The verdict on the standard of global advertising for the past 12 months was a resounding "good but not outstanding". Then Honda "cog" hit our screens. A dazzling display of intricacy and precision, it grips you for 120 seconds. Like a sophisticated game of dominoes, it features 85 car parts in a chain reaction, culminating in a grand finale which makes you want to leap off the sofa and applaud. The ad has already been placed on a pedestal beside such greats as Guinness "surfer" and Levi's "odyssey".
Wieden & Kennedy London, the agency behind the spot, is justifiably proud.
The creative director, Kim Papworth, comments: "Optimistically, I suppose, it will go down in advertising history."
At the very least, expect it to pick up a Lion at Cannes this year, if not the Grand Prix itself.
And yet Honda is not alone in producing fresh work for the category - a welcome trend this year, signalling that the days of rocky mountain passes and close-ups of alloy wheels are well and truly over.
Saturn, too, bought highly distinctive work from its new agency, Goodby Silverstein & Partners. On winning the $300 million account in the US last year, its founder and creative director, Jeff Goodby, welcomed the new creative opportunity and vowed to "revolutionise the car category".
When the first ad in the campaign, "sheet metal", broke last summer, it didn't disappoint. For a start, there were no cars. Beautifully simple, understated and elegant, the ad expresses a simple message: when Saturn designs cars, it does not see sheet metal, but the people who drive them.
Volkswagen also contributed to this year's exceptional automotive category.
One of its most talked-about was "bubble" through Arnold Worldwide, Boston.
Once again, there is barely any footage of the car. Instead we see a captivating, amusing and brilliantly shot piece of film. Other notable ads in the series include the simple, yet effective, "chain reaction" and "squares", both of which offer fleeting glances of the car, yet the brand is unmistakable.
Audi has also had a good year with Bartle Bogle Hegarty's beautifully crafted "influence" spot - a trippy riot of colour telling of Jimmy Hendrix's influence on Audi's designers - and "bull" from the up-and-coming director Nicolai Fugslig. Meanwhile, Frank Budgen remained on top form with the impressive "fish" spot, through BBH, promoting Audi's fuel efficiency message in striking fashion.
And in South Africa, Ogilvy & Mather's Audi campaign also bravely omits the car. Instead, the entertaining spots show creatures, from snails to frogs, demonstrating the famous "vorsprung" positioning. Mark Fisher, O&M's creative director, explains that hosting the Cricket World Cup provided new creative opportunities for South Africa, with notable campaigns for MTN and South African Airways. However, he states: "Creative standards have fallen slightly, partly a result of people abandoning a single-minded approach to advertising in a bid to appeal to a mixed community."
Meanwhile, Peugeot takes a dramatic approach with "sculptor" showing an Indian man driving his car into a wall and coaxing an elephant to sit on its bonnet. The amusing and unusual spot, through Euro RSCG MCM in Italy, reveals the driver trying to model his own car into the shape of a Peugeot.
Dave Droga, Publicis' worldwide creative director, says: "A lot of clients realise that it's not about sheet metal but what the badge stands for. There is such parity in the car category, so it's great that people are finally breaking the mould."
Most of these ads also fit into this year's other creative trend - a tendency towards visually spectacular ads as opposed to gritty real-life scenarios.
Anne de Maupeou, the creative director at CLM/BBDO, thinks this is because people want to escape reality: "I think people are taking refuge in a dreamlike universe to avoid everyday life, so we have beautiful commercials such as Johnnie Walker, 'fish' and the latest Stella ad."
The agency's own hopes are pinned on its Pepsi ad "elephant tower" and a new spot for Pepsi X, which are both indicative of this epic style.
Michael Jansen, the creative director of Results DDB in Amsterdam, concurs:"This year we've seen more abstract and bizarre films with big budgets. Since last year's Levi's and Xbox, I think we're seeing more beautifully made stuff which demands a bigger leap of faith from clients."
Some of the strongest work from The Netherlands includes Nike's "stickman", "puddles" and "stream" from Wieden & Kennedy; VW and Centraal Beheer ads from Results DDB and a Calvert peanut butter ad. Jansen, however, points to the old problem of strong work having a distinctive local flavour, but failing to translate well internationally.
This is a persistent problem for Spain, Toni Segarra, the co-founder and executive creative director of SCPF, says but he claims to be less concerned about producing internationally appealing work. "The feeling of being away from the rigid academic norms that the international festivals impose ... has taken off some of the pressure," he says.
Yet he feels it has been a poor year for Spain. "Advertisers are scared of the economic and political situation and that stops them being daring."
On the other side of the world, Jonathan Kneebone, a writer and director at Australia's Glue Society, says: "The industry is in a wait-and-see state. The only trend is a general lack of vision."
Humour, a popular genre with international awards juries, is particularly prevalent this year in the alcohol category.
The John Smith's campaign, which cleaned up at the British Television Advertising Awards, is one of the funniest around. However, its author, Paul Silburn at TBWA/London, is concerned that it may prove too "local" to appeal to a global jury.
"I think the Americans will dominate at Cannes this year, and they have some strong campaigns in the alcohol category, such as Miller Lite and Molson, so it's going to be tough."
Miller Lite, through Ogilvy & Mather New York, is a tongue-in-cheek campaign featuring buxom twins that has created a storm with the public, while Molson, through Crispin Porter Bogusky, is an ironic look at what can be achieved when you consume the beer.
