It’s not very Christmassy, this pandemic.
For most people, that’s not a professional challenge. But for many in the UK ad industry, searching for a trickle of Christmas spirit amid the drought of satisfaction that is life in 2020 has been of the utmost importance.
We’re going to need Christmas more than ever this year, precisely because 2020 has been so bleak. “Some joy to pick us all up wouldn’t go amiss,” says Grey London chief creative officer Laura Jordan Bambach. It seems the Aussie creative leader’s been in the UK long enough to master the art of the Great British understatement.
If we’re going to find some much-needed joy at the end of 2020, advertisers will want to be a part of that. In a normal year, Christmas is like the Super Bowl for British retailers and grocers - a season when normal people (who are usually indifferent at best) actually pay attention to and sometimes even enjoy advertising’s contribution to the festivities. This year that impulse will be stronger than ever, suggests Simon Gregory, joint chief strategy officer at BBH, who’s been looking towards the hopefully not-too-bleak midwinter for the agency’s clients. In what has been a tough year for retailers, “a good Christmas can make or break the year,” he says. “There’s more pressure than ever to get the commercial side right.” To illustrate this opportunity for retailers, Simon uses the example of BBH supermarket client Tesco. From January to November, it’s the biggest seller of toys in the UK. But in November and December, that title usually passes over to Argos. “It shows how important those two months are to someone like Argos,” he says.
That explains why Argos’ advertising around the festive season is such a priority for the brand. Its agency The&Partnership delivered a suitably joyful campaign for the retailer last year in the form of ‘The Book of Dreams’, which ended up being one of the country’s most popular 2019 Christmas ads
Matt Shaw, senior strategist at The&Partnership, anticipates Argos sitting in a different landscape of brands this Christmas, thanks to the shifts in fortunes that the year of coronavirus has brought. E-commerce retailers will likely spend more this year. “They have had quite a successful lockdown period,” he says. “Any brands that have got strong e-commerce platforms have done well at the expense of your John Lewises and your Debenhams, who are traditionally big spenders at Christmas. It might be interesting to see how the budgets shift. And we might see some bigger productions from traditionally smaller brands.”
Simon Elborne, executive producer at London-based production company Outsider, says the company is lucky enough to be considered for many of those bigger Christmas productions. Outsider was responsible for past favourites including the Heathrow bears, ‘Mog’s Christmas Calamity’ for Sainsbury’s and ‘Sorry, I Spent it on Myself’ for Harvey Nichols. So he has an interesting vantage point.
“Christmas has always been a natural playground for the big retailers, the supermarkets and department stores,” he says. “Obviously we will lose a few of those players - brands that are struggling, that have always had a position in the landscape of Christmas advertising.” But from what he’s seen so far, he’s optimistic that it will shape up to be an exciting landscape. “There are still a lot of big ideas out there. There are a lot of brands that want to spend what we’d consider to be a very healthy budget on making these things happen.”
Simon from BBH agrees: “The stakes are high and we’ve got to get it right.”
Getting it right is tricky though. Laura is acutely aware that Grey’s clients will be scrutinised for how they act, not just how they present themselves in their marketing. “I think fairness to staff and how the brand behaves will matter more than ever,” she says.
When Covid hit the UK in March, advertisers slammed on the brakes so they could consider how they might present themselves amid a pandemic. “During Covid communications across the board, brands have become more purposeful,” says Simon Gregory. “I think you’ll get more brands wanting to get involved in Christmas, because of what it means. But I think a lot of them will only do that if they can do something tangible that makes a genuine difference. A lot of brands are worried about getting called out if they do it wrong. Caution is the word. I think there’s a bit of nervousness about getting it right because of how important Christmas is this year.”
Simon Elborne is seeing that caution playing out in the scripts he’s seen. “People are taking a bit more time to work out what they want to say, how they say it in the right way and making sure that what they’re saying is purposeful,” he says. “It feels much more considered this year, both in the ideas and how we address them.”
So what will Christmas ads look like in 2020? Even those working on them right now aren’t 100% sure. Laura is reluctant to make concrete predictions. “There’s so much around Christmas that we just can’t answer right now,” she says. But she knows that people will need reassuring. “Knowing that we’re there for the public, and [that we] understand what they’re going through is key,” she says.
That’s why agencies like hers are prioritising listening to the public more than usual. “More than ever it’s the right time to be stepping away from advertising tropes and stereotypes, and really hearing what people have to say,” she says. “And being open around what’s happening within the brand too – we don’t have all the answers.”
From a strategic perspective, Simon at BBH has been taking this seriously. “The emphasis is staying as tight as we can to customers,” he says. “Rather than taking a dip in June and coming up with a campaign, we’ve got to stay close with them all the way through. Sentiment is moving, confidence is moving. We’re listening to customers a lot more.”
