Feature

Advertiser of the Decade: John Lewis & Partners

No other brand has created a true calendar moment and entirely owned it.

Advertiser of the Decade: John Lewis & Partners

Who else could it have been? What other brand this decade has created a true calendar moment and entirely owned it, so that it is regarded by a good chunk of the nation as a vital moment in the build-up to the festive season? This is what John Lewis has done with its annual Christmas ad.

Underpinning all 11 Christmas spots created for John Lewis by Adam & Eve (pre and post its DDB merger) is a simple but inspired insight: that the act of gifting is greater than the gift. The first, "Sweet child o’ mine", landed just before the dawn of the current decade, and introduced the style of music with which the brand has become synonymous: piano-based covers of classic songs (in this case, the 1988 Guns N’ Roses epic of the same name).

In 2010, Adam & Eve created "Always a woman", described in Campaign last year as "the ad that changed everything" by the agency’s founders James Murphy and David Golding. That observation was as true for the brand as it was for the agency. Following the life of a woman played by nine actors over 60 seconds, although it wasn’t a Christmas ad, it established the narrative style and heartstring-tugging vibes for which John Lewis has become famous.

But it was 2011’s "The long wait" that fully realised the potential of that style, and in the process, created the John Lewis Christmas ad as an institution. The purity of the story and unexpected denouement in the 90-second spot, about a young boy who just can’t wait to give his parents their Christmas pressie, has helped it retain a reputation as the best of the bunch, a status confirmed by a straw poll of Campaign’s editorial staff.

While the subsequent festive spots, which included the adventures of "Monty the penguin" (2014) and "Buster the boxer" (2016), are John Lewis’ most famous work, its advertising has also shone outside the Christmas season, perhaps most impressively with last year’s "Bohemian Rhapsody", a joint campaign with Waitrose that launched the new "& Partners" brand identities. Its gold Cannes Lion-winning "Tiny dancer" (2015), for John Lewis Insurance, which featured a junior ballerina dancing like no-one’s watching, was another highlight.

During this fine run of form, the brand didn’t just create ads that people actively sought out, it made ones that worked, as recognised by its awards. These included two IPA Effectiveness Grands Prix, in 2012 and 2016, and, this October, the inaugural award for Consistent Creative Effectiveness at the Campaign Big Awards. 

The contribution of Craig Inglis, the marketer with the foresight to sign off Adam & Eve’s creative ideas, has been recognised with a series of promotions, to director of marketing in 2010 and customer director in 2015. In 2017 he was also handed the remit for the website, store development and design.

Last Christmas the brand turned to Sir Elton John once again. While "The boy and the piano" was somewhat divisive, timed as it was to coincide with tickets going on sale for John’s UK tour dates, there’s no doubt the film was a superb production achievement. Moreover, the moral of the tale – that the gift of a piano to the young singer went on to bring joy to millions – arguably makes the point better than any previous ads that gifting can have ramifications that go beyond the immediate recipient. 

That’s a powerful message for the brand to own, and one made credible by its partnership model, which keeps it removed from the more unsavoury associations of some big businesses.

In September this year, the John Lewis Partnership revealed a massive reorganisation, merging most functions of its two retail brands. Under this change, Inglis will take on a new customer-facing general management role, while his Waitrose counterpart, Martin George, will lead marketing for both brands.

The new era kicked off with the first joint Christmas campaign for the brands, "Excitable Edgar". It deftly navigated the task of serving up in a single ad both John Lewis’ superior schmaltz and Waitrose’s typical cues of family festivities and good living. 

But the integrated approach is just one factor that will make the coming decade look very different. Retailers are under intense pressure from changing consumer habits and, of course, the Bezos machine. And, while a focus on brand experience should leave John Lewis better placed than others, ad budgets are bound to feel the squeeze.

Even if the blockbuster TV spots come to an end one day, the brand has a body of work that new audiences will continue to seek out for its touching stories and dulcet soundtracks. And at some point, long, long into the future, perhaps people will ask: "Whatever happened to the John Lewis Christmas ad?"

Runners-up

Ikea

The product of another partnership mapping the decade (Mother was appointed in January 2010), Ikea’s advertising has been artsy, funny, weird and sometimes a touch poignant, while always carrying a vital air of stylish inspiration. From sending a woman freefalling through a sky filled with mattresses (2014’s "Beds", above), to a rumination on the sleeping habits of lions with a twist (2017’s "Relax into greatness"), the brand has always found the transcendental in the mundane – an idea captured in the name of a long-running campaign "The wonderful everyday". Mother’s UK work contributed to the brand being named Advertiser of the Year at 2011’s Cannes Lions, before scooping this magazine’s Campaign of the Year in 2014, and Creative Marketer of the Year title twice on the trot in 2016 and 2017. 

Channel 4

Culture has advanced so quickly in the past decade that it is easy to overlook just how challenging "Meet the superhumans" (above), Channel 4’s campaign for its coverage of the 2012 Paralympic Games, was at the time, when there was little widespread discussion of how disabled people were portrayed. With the Olympics and Paralympics in London, Channel 4 had the perfect opportunity to force Brits to recognise their disabled compatriots, and it did so with incredible style and energy in its Public Enemy-soundtracked film. Four years later, the broadcaster surpassed itself with "We’re the superhumans", for the Rio Games. These were merely the highlights of a great creative decade for Channel 4, in which it also laid down the gauntlet for promoting a TV show with its chilling campaigns for sci-fi drama Humans.

Unilever

Unilever was Campaign’s Advertiser of the Year in 2013, thanks to memorable work for Lynx/Axe, Dove, Persil and Marmite, but it could have been a contender in more or less any year of the decade. Dove’s "Real beauty" campaign (above) and Persil’s "Dirt is good" continued to produce strong work after that year, while Lynx enjoyed a landmark re-invention in 2016 with "Find your magic", which shifted the brand’s focus to celebrating male diversity. Marmite, meanwhile, went on to create a genuine DNA test, available to select consumers to determine whether they were a natural lover of the yeast spread. With a large number of brands, Unilever has maintained an impressive creative breadth across the range.