question of the week
What do the current crop of Christmas ads say about our industry?
As several of the ads pick up on the theme of breaking with tradition, are agencies and marketers really trying something new this year?
21 November 2023
As advertising briefs go, the direction to 'Win Christmas' must be one of the hardest to deliver on. After all there's only so much you can do with a tradition that is all about flogging the maximum amount of product, and constrained within established tropes that have all been done before. Hats should therefore be tipped to anyone attempting this task.
With baubles, fake snow, family bonhomie and excessive consumption the usual order of the day, perhaps it's little wonder that some agencies have tried to do something a bit different this year. Mother for M&S has invited viewers to embrace only the things they love about Christmas and skip those they do not, while Saatchi & Saatchi for John Lewis emphasises the joy found in both traditional and unconventional celebration.
Is this breaking (and making of) new traditions a wider attempt to reassess Christmas creativity and loosen the pre-existing restrictions that this season has always put upon agencies and advertisers? We asked some people to find out.
Josh Bullmore, Chief Strategy Officer, Leo Burnett
Christmas is such an important shop window for our industry - it’s the one time people actually care about what we do. And this year, the quality of our humble gifts to the nation shows that our industry is in rude health.
Some of those offerings, from the likes of John Lewis and M&S, play with the idea of tradition, putting it front and centre, as the focus of the story.
It’s worth saying that all advertising, at Christmas and beyond, plays with tradition in a different way, an implicit way.
Achieving popular appeal is, after all, a delicate dance between novelty and tradition - balancing the creation of interest through freshness with the creation of acceptability through familiarity.
And when it comes to brands, that familiarity really matters - it creates the memory structures that build long-term value.
This is why enlightened brands are recognising the need to establish their own traditions within their Christmas advertising, through consistent vehicles, devices and campaigns that build festive familiarity.
Whether they feature carrots, raised eyebrows or famous fairies, with careful nurturing these campaigns can claim a place within the seasonal tradition that really matters to our trade - that of advertising being a welcome part of the nation’s Christmas.
Sarah Clark, Partner, The&Partnership
I’m doing my first ‘friends’ Christmas this year. Breaking the biggest tradition of all. Not waking up on Christmas morning with my mum and dad, in their Christmas pyjamas, for the first time in 46 years. Yikes, traditions smashing all over the place.
Or are they really? Or will I be bringing the family traditions I love, to the friends I love, and vice versa. Reimagining them all into one glorious Clark, Black, Leach melting pot?
I like to think of it as the latter – because Clark traditions are part of who I am. Just like family Black and family Leach traditions are part of who they are. Long held and deeply personal memories and moments, given a wonderful new spin by bringing them together.
So I’m not on a quest for a completely different kind of Christmas, (although I understand some are) – I’m for celebrating long-loved traditions in new places and spaces.
For me, we mustn’t assume that creativity and tradition are opposites. And we shouldn’t have to throw the baubles out the bath water, in the endless quest for a unique Christmas splash.
To truly connect, we must simply remind ourselves what matters most to people, and then beautifully reimagine those powerful truths for new audiences (and house guests).
Sid McGrath, Chief Strategy Officer, Wunderman Thompson
The big all-singing-all-dancing Christmas ad has become a tradition in itself. This presents both good and bad news for creativity. It gives agencies the much-needed opportunity to showcase their creative firepower, but because ‘everyone’ is producing a seasonal offering, the competitive advantage ebbs away.
When everyone, across sectors, is setting out to ‘win Christmas’ using the same strategy, no one wins. Our predilection for long established tropes - the celebrity cameos, the borrowed-interest characters, samey depictions of the joy and magic of the season - is turning the industry’s output into so much festive wallpaper. Instead of conforming, we need to keep turning tradition on its head and find original and more ingenious ways to cut through.
Matt Waksman, Head of Strategy Advertising, Ogilvy UK
Everything’s more indulgent at Christmas, including strategy. At every other time of year planners would balk at putting a brief in front of creatives that doesn’t have some tension to rub up against. At Christmas, the good practice of identifying a tension the brand can solve gets chucked out the window (along with regular exercise, moderate drinking and the general avoidance of sequins).
This year M&S and John Lewis stood out by putting a cultural tension in their brief, rather than just relying on full-on feel-good factor. For M&S it’s the tension that there are parts of traditions which bring us dread as much as joy. For John Lewis it’s the tension that as society and families evolve so must festive traditions, and that can be hard at first.
I applaud both for putting a tension in the work. John Lewis nailed it by recognising that for a tension to be embraced at Christmas, it needs to have a very happy ending. I wouldn’t be surprised if next year we see others follow suit, especially as a tension always leads to more ownable work with a bigger earned clout.
Dan Hulse, Chief Strategy Officer, St Luke’s
A few years ago our agency was working with a client that would typically brief their Christmas ads in May and research them over the summer. Time and again we’d sit in living rooms in Stockport or Stoke and hear people tell us how tired they were of Christmas cliches. They’d moan about decorations going up in the shops too early, and ads full of elves, tinsel and overjoyed children. But the one year we listened to them, our ad crashed and burned. When Michael Buble emerges from his cave for winter, boy are the public ready for him. People want their bit of Christmas magic, and magic means rituals. Brits eat 750 million sprouts in December, proving even bad traditions are a crucial part of Christmas.
M&S and John Lewis are saying one thing – you don’t have to be trapped by the traditions of the past – but they’re showing us something very different. All the hallmarks of a classic John Lewis fable are present and correct, and M&S have brought us a spot straight out of their star-studded playbook. It would have been more exciting for the industry if they’d tried to break the mould. But I bet both ads are going down a treat in Stoke and Stockport.