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How Amazon Prime Video’s cinematic ad created a TV hit

CYW’s two-minute Christmas spot telling the story of two unlikely friends is the latest winner of the Thinkboxes award for TV creativity

How Amazon Prime Video’s cinematic ad created a TV hit

“Create a modern Christmas tale that’s as entertaining as the content on Prime Video and make people smile this festive season.” In nine weeks. Oh, and it’ll be the brand’s first Christmas ad in Europe, across seven countries.

It’s the sort of brief to induce nervous smiles perhaps but Madrid agency CYW’s calm, positive and collaborative way of working produced a spot for Amazon that wowed audiences and has now won the November-December Thinkboxes award for TV creativity, run in association with Campaign.

“TV is still a very relevant medium,” notes Xuan Pham, creative director Europe at Amazon Prime. “Even more around Christmas time as it traditionally brings families together. Our approach for this campaign was to make a short film, highly crafted and cinematic. There was no doubt for us that big TV screens would provide the right viewing experience for more enjoyment.”

“An Unlikely Friendship” is the tale of an unexpected bond, forged through a shared love for entertainment, between two misfits: Hattie, a bullied hyena who can’t smile, and Carl, a grumpy zookeeper who can’t find any reasons to smile.

Directed by Chris Balmond and produced by Blur and Outsider, the ad builds on the brand positioning, “Every Smile Tells A Story”, and is set to an arrangement of Smile by Nat King Cole, performed by Joy Crookes. 

How did the idea arise? “We wanted to tell a story, the story of a smile. How it’s born and what’s behind it,” says Carmelo Rodríguez, executive creative director at CYW. “So what better character than a hyena, a usually misunderstood and feared animal, to tell a one-of-a-kind Christmas tale condensed into two minutes? Once we had the character, it was more about finding the right way to tell the story, keeping Prime Video in the centre of the idea in a natural way.”

Balmond and Blur / Outsider’s understanding of the concept impressed from the start. “Chris is a very gifted film director who can take very complex scenes from a script and bring them to life in a very few impactful shots. After the very first meeting, he already made the creative idea much better,” says Willy Lomana, Rodríguez’s fellow ECD at CYW. “So it was obvious to us that he was the right director for this project.”

Time was tight. The ad had to go from pre-production, through the shoot and out the other side of post-production in nine weeks. But possibly the biggest challenge lay in making Hattie the hyena lovable. 

“Hyenas are usually portrayed as savage animals. We had to turn that around through the storytelling, different gags in the film and our character’s evolution,” Rodríguez explains. “This would have been impossible without The Mill’s amazing work [in post-production] in bringing her to life. A realistic, yet cute, hyena; friendly but with a wild side.”

Lomana adds: “If you pay attention, the details in the post-production are amazing. Not only on Hattie, her fur and how well it’s integrated, but also in the streets, the environment and the scenery. More than 50 animators worldwide were involved in the process of making Hattie alive.”

A specific challenge was that hyenas “don’t have human expressions,” Rodríguez continues. “The Mill’s animation team had to create a believable range of emotions and facial expressions to make Hattie lovable and understandable in the different gags and various moments of the film. She can look sad and broken when bullied at the zoo by the other hyenas, but also menacing at moments or hilarious at the end of the ad.”

The international nature of the campaign brought additional pressures. “For it to work in seven different countries, we had to develop a story that would resonate across language and culture,” Lomana says. “So we wrote a script with no dialogue and with relatable characters who could make anyone, anywhere, smile.”

Resonate it did. Reaction across both traditional and social media was extremely positive - “even Clive Gregory, the Bishop of Wolverhampton, apparently mentioned in an interview that “An Unlikely Friendship” was his favourite ad,” Lomana grins.

After the ad’s UK launch, an email from an anonymous TV viewer found its way to the agency in Spain. “It’s one we won’t forget,” Rodríguez reflects. “Someone had taken the time to find the CYW email and to tell us her story and how it made her feel... She’d lost a dear person at Christmas the year before, so this season was a sad time of year for her, but she said our ad made her smile again. It was a nice reminder of why we do what we do. If we are able to move people and put a smile back on their faces, then we have done something right.”

Ultimately, the success in getting the ad from concept to TV screens in the timeframe came down to partnership, along with an unruffled and upbeat approach. Lomana’s advice: “Be calm and positive until the very end. Sometimes the lack of time can lead you to rushed decisions. In those moments, we always remember the mantra of a respected creative director we used to work with: ‘The rush always passes, but shit remains’. No-one will remember you were in a rush when you took a bad decision.”

“I’ll share two tips,” Pham adds. “One - team up with partners who believe in the idea as much or more than you do and share ownership. Two - have fun during the process, even when things seem difficult and chaotic. I’ve always seen outstanding results when these two principles were applied.”

Second in the November/December Thinkboxes was "A Christmas Carrot" by McCann UK for Aldi. "Big on a Christmas you can ALWAYS believe in" by Karmarama for Lidl was third. Also shortlisted were "Unexpected Guest" for John Lewis & Partners by adam&eveDDB and "Bags of Joy" for Boots by VMLY&R.

WINNING AD

Agency: CYW Madrid

Executive creative directors: Carmelo Rodríguez, Willy Lomana

Creative team: Lucas Siewert, Marta Horcajo, Eva Fernández, CYW;  Xuan Pham, Prime Video.

Client: Helen Cowley

Production: Blur and Outsider

Director: Chris Balmond

The Thinkboxes, in association with Campaign, are the only bi-monthly awards that celebrate the UK’s world-beating TV ad creativity, in all its forms. They are judged by the Thinkbox Academy – advertising and marketing luminaries who have been involved in award-winning creative work for TV.

Want to see more great work? Head to the Thinkboxes hub

Thinkbox is the marketing body for commercial TV in the UK, in all its forms. Its shareholders are Channel 4, ITV, Sky Media and UKTV. Thinkbox works with the marketing community with a single ambition: to help advertisers get the best out of today’s TV.

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