Paul Simons: Christmas ads – have most clients and agencies forgotten how to make great TV?

Last week saw the Christmas advertising onslaught start with the big guns showcasing their shiny new TV commercials. John Lewis made the business section of The Times on Friday, on Saturday they published a stinging cartoon of the JL story featuring J. Corbyn as the sad man on the moon.

Christmas Day is seven weeks away so will seasonal fatigue set in weeks before the big day?

Much of what appears on our screens is generic Christmas stuff and I for one struggle to recall who said what a few weeks into the season with a few very notable exceptions. The big question must be “is it worth it for all of the advertisers who invest in expensive productions and big chunks of premium airtime?” In reality it can’t be for everyone and in the words of that celebrated soapmaker from the last century; “half of my advertising is wasted, trouble is I don’t which half,” or something along similar lines.

The challenge for many companies would be the case made by marketing for large amounts of cash for production and airtime. John Lewis would be the most often-used supporting case study plus the client and the agency teams also dreaming about the accolades they will receive once they have aired their masterpiece. The brave CEO is the one that says no, let’s try and be different and distinctive. In the end peer group pressure will win over and another production company rubs its hands as they have secured the biggest and most expensive production of the year.

This time of year does demonstrate a reality that is all too easy to forget. It demonstrates the importance and power broadcast media still plays in establishing the idea, with other channels then providing important, supporting ballast. The discipline of TV is all about a single idea, no room for War and Peace here; as we know “you can’t run a power point presentation on TV” and, equally, you can’t run a website either.

I wonder if the skill base of knowledge about TV is in decline with fewer agencies being prepared to say that is what they are best at. This could be driven by mid-level clients who a) have never been involved in top class, award winning TV and b) have grown up with digital dominating the marketing narrative. I think it is interesting how adam&eveDDB seems to clean up with awards and new business; they have become the gold standard to aim for and I think they are a very good TV agency. Their profile is driven by television and it feels like they have this to themselves as most agencies have migrated from advertising agencies to communication agencies to integrated agencies.

What I fail to understand is how many agencies approach the brief for the Christmas campaign. In the seasonal store room we will find snow, reindeer, sledges, Santa, holly, twinkly lights, and tables groaning under the weight of the feast plus large gatherings of people having a jolly time. If the agency/client team edit together ten separate spots, all set to The Who’s ditty ‘Who Are You?’ I would defy anyone to identify which spot was for what brand.

The exceptions are ones where a striking, different image is the centre of attention; back to John Lewis and Snowman, Bear & Hare, Penguin and this year a lonely man on the moon. This is how to make differentiated, distinctive communications within the limits of 60 seconds.

My prediction is that one or two of these expensive Christmas ads will stand above the battle and stick in the minds of the public. Most of the rest will merge into one Christmas cliché.

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