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Advertiser of the Year 2013: Unilever

After Procter & Gamble celebrated gold medals in 2012, its arch-rival Unilever hauled in the gold Lions in 2013, going a long way to becoming a sustainable and - dare we say - sexy company.

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If 2012 was the Olympic party, then 2013 was the hangover. Brands were entitled to feel a little woozy after the excitement of the night before, but this wasn’t the case for Unilever.

As the Olympic sponsors – including Unilever’s arch-rival, Procter & Gamble – took a breath after a year in overdrive, the company upped its game with work that was brave, socially responsible and sometimes quite edgy. The owner of Marmite, Persil, PG Tips, Lynx and Dove made these brands seem more relevant and attractive than ever before. The new corporate ethos of "more magic, less logic" in its ads truly took hold.

Unilever took its always excellent Lynx work to new heights – quite literally – by offering consumers the chance to win a trip to space with the new Apollo deodorant range. The silly but brilliant insight was that "nothing beats an astronaut". Astronaut trumps fireman, and astronaut trumps lifeguard. This truth was acknowledged in a series of hilarious ads from Bartle Bogle Hegarty that showed girls being rescued from various dangerous scenarios, before dumping their saviours for a spaceman. Buzz Aldrin lent gravitas by appearing in a film promoting Lynx’s space school.

At the heart of Unilever’s marketing is Marc Mathieu, its senior vice-president of marketing, who arrived in 2011 to lead a step-change in the brand’s activities under the chief marketing and communications officer, Keith Weed. Mathieu is a believer in the democratisation of marketing through social media, appreciating that consumers are stepping into the "sacred space" of marketers. This probably explains Unilever’s focus on "real" people in its communications – indeed, several of its top campaigns hinged on filming what appeared to be real-time reactions to a brand message.

Dove shone this year with the "real beauty sketches" campaign by Ogilvy São Paulo. The cosmetics brand reinvigorated its masterful "campaign for real beauty" work with the help of an FBI-trained sketch artist. He drew two portraits of women, based on descriptions from the women themselves and a stranger, to contrast someone’s critical self-perception with the beauty that outsiders see. The moving result was this year’s most-shared ad between January and November, according to Unruly, with 4.24 million shares across Facebook, Twitter and blogs. The campaign ended up with a pride of gold Lions, including the Titanium Grand Prix.

Dove was far from a one-trick pony, though. Other hits included Ogilvy London’s beguiling "camera shy" film and the "autotune" radio campaign.

Sex and margarine are not an obvious pairing, but Adam & Eve/DDB went there in a brave new animated approach for Flora. The spots tackled tough ground by aiming to please children with cartoons and adults with seaside-postcard-style humour (all while promoting a relatively dull product).

Following the long-running "dirt is good" campaign, Persil attracted our attention with an arresting, slow-motion film of a girl in a white dress being splashed with paint as she walks through a field. "For whatever life throws" by DLKW Lowe celebrated the hardiness of UK kids, while making dirt beautiful to a soaring soundtrack.

And who could forget Marmite – a brand that was away from TV for two years and so needed to make an impact when it resurfaced? Adam & Eve/DDB’s inspired spoof of animal rescue operations showed officers searching houses to recover neglected jars of Marmite. The film even inspired a new "little one" jar of Marmite.

In January 2013, Unilever passed €50 billion (£42 billion) in annual sales for the first time, which it claimed was helped by a boost in advertising and promotional spend. The Anglo-Dutch company is committed to reducing its impact on the environment – an aim that defined its biggest consumer-facing brand campaign to date, which was more than two years in the making.

The multimillion-pound Project Sunlight was launched in November and sought to emphasise Unilever’s commitment to sustainability, through the kind of emotive activity that had struck gold for Dove. Expectant parents were shown videos of war, destruction and desolation, while the film asked: "Why bring a child into this world?" Out of the bleakness came hope, as the video from Ogilvy & Mather London and David Latin America turned to happy children whose lives had been improved by technology and international collaboration. The campaign ran in all of Unilever’s core global markets and celebrated its partnerships with Unicef, Save the Children and the World Food Programme, creating a sense of unity to round off an excellent year.

Recent winners: Adidas (2012); Stella Artois (2011); John Lewis Partnership (2010); COI (2009); Transport for London (2008)

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