It’s possible to make some broad predictions though. Simon Gregory explains the forces of Christmas advertising that he thinks makes it one of the hardest briefs: “The first is that people, by and large, want the same stuff from Christmas - tradition, a feeling of togetherness and a spirit of generosity and abundance. All that really changes is how people make those things happen. The second part is that Christmas is such a national event that you naturally look for more of the big cultural things coming together.”
Matt identifies other forces that will likely be at work on Christmas advertising this year. “Christmas is a reflective time of year, every year you have the celebrities that have died that year, the top TV moments, and people look back a bit,” he says. “I think a lot of brands might be doing that, thanking key workers or sharing stories around them. You can imagine a brand like the Co-op [a UK supermarket] might go quite heavy on that approach.”
Another route is pure escapism. “We’ve had a really crap year,” he says. “Marriages have been postponed, birthdays have been held behind closed doors. We need Christmas more than ever. We need this big celebration. I imagine lots of brands will be going down one of those routes.”
Simon at Outsider confirms that, from what he’s seen, 2020’s Christmas ads will be a mixed bag. “From some of the scripts we’ve been privy to there’s a great variety there in terms of ideas and how to bring them to life,” he says.
It’s been a funny old year, and this will naturally fuel a different kind of festive marketing. Simon at BBH thinks the types of advertising we see in November and December may well have familiar messaging, but the year we’ve had means that ad agencies have had a lot fuelling their creativity. “All the cultural things we’ve gone through this year, whether it’s Covid, Brexit, the Black Lives Matter movement, diversity and inclusion in our industry, we’ve suddenly got a melting pot of action and change and interesting things going on,” he says. “Working in agencies, it’s the organised chaos that makes the best things. This has been a year of disorganised chaos, so I’m quite excited just to see what pops out at the end.”
Talking about Christmas in August might, to a normal person, seem a little odd. But usually by this point agencies and production companies would be able to make more confident predictions. Many of the big Christmas ads would be well on their way to being finalised. In 2020, even those that have been shot already have question marks all over them. Matt welcomes this, strangely. “It really makes getting your big idea even more important. And it has to be a flexible enough platform that you can adjust.”
Agencies have had to work more closely with their production partners to make sure that flexibility is built into ideas. Everyone I spoke to said they’d enjoyed creative and production working together more tightly during Covid to look for new ways to execute their ideas.
The nature of Christmas advertising actually adds to these challenges, says Simon Elborne. “We’re having to get super creative in terms of working round some of the challenges to try and protect traditional ideas, but having to do that within the guidelines we have to follow to make sure it’s done safely,” he says. “A lot of Christmas advertising naturally has a family dynamic in it. That creates challenges in terms of social distancing rules.” Working with multiple generations at once, including more vulnerable older people, poses challenges that need to be taken seriously.
So much is up in the air. “Timelines have been thrown and shoots postponed,” says Laura. “Scripts written and rewritten for different scenarios. For example, can we show families coming together? What happens if there’s another lockdown? What about those not able to travel?” These questions won’t go away until the day that a Christmas ad airs, and will need continual monitoring even after a commercial is out in case. For example, if a new lockdown is brought in due to a rise in coronavirus cases, the extended family that your ad depicts may no longer be able to see each other on Christmas Day.
But with all of these stresses taken into account, UK advertising is relishing the challenge of the Covid Christmas. “Creativity is so important this year,” says Laura. “Looking at different stories that are more real and valuable to the public right now will no doubt get us to some wonderful work.” She’s hoping for a year of “joy and kindness, as well as some great creative Christmas advertising that makes the best of the way things are and we’ve never seen before!”
Matt loves Christmas. In fact, Christmas advertising was what inspired him to pursue this career. “I want this year to be full of stellar ads,” he says. “Obviously I want Argos to be the best, but I hope this year shows the best of our industry. Christmas is a rare window when consumers actually want to engage with our ads. On top of this, I want this year’s ads to be highly effective, not only does retail need a strong Christmas this year, but our industry needs highly effective work too; to demonstrate the value of our work and to encourage businesses to preserve budgets in the coming recession.”
As part of the UK production community, Simon Elborne stresses how important the ‘British Super Bowl’ is to companies like Outsider. “The last year has been really tough for the production community,” he says. “I hope that as many brands as can jump on the bandwagon with the right messaging and good ideas do because the production community needs the work. That work that helps them thrive for months beyond that.” Thankfully, he’s seen the potential that this year could bring in the form of the scripts his directors have pitched for. “There are big ideas, fun ideas, really strong creative ideas and I think it’s going to be a good year.”
“I’m miserable, Northern and misanthropic, so I’m not the most Christmassy person,” says Simon Gregory. “But I’m really excited for this year. Even in a normal year, Christmas is the only time when people actually look forward to advertising. That’s such a luxury for our industry. It puts the pressure on, in a good way, to want to make something that people love.”