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Is John Lewis the only UK advertiser that actually thinks intelligently about Christmas?

Christmas advertising is wearing thin and it’s still November!

Suffering with a bout of seasonal cold I’ve had more than my fair share of TV over the last week as I have been lying prone on the sofa feeling sorry for myself. My fill of Christmas ads has just about hit the OD level so vocal grumpiness has started, and it’s still, only, November. God help us all.

Central casting has had its usual requests; snow, happy children, wrapped presents, a well-known music track, party hats, grinning parents. It’s all one big cliché and very few avoid the trap of doing a generic bit of promotion for Christmas just in case we forget. I never understand how advertisers can be so dumb and think they will be the only advertiser on TV using the Christmas props.

The latest offering is from Westfield (for those readers not in London, Westfield comprises two shopping malls, one in east and one in west London). The TV work has been created and produced by Yellowdoor, the ad agency owned by Mary Portas, she of retail guru status. Based on this example I think she should stick to what she knows about and not do an Alan Sugar – an expert on everything and anything.

The Westfield TV ad is cliché central, and is rubbish as a consequence. The take-out is quite hard to describe because it seems the creative idea didn’t quite do the job for the client so they resorted to adding titles over the action. The client says they wanted to express that there is “something for everyone” at Westfield but it does the reverse. It feels small not big; my guess is a small production budget, so the visuals on screen look as thought it was shot in a small studio. Then there’s Rod Stewart singing his cover of Santa Claus is Coming to Town which has got rock all to do with the intended proposition for Westfield.

It singularly fails to establish Westfield’s main reason for harrassed shoppers to consider it as the main shopping venue for all things Christmas – it’s a big, shiny, modern shopping mall with a wide range of retail names all under one roof away from the cold and rain.

It begins to feel to me as though John Lewis wins the Christmas advertising contest by a mile, followed by some very good efforts by a few others such as M&S and then there are the rest. Both ad agency, Adam&Eve/DDB, and the John Lewis client could be forgiven for acquiring a certain smugness.

The origin of DDB was of course BMP who were a creative giant in their time. It seems to me the merger with Adam&Eve may well have been smarter than the obvious. BMP were very good at nailing an emotional observation and milking it for all it was worth. Remember Cadbury’s Smash and the Martians? They’ve handled VW for ever and again: class advertising for decades. The John Lewis work is in the same league, way above most advertising around for any category.

Years ago BBH would reveal its latest work for Levi 501 to the UK’s assembled journalists, generalists as well as specialists. The same status is now the preserve of John Lewis.

What I don’t understand is why so many advertisers don’t think more intelligently about their Christmas activity. As Dave Trott said a number of years ago, “you know it is going to happen at the same time every year so why not think about it in plenty of time.” Well said. You can guarantee the clichés will be in abundance so, first off, let’s not fall in to that trap.

Secondly you can also guarantee the viewing public will get so confused about who said what and why that almost everything merges into one big cliché. It doesn’t take a PhD to conclude that ‘be different’ is a good starting point, followed by ‘be differentiated’. It can’t be that hard. And if you do decide to go down the conventional Christmas route, make sure it’s brilliant, like John Lewis filming in New Zealand rather than a cramped studio in Acton.

I still have another month of Christmas ads and then the ‘sales’ bombardment. I bet there are numerous client and agency teams at the moment huddled together in an edit suite in Soho trying to decide whether to feature the red or green sofa in their sale ad. What they are not thinking about is their competitors; who are doing exactly the same thing!

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About Paul Simons

Paul joined Cadbury-Schweppes in brand management and then moved to United Biscuits. He switched to advertising in his late 20s, at Cogent Elliott and then Gold Greenlees Trott. He founded Simons Palmer Denton Clemmow & Johnson in the late 80s, one of the leading creative agencies of the 90s. Simons Palmer then merged with TBWA to create a top ten agency. Paul then joined O&M as chairman & CEO of the UK group. After three years he left to create a new AIM-quoted advertising group Cagney Plc. He is now a consultant to a number of client companies. Paul also shares his thoughts on his blog. Visit Paul Simons Blog.
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