If anything, 2023 might be remembered for turmoil and change in the ad industry.
The 10 biggest stories of 2023
Bud Light was caught in a controversy surrounding its partnership with transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney, which caused a lingering slump in sales and a marketing leadership shakeup. Meanwhile, everyone jumped on “Barbie” mania after the hit Warner Bros. movie became a viral sensation and spurred mass marketer participation.
Here are the 10 stories that most impacted the marketing industry this year, compiled by Ad Age:
Bud Light controversy
The biggest story of the year started with Bud Light sending a can to transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney with her face on it.
That move erupted in backlash from conservatives including musicians Travis Tritt and Kid Rock. As the controversy mounted and the attacks became more personal, Alissa Heinerscheid, marketing VP for the brand since June 2022, took a leave of absence in April.
It took two weeks for Bud Light parent Anheuser-Busch to address the situation, issuing a statement on April 14 from CEO Brendan Whitworth that read, “We never intended to be part of a discussion that divides people. We are in the business of bringing people together over a beer.”
Bud Light also drew the ire of people in support of Mulvaney for not coming to her defense sooner. In response, Bud Light donated $200,000 to the LGBT Chamber of Commerce, which supports LGBTQ+ businesses, in May.
Mulvaney finally spoke out against AB InBev in June, criticizing the company for failing to even reach out to her amid the uproar.
Bud Light continued to deal with the fallout, with sales woes persisting this year, causing AB InBev U.S. Chief Marketing Officer Benoit Garbe to step down from his role.
The year saw many advertising companies exploring how to adapt new AI technologies amid the rise in OpenAI bot ChatGPT and other generative AI tools.
Agencies developed new enterprise tools with AI to bolster the insights they delivered to brands. Independent shop Pereira O’Dell even started holding focus groups with AI-generated consumers on behalf of its clients.
Tech platforms also introduced a slate of new AI tools for advertisers.
Meta’s new generative AI–powered tools for brands, announced in October, added features such as the ability to produce multiple backgrounds to be used in ads. The images are intended to complement the product being advertised and help brands show different ads to different audiences.
Meanwhile, Microsoft debuted its first AI ad format in September, which generates side-by-side ads for consumers to compare product details and prices. LinkedIn also introduced a self-serve platform for brands to auto-generate campaigns on the social networking site in October.
Marketers dressed the world in plastic when they rushed to capitalize on the blockbuster Warner Bros. film “Barbie.” And it was fantastic.
The Greta Gerwig–directed movie broke records by reeling in more than $1 billion at the global box office just three weeks after its release and resulted in gangbuster sales for Mattel’s Barbie, with several of the film-inspired dolls selling out.
But it wasn’t just Mattel and Warner Bros. that reaped the rewards of “Barbie.” A slew of brands got in on the Barbie bonanza. Microsoft-owned Xbox hosted a contest to award one winner a pink console housed in a mini Dreamhouse replica, and some lucky “Forza Horizon 5” players were gifted in-game replicas of Barbie’s pink 1956 Chevrolet Corvette EV Corvette and Ken’s 2022 GMC Hummer EV Pickup.
Meanwhile, Forever 21 took Barbie into the metaverse, brands including NYX Cosmetics and Gap urged customers to buy pink and neon products, and Claire’s sold a set of the movie’s iconic skates from Impala Skate.
Pfizer concluded a massive review
Pfizer split its global advertising account among holding companies Publicis Groupe and Interpublic Group of Cos. in May, completing one of the year’s biggest agency reviews. In a year packed with reviews, the sheer size of this account got the industry’s attention: The marketer spent $2.8 billion on worldwide advertising in 2022.
Publicis was named “integrated global engine,” while Interpublic Group of Cos. emerged as Pfizer’s lead creative partner, after a pitch that spanned creative, media, PR and production duties.
The review came as the pharmaceutical giant looks to change the way it markets and evolve past the pandemic, during which it rose in prominence as one of just three main providers of the COVID-19 vaccine. Along with the agency shakeup, Pfizer also named Drew Panayiotou as its first global CMO in August, poaching him from Alphabet’s life sciences research arm Verily.
