Christmas in the UK provides a stage for brands to tell epic stories, develop emotive creative, and wow their audiences with narratives that will stand the test of time. With the biggest brands often in competition, working on Christmas creative has become a career-defining and tentpole marketing moment, rivalling that of the Super Bowl in the US.
We caught up with AMV senior producer Verity Elvin, ECD at The Mill, Mike ‘Chappers’ Chapman and executive producer at The Mill, Chris Allen to discuss the impact of big brand ads at Christmas, and what makes them so special.
What makes the Christmas ad so important?
Verity: If you had asked me this question pre covid it would have been a totally different answer, but the pandemic has changed everything. The role of the Christmas ad has had to evolve alongside that, to prevent it tipping into being distasteful. Previously the Christmas campaigns coming out of the UK had become the zeitgeist that caught the public’s attention, bringing back a true love for iconic campaigns that captured people’s hearts.
Chappers: It seems like since John Lewis set the bar for retailers over a decade ago now, Christmas ads have gone from strength to strength with many large UK brands targeting the festive period for their big brand showpiece adverts. Christmas is obviously a big time of year for retailers with them all vying for our custom and the Christmas advert is seen as a great platform to get one over on the competition.
Chris: For most of us, it’s the best and most fun time of the year. Our emotions start going all over the place as Christmas approaches and for many advertisers it’s a chance to harness that and express that creatively in (hopefully) some brilliant way. There’s more room for creative freedom and so for many brands and agencies it offers an opportunity for them to maybe try something different in a bid to cement their place in mass culture. The hard part is getting it right. It’s way easier to get it horribly wrong…
What ingredients make up the perfect Christmas spot?
Verity: The reason that the British Christmas ads became like the Superbowl, was because they were aspirational and totally focused on taking the consumer on a journey that only happens once a year. The Christmas campaigns were highly anticipated and the public didn’t feel the usual hard sell from brands, they were invited to join in a moment of escapism when everyone could believe that Christmas was still truly special. It spoke to every demographic, which is every client’s wet dream.
Chappers: The recurring popular themes of family and giving mirror to the sentiments of the season over the years we have seen many different ways of doing this from animated characters, turbo charged Santas to more subtle down to earth sharing of gifts.
Chris: Basically anything that will make you cry. I think the key is to keep it simple and not to try too hard (which I know is easier said than done!). It’s about concocting a story which all of us can relate to in some way. John Lewis’ ‘The Long Wait’ did this perfectly. At the time, I don’t think we’d really seen an ad like this before let alone a Christmas spot. Everything about it was so well done – the script, the casting, the direction, the music and then you had the rug pull moment at the end. It was so clever yet so simple. For me, it’s the perfect Christmas spot.
How does working on a Christmas ad differ from working on other projects?
Verity: It’s a machine that completely takes over the agency, and consumes the team working on it. It has always been the most coveted brief. Most importantly, it makes brands step up their game and work harder to give the consumer a moment of unadulterated, escapism and joy. Who doesn’t need that right now.
Chappers: For us it is much the same in terms of process, it is a very busy time of year so making sure we choose the right teams for the right projects is key. This is one of the things we have over many of our competitors, with the broad talent base we have the draw from with so many brilliant artists and producers we really relish making Christmas wishes come true.
Chris: From a VFX perspective, there isn’t a noticeable difference in the process however technically they can come with the same set of challenges we face every year in that they’re often shot in the summer and we have to make it look like winter. I worked on a spot a few years ago where we shot on top of a ski slope an hour from Prague. It was clear blue skies and 35 degrees and not an ounce of snow anywhere apart from a tennis court sized patch of man made snow and a huge sheet of white fabric. There were Wacky Racer style vehicles bombing around, a giant Christmas tree on skis being ridden by a bloke in a cowboy hat, the cast were running round in big woolly jumpers, hats and scarves and passing out every 5 minutes while the rest of us were in short and T shirts eating ice cream. The things we do…
With Covid interrupting so many companies’ festive marketing plans last year, what themes do you expect to see in this year’s Christmas campaigns?
Verity: I think some of this year’s Christmas ads have missed the mark with the public. Given the long lead times on this kind of brief, it is likely that it would have come through in the midst of full lock down. I don’t believe that all of the big brands took the temperature of the real world and adjusted their brief accordingly. No one knew what the future held, but it wasn’t business as usual. Out of all the Christmas ads I have seen so far this year Sports Direct surprisingly was the brand that really hit home for me. It’s joyful, it’s fun, it’s silly and depicts sports stars looking relaxed in an environment where they normally look uptight and stilled. They have made what must have been an intense strategic and creative battle, look effortless. Watch it, it’s great.
Chappers: I think it brings people together, seeing families, friends and even new acquaintances coming together to enjoy each other’s company is going to be the big one, all the stuff we couldn’t do last year.
Chris: Given last Christmas was pretty much a write off, I imagine the focus this year will all be about appreciating being together again and perhaps new beginnings and fresh starts.
Looking forward to 2022, what industry changes/initiatives/ trends excite you most?
Verity: No one in their right mind should predict any trends, initiatives or industry changes for the year ahead right now. This is the time to pause, take stock and acknowledge that our whole world has been turned upside down. None of us has a clue about what may happen in the future. We just need to be the best we can be in an uncertain, but exciting new phase.
Chappers: The biggest trend from over the past few years that is going to be interesting to see how it develops through 2022 is how companies can properly balance the hybrid working model. Making the best possible working environments for their staff to keep/build internal culture and access a wide talent base than was previously thought possible. I think ultimately the companies that can manage this the best and make it part of their DNA will be set for a bright future.
Chris: Everyone is really over the pandemic. We were all so glad to see the back of 2020 thinking that 2021 was going to be amazing. And despite things improving and our lives returning a bit closer to normal, we’re still very much living with Covid. So although it seems it will be here to stay indefinitely, perhaps 2022 will be the year that focuses on new beginnings. Coupled of course with the ever growing awareness of what’s happening to our planet – especially with the younger teen generation who are now so much more politically minded – it will have an influence on how brands market themselves in a world where corporate responsibility is often in the spotlight.
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