Christmas has peaked: John Lewis cuts back on festive campaign as high street hardship hits adland

Summer 2018 is shaping up pretty well thanks to the sunshine and the World Cup, but by Christmas the harsh realities of the pre-Brexit UK economy look set to bring us all back down to earth.

John Lewis will scale down its famous Christmas ad campaign, a casualty of the store’s declining fortunes (it doesn’t expect to make a profit this year) and the need to set aside money for its relaunch as “John Lewis & Partners” in September.

It’s not just John Lewis. The whole traditional round of lavish Christmas retail ads, which have become as much a part of the festive season as mince pies and mulled wine, looks set to be radically curtailed this year.

Other big department stores are likely to follow suit, with struggling Marks & Spencer, Debenhams and House of Fraser all challenging their agencies to find less expensive ways to attract customers at Christmas.

Debenhams, which dumped JWT for Mother immediately after last year’s star-studded ‘You shall find your fairytale’ festive ad campaign was released, is likely to swap the big Christmas extravaganza for a more product-focused approach.

Harvey Nichols, which has done some brilliant Christmas ads through adam&eveDDB in the past, withdrew from competition a couple of years ago, while supermarkets Sainsbury’s and Tesco have been ahead of the curve in taking a step back from blockbuster ads.

Sainsbury’s first festive work from Wieden & Kennedy, 2017’s “Every bit of Christmas,” was a much more stripped back affair than we had come to expect from the supermarket after years of AMV BBDO classics like ‘Mog,’ ‘The Truce,’ and ‘The Greatest Gift.’

When “drastic” Dave Lewis came in to turn Tesco around in 2014 after a financial scandal, he moved the ad account from W&K to BBH and immediately put the big Christmas showcase on the chopping block.

Over the decades, though, Christmas ad campaigns and the hype around them have escalated. It all started in 2011 with John Lewis’ ‘The Long Wait,’ and since then has fuelled ongoing media coverage every November, generating big expectations from both adland and the general public.

It reached its zenith with John Lewis’ 2017 showcase, ‘Moz the Monster,’ an ad that was rumoured to have cost £1 million to make and another £6 million in media, which looks pretty extravagant right now. Aldi’s ‘Kevin the Carrot’ by McCann would have cost only a fraction of the budget, but was the most popular Christmas ad of 2017, according to social media measurement by 4C.

Of course there will still be Christmas ads, but the annual pressure to create something bigger and showier every time seems to have come to an end. This may come as something of a relief to adam&eveDDB, whose challenge to raise the bar for John Lewis each year was beginning to look insurmountable.

And there’s always the non-high street retailers. Amazon’s 2017 effort with the singing boxes by Lucky Generals was a winner, and at least the online giant will still have a good Christmas budget at its disposal.

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About Emma Hall

Emma Hall
Emma Hall is the former London Editor of Ad Age, where she covered European marketing advertising, digital and media stories. She has written for newspapers including the Financial Times, The Guardian, The Times and the Telegraph, and was previously a section editor at Campaign. Emma started her career in New York as a researcher for a biography of Keith Richards.
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