The Year in Creativity: 20 Trends That Drove Some of 2016’s Best Marketing

The year's best recurring themes, from live ads to clever packaging

Headshot of Tim Nudd

We've chosen the 10 best ads of 2016, led by Droga5's brilliant spot for Under Armour with Michael Phelps. Now, let's look at some of the major creative trends of 2016—the themes, concepts and strategies that invigorated marketers and led to some of the year's most interesting work.

Below are the trends, in no particular order:


Fine Art

Advertising might not be art, but it embraced art like never before in 2016. Some of the most intriguing creative advertising of the year referenced, incorporated and in some cases promoted fine art. Among the notable campaigns: Leo Burnett Chicago's "Van Gogh Bnb," a life-size version of Van Gogh's bedroom, made for the Art Institute of Chicago and rented out on Airbnb; J. Walter Thompson Amsterdam's "The Next Rembrandt," which had a computer study the master's works and make a completely new painting in his style; and Goodby Silverstein & Partners' "Dreams of Dali," a VR experience that took viewers inside one of the surrealist's works.


The Paralympic Games are always a resonant moment to shine a light on disability, and the U.K.'s Channel 4 didn't disappoint, following up its famous 2012 spot about disabled athletes with a sequel, "We're the Superhumans," that was just as powerful. Disability was a focus of much brand marketing, too—from Lego's disabled minifigure to a wonderfully cast Maltesers campaign to Burger King's spot with the King using sign language. Also unforgettable—Grey Australia designing a bike that has the symptoms of MS.

Live Ads

Brands continued to embrace livestreaming in 2016, through products like Facebook Live and Periscope. They also produced some fascinating, more highly designed live commercials. The most impressive was Target and Deutsch's live four-minute music video with Gwen Stefani that aired during the Grammy Awards. Also noteworthy—British grocer Waitrose broadcasting live from its partner farms for an entire week, and making TV spots and print ads from the footage.


The trend toward being more open, honest and self-aware about the act of marketing only grew in 2016. Look no further than one of the year's biggest movies, Deadpool, whose ad campaign was wonderfully meta and hilariously mindful of its own tropes (just as the film was). Other comically transparent ad campaigns included Droga5's Clearasil work (below), which openly admitted its ignorance of the target. Most impressively transparent, though, was The Swedish Number, a tourism campaign that invited anyone in the world to dial a number and have a completely unmediated talk about the country with a random Swede. 


Yes, brands were transparent—except when they weren't. Several remarkable campaigns used elements of deception this year to deliver shockingly memorable surprises. Most notable were the Louise Delage campaign on Instagram for Addict Aide, with the fake French ingenue hiding a disturbing secret; and Sandy Hook Promise's "Evan" PSA, which pretended to be a lighthearted story about young love before taking a troubling left turn. 


It was obviously a huge political year, and lots of the advertising was creatively interesting—whether from ad agencies, brands, rogue creatives, super PACs or the politicians themselves. The two most memorable spots from candidates were the ones below—from Gerald Daugherty and Jason Kander. (Daugherty won his race, while Kander did not.)

Square and Vertical Video

Sorry, 16×9. This was the year when square and vertical video broke through for good, thanks to mobile apps like Instagram and Snapchat. Facebook's vertical video ad format went live this fall, but vertical was even the rage back on the Super Bowl—a vertical spot, Jeep's "Portraits," was the best ad on the game. Meanwhile, Instagram inspired a ton of square creative, and not just video. One of the coolest Instagram campaigns of the year, by Goodby Silverstein & Partners, involved Sonic making square shakes in real life—inspired by Instagram and available for purchase through the app.

@nudd Tim Nudd is a former creative editor of Adweek.