took lemons and made lemonade. And inspiration. And awards. And change. Creatives used archival footage, licensed footage, and animation to create massively effective spots with little-to-no in-person shoots.

We’ve picked out a few to prove just how powerful this strategy can be.

1. Nike | Never Too Far Down

Nike’s recent campaigns have been the epitome of working smarter, not harder. No matter how fun it may be to put together big shoots with actors, sets, and effects, Nike is sitting on one of the most valuable creative resources of all—archival footage. Their brand has been ubiquitous in sports for decades, which means they have all of the drama, perseverance, hardship, and inspiration they could ever want. In “Never Too Far Down” they lean into it, proving that no amount of production can make up for the emotion packed into these iconic moments.

2. Chipotle | The Scarecrow

Sometimes a production-free approach can provide even more creative opportunities. In Chipotle’s animated spots, like “Back to the Start” and “A Love Story,” they used this as an opportunity to make fanciful, yet highly emotional narratives that never would’ve been possible in-camera or on-set. We think “The Scarecrow” may be the best example of these spots, building a sad and terrifying future and sprinkling it with a glimmer of hope. It’s a brilliantly constructed narrative with everything you could ask for in a story and more—even the incredible cover of “Pure Imagination” by Fiona Apple has a story arc.

3. Grammarly | Find the Words

Stink Studios had a great production-free solution for their Grammarly Find the Words campaign. As a brand with a digital product, they came with a digital idea, overlapping animations, and building an entire campaign out of footage from Filmsupply. It’s the basic principle of working smarter, not harder, and it was only possible because they had access to authentic footage and consistent talent across scenes from Filmsupply’s platform. In each, they show the value and relatability of their product while leveraging footage licensing to pull off the look of a full production. It works, and that’s what matters.

4. Airbnb | Made possible by Hosts

This production-free approach to advertising is one of the simplest forms of storytelling: photo slideshows. In their series “Made possible by Hosts”Airbnb invited photographers to take trips with their family and friends, shoot photos of their stay, and send the photos back to the brand. They then edited the photos together with familiar songs, communicating the unique experiences Airbnb provides, while beautifully capturing the emotion of traveling with the ones you love. Beyond the text added to the piece, the entire commercial is generated by Airbnb’s users. It’s a great reminder to lean into your brand’s strength and focus on your customer’s value.

5. CVS Health | …CVS Health is Ready

Watching this spot from CVS, it may seem like a traditional message from a traditional brand. But, beneath the surface, they’re breaking one of the foundational rules of marketing—speak to your audience. Instead, they decided to leverage their own employees and speak directly to them. It works on a few levels, by showing that the brand cares about their own people and also showing that they’re preparing for an end to the pandemic. Also, they didn’t need to go outside of their company to film this spot. They could use licensed footage from Filmsupply, their own footage, their own people (in branded masks, of course), and their own mission to craft a message that relates to everyone—efficient and subtly creative all at once.

In the changing landscape of advertising, spots like these prove how difficult it can be to create compelling ad campaigns. But, they also prove the value of authenticity and relatability. Those are two things that you just can’t fake or mimic, and if you’re working with the right kind of brands, you can use those values to your advantage. In the future, we’ll surely be seeing more of these ads and that means there’s going to be less and less for brands to hide behind. When you take away all of the bells and whistles from production, what’s left? All you have are your creative ideas and brand values, and maybe that’s all you really need.

Read about more brilliant ad work and six unique approaches to branded content.

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