Grimace went viral on TikTok
Another year, another viral TikTok trend thrusting a brand into the spotlight.
When McDonald’s rolled out its Grimace Birthday meal in June, it sparked a TikTok trend of Gen Zers pretending to pass out from its purple shake or be attacked by the character. Yes, the “Grimace Shake trend” was a viral sensation for a hot second this past summer.
Videos of TikTokers seemingly pretending to be attacked by Grimace after drinking the Grimace Shake, in horror film fashion, accompanied those showing people becoming high from the drink, implying that it has the same effects as “purple drank,” a recreational drug drink made by mixing cough or cold syrup containing codeine and promethazine with a soft drink.
McDonald’s naturally took to social media to respond.
Agencies reassert power
Agencies spent the past year restructuring in what became known as the Great Reset—rearranging their ranks with quiet layoffs among mid-level staffers, embracing labor-saving strategies such as offshoring and AI, and reasserting their power by enforcing back-to-office mandates and abandoning remote hires.
One of the biggest power moves was Publicis’ digital division mandating its employees return to the office three days a week and enforcing penalties if they don’t, including being ineligible for salary increases and bonuses.
Elsewhere, agencies are quietly starting to call people back into the office four to five days a week, according to 4A’s CEO and President Marla Kaplowitz. The friction between employees and employers over return-to-office mandates is likely not going to ease anytime soon. Kaplowitz said the work-from-home “genie is out of the bottle” and people don’t want to return to the office four or five days a week.
Cincinnati-based Empower Media saw massive staff departures—many to Procter & Gamble Co.—and a string of client losses after its controlling interest was sold to Ashlee Clarke. Clarke is also CEO and chief creative officer of New York-based creative and media agency NitroC.
Ad Age had found via LinkedIn searches that at least 14 of Empower’s employees left for P&G, located less than a mile away from Empower’s Cincinnati office, in the nine months following the sale.
People close to the agency described to Ad Age’s Jack Neff culture clash with new owners Clarke and her husband, Empower Executive Chairman Chris Clarke. The agency lost two of its biggest clients, Brooks Running and Bush Brothers & Co., within nine months after the sale. Zaxby’s then placed its account into review in October and the agency parted ways with Newell, another of one of its largest accounts, in November.
Ad community responds to the Israel-Hamas war
Brands, advertisers, agencies and ad tech companies spread messages of support for Israel in the days following the October terrorist attack against the country. Several agency holding companies have offices in Tel Aviv and have been affected by the conflict.
The ad community has continued to respond to the violence that has claimed tens of thousands of lives.
On social media, brands and advertisers are treading carefully as platforms struggle to moderate extremist content.
Threads sizzles, then fizzles
Several brands including Lyft, Wendy’s and PepsiCo rushed to join Threads when Meta launched its answer to X (formerly Twitter) in July. More than 30 million people immediately signed up for the platform.
Although the Instagram text-based platform launched with no ads, Meta began pitching ad agencies and brands on the control brands and users will have in Threads. A few days after its pitch deck circulated, Threads’ first ad showed up, courtesy of a Hulu partnership with creator Adam Rose.
Though momentum around Threads has died down, there still may be room for it to play as a more brand-safe alternative to Elon Musk’s X, which continued to be in the hot seat this year.
Advertisers flee X (again)
X (formerly Twitter) faced another exodus of advertisers late this year after Musk promoted an antisemitic post and nonprofit media watchdog Media Matters for America released a report revealing certain brands had their ads run next to antisemitic content.
Some of X’s biggest advertisers, including Apple, IBM, Disney, Comcast, Lionsgate and Paramount Global publicly announced they would halt spending on the platform. CEO Linda Yaccarino responded, seemingly trying to downplay the watchdog report while X filed a lawsuit against Media Matters.
Advertisers said they doubted X will be able to bounce back from this latest controversy. “I don’t see any of our advertisers coming back onto X,” one media buyer told Ad Age in November.