Violent humour has traditionally performed well at Cannes and Fox Sports has a campaign which makes you wince. The ads from TBWA/Chiat/Day San Francisco including "dumpster" and "iron" show people being seriously injured.
Humour is more widespread in India this year, according to Piyush Pandey, the group president at Ogilvy & Mather India, who cites its Fevicol, Centre Shock chewing gum and Pfizer work among some of the strongest, along with the Times of India campaign through Enterprise Nexus, India.
Pandey, who also judged this year's Asian ad festival, Adfest, adds: "The quality of work from Asia this year was good, but I didn't see anything that was really rocking. However, Thailand produced some nice spots including JWT's Chiclet chewing gum and Saatchi & Saatchi Bangkok's Spy Wine Cooler. There was also a great campaign for Tiger Beer through Leo Burnett, Singapore."
Its creative director, Guan Hin Tay, points to other noteworthy TV work from the region, particularly from Japan and Thailand. He says: "I love the simple lock-on camera spot done for Matsudaira Real Estate entitled 'golf', by Dentsu West Japan, Matsuyama. There's a universal truth about the size limitations of small homes in Japan and this captures it. The casting and execution is wonderful."
So, all in all, a year of good but not outstanding work. But as Droga concludes, the ad industry is always pretty hard on itself: "Everyone says 'it hasn't been a premium year' but I can never recall anyone saying, 'it's been a good year'. It's only at awards shows, when it's all been culled to the absolute best, that you can sit back and say, 'that's great'."
EVOKING AN EMOTIONAL RESPONSE - 2003's best global ads to date
Agency: Wieden & Kennedy London
Director: Antoine Bardou-Jacquet
Production company: Partizan
The talk of the town, this ad was no mean feat to put together. It took five months' planning, a team of specialists from sculptors to mechanics and an incredible 606 takes to be able to shoot the action in one agonising take. It was a leap of faith for the client but perhaps Honda was persuaded by the film from which the ad surely gained inspiration - the 1987 30-minute indie by Peter Fischli and David Weiss Der Lauf der Dinge (The Way Things Go).
Ad: Angry chicken
Agency: Wieden & Kennedy Portland
Production company: Partizan
These retro French-style mini-movies are strange, original and utterly bonkers. So it comes as no great surprise to find out that they are directed by the kings of subversive comedy - Traktor. Filmed with a 16mm rostrum camera to give a kitsch and organic feel, the spots feature a group of urban gymnasts - Le Parkour (David Belle, the founder, starred in the recent BBC "rush hour" spot). The ads are breathtaking, funny and a sure-fire winner with the target audience.
Agency: Arnold Worldwide
Director: Mike Mills
Production company: The Directors Bureau
The Groundhog Day-inspired ad features a man in a gruellingly monotonous routine. We see him wake at 7.30am, and arrive at the office, day after day after day. Nothing breaks his prison-like existence, until one day a VW convertible Beetle lifts its beautiful bonnet. Featuring a great soundtrack, the ad is stylishly directed by Mike Mills with the use of split-screen vividly expressing the repetitive nature of everyday life.
Agency: Crispin Porter & Bogusky Miami
Director: Spike Jonze
Production company: MJZ
Spike Jonze's ability to woo the viewer into feeling emotion for an inanimate object is intrinsic to this ad's success. When an old lamp is cast out in the rain and replaced by a bright, shiny new one, we come close to shedding a tear - the accompanying soundtrack pressing all the right sentimental buttons. But when the eccentric Swede berates us at the end, we feel utter embarrassment.
PIECES DE RESISTANCE
Ads: Monsters, babies, ball skills
Client: John Smith's
Director: Daniel Kleinman
Production company: Spectre
The British comic Peter Kay brilliantly dramatises John Smith's no-nonsense approach to life. Two of the spots, set in a restaurant, feature Kay saying all the wrong things, to the chagrin of his long-suffering wife. Natural dialogue and comic touches, such as the product shots, make these ads endearingly funny. "Ball skills" has become a cultural phenomenon with "'ave it" now a common phrase. Top performance by Kay, beautifully directed by Daniel Kleinman.
Client: Spy wine cooler
Agency: Saatchi & Saatchi Bangkok
Director: Thanonchai Sornsriwichai
Production company: Phenomena, Bangkok
"Free your sparkle" for this sparkling wine aims to show typically shy Thai teenagers how they can use their hidden talents. "DJ" is an hilarious spot, brilliantly directed and shows a poor guy scrubbing everything from his Dad's car to boots at military camp. But it all comes good in the end, when his scrubbing and scratching skills are put to good use and are applied to his DJing.
Client: New Zealand Lotteries
Agency: Saatchi & Saatchi New Zealand
Director: John Ewing
Production company: Flux Animation
A charming spot, animated in an old cartoon style by the former Disney animator John Ewing. It centres on the dream of giving up work should one win the lottery with a character, "Cog", who manages to leave his machine and enjoy his freedom. The story beautifully highlights the Lotteries' positioning of "anything is possible". With its Gracie Fields soundtrack, it feels like a 40s cartoon found in a dusty vault.
Agency: Wieden & Kennedy Portland
Director: Lance Accord
Production company: Park Pictures
An ad which everyone seems to be raving about in the US, with some declaring it to be quite brilliant. The basis for this high praise lies in the fact that the idea is both incredibly universal and at the same time undeniable. Few brands other than Nike could have created this spot, which is almost like a culmination of 20 years' of brand building.