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To say that 2020 has been disruptive to life and business would be an understatement. In fact, it can be hard at times to remember what happened last month, much less what happened last year.

But, as is often the case, looking back can help us find a way forward. We can find lessons, strategies, and innovations applicable to today. That holds true even during times as uncertain as these, and even in the realm of advertising.

The winners of the annual YouTube Works Awards are a case in point. The work judged and honored this year ran in 2019, but, just as the previous year’s winners delivered timeless lessons for creating work that drives results, the current crop of winners offers approaches that span social purpose, relevancy, and simplicity, which feel especially salient in 2020 and serve as a guide for moving forward.

It doesn’t have to be a risk to be on the right side of history.

Brands help drive broader conversation and causes

From a marketing perspective, figuring out how (or even if) to create messaging in the midst of a pandemic and the anti-racism movement sweeping the world could leave many brands frozen with doubt. But it turns out that 2019 “proved that it doesn’t have to be a risk to be on the right side of history,” according to one of this year’s judges, Steve Carbone, chief digital and investment officer at MediaCom. “Social impact was especially prominent in the judging room,” he said, “and the events that have transpired this year have only helped nudge brands in that direction.”

Three of our seven winners pushed the conversation on important social issues.

The Puerto Rico chapter of Giving Tuesday, for example, partnered with artists to change popular song titles into public service announcements to encourage donations to nonprofits ahead of last year’s Giving Tuesday, the day of giving back around the world. Artists such as Luis Fonsi (“Despacito”) and Bad Bunny (“Callaíta”) raised awareness and money for nonprofits, including the San Jorge Children’s Foundation and Hogar Cuna San Cristóbal. The Giving Songs movement reached over 400 million YouTubers in just one day, making it the most visible digital campaign in the history of Giving Tuesday and helping to raise nearly $400 million globally.

While the Giving Songs campaign sought to raise money, a back-to-school effort from gun control nonprofit Sandy Hook Promise hoped to inspire action. The “Back-to-School Essentials” public service announcement, which featured kids using school supplies to survive a shooting, brought the issue of gun violence to the forefront. The PSA garnered nearly 50,000 signatures to the Sandy Hook Promise, with people committing to protect children from gun violence.

Gillette took home the Force for Good Award by redefining its classic tagline, “The Best a Man Can Get” amid a rise in bullying and sexual harassment. The brand’s film explicitly called out stereotypes and showed the collective responsibility men have to do the right thing. This bold stance generated the most likes of any ad in YouTube history and contributed to a double-digit growth in online sales, according to the company. Beyond the numbers, this film has helped continue the conversation about masculinity in modern society.

Insights fuel the most relevant, authentic work

Among the things we’ve tried to impart to marketers over the past few years is that people want messaging that is relevant to them, and they want brands to be as authentic as possible. The judges this year saw this from a couple of brands that relied on consumer insights to inform and shape their approach.

While Samsung usually shares the same message with everyone for a new launch, the brand opted to take a more personalized approach with the launch of the Note 10. Based on videos trending among three of their most popular consumer segments, Samsung created ads with a distinct message related to what that person was about to watch. Gamers received one message, creatives another, and entrepreneurs a third. This approach earned Samsung the Media Innovation award and, according to the company, led to a 557% lift in consideration as compared to generic creative, showing that a personalized approach resonated with consumers.

Winning the Ingenious Insights award, Hulu’s awareness campaign for its live sports package centered around one key insight: Influencer culture is notoriously seen as fake. Knowing people respond to authenticity, Hulu let its athlete influencers own the fact that they’re getting paid a lot of money to say “Hulu has live sports,” resulting in double year-over-year growth in subscribers who enrolled to watch the NBA.

Simplicity can be powerful

Sometimes simplicity and fun win out. Spirit brand Bacardí won both the Grand Prix and Creative Innovation categories for a campaign that tapped into something right under our noses: the fast-forward feature. The Beat Machine effort, a creative expression of Bacardí’s roots, encouraged people to create their own music mix using the keyboard as an editing tool. This made Bacardí the most talked-about spirit brand of the summer of 2019, with 22.1% social share of voice.1

Apple found success with a mixture of inspiration and storytelling to explain something complex. Its award-winning campaign gave people an inside look at how the company captures images for those amazing “Shot on iPhone” spots with a series of experiments. By connecting with people curious about photography and showing the camera’s capabilities, they got more than 6 million organic views.

The next frontier

Informed by new sources of insight, 58% of YouTube Works finalists and 6 of 7 winners used YouTube to explore creative ways of messaging or reaching their audiences. That should be encouraging in the current climate, where nearly all brands are pivoting or evolving their strategies. We are all learning in real-time and getting better at this, together

“The conversation between creative and media agencies should continue to evolve from trading best practices,” said Christine Chen, a YouTube Works judge, as well as partner and head of communications strategy at Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, “to really being about what’s going to inspire us, as a collective team, to build something unique for this unique platform.”

Though a time of immense disruption, the last few months have, in many ways, also been a period of acceleration. After all, the two are highly correlated, both taking us out of our comfort zones and necessitating that we innovate a way forward. Next year’s awards will, without a doubt, feature brands that achieve incredible results through powerful use of the platform, just like this year’s winners, while also standing up and accepting the challenge to continue to push the industry forward..