Matt Charlton: can adland hit the right note this Christmas?

Through the foggy masked-covered gloom of October Christmas for adland is coming upon us fast. That means inevitably so are the new batch of Christmas ads. All I can say is what a time to be an agency trying to guess the right tone to take. Time to be a little less Morecambe and a lot more Wise.

I hope we can expect a sentimentally toned down and much more commercially hard driving set of work this Christmas as brands try to recoup sales from what has for many been a dismal trading year – and try not to strike the wrong tone. There are no real comparable benchmarks to look towards in Christmas 2020.

It is possible that “winning” Christmas this year could be more down to media spend and share of voice than creative. Perhaps Fury vs Wilder 3 which was to happen in December is instead going to be replaced by heavyweight brands. The classic retailers like John Lewis, Tesco and Sainsburys duking it out over 12 rounds with the silky new skills of not just Amazon (below) but the resurgent likes of Ocado. There will be some new heavyweight players this year.

Slade famously recorded Merry Xmas Everybody in a boiling hot studio in New York in July, and this year agencies will have faced a genuine struggle in July to pick the right approach. Certainly it is hard to imagine many creative risks being taken, but also equally hard to see the deep family sentimentalism that has become part of the festive ad cheer striking the right tone.

We must not be tone deaf and forget that at the time of year when families come together, there will be families with people missing and families not together who would normally be so. We will find the positives as people I am sure but probably we don’t need our favourite supplier of tea towels trying to choke us up, because the tears might not stop when the ad stops.

I think perhaps the best approach for brands this year is to focus on being useful. To me that means talking about the benefit of the products. I personally hope brands avoid more social good works unless it is really, and I mean really, genuine and useful. It is going to be hard to do the old “we’ve given loads of money to charity” angle when “we’ve also made 30% of the workforce redundant and shut loads of shops.” If brands have money still to burn then use it trying to keep jobs not dodgy marketing stunts.

The brutal truth is I am not expecting any surprises this year in terms of winners and losers. This year has driven competitive advantage well beyond anything advertising can fix. If you have a really powerful D2C operational model then this Christmas is going to be good. If you are desperately trying to catch up then no matter how good your ad is, it is going to be tough.

I for one would be really happy with some decent cheerful product ads and good old fashioned selling, maybe a laugh or two. This year is not the year for football matches in WW1 trenches.

Matt Charlton is CEO of London agency Brothers and Sisters.

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