The agency chief executive James Murphy spoke to Marketing about the fraught, but never boring, client relationship, the development of the campaign and how they deal with the feverish levels of expectation from the public and marketing community.
How do you live up to the increasing levels of hype and expectation surrounding the campaign?
You have to put it to one side. The thing we absolutely have to do is be convinced in ourselves that the Christmas campaign will drive footfall in-store and drive people to the website. That is the permanent priority.
It would be easy to be stretched by the need to do something innovative for innovation’s sake and for us to [pose loftily] in front of the industry. There’s that real danger when you've got an effective Super Bowl Oreo ad moment that you give the impression that brands and marketers are trying to win business for themselves.
How’s your relationship with the John Lewis team and how has it evolved?
Retail is brutally transparent, not soft, which makes it really exciting and bracing and makes for a very honest partnership.
The client-agency relationship in retail has to be honest because you are dealing with a fast-moving situation where the effectiveness of the work is clearly transparent. So it really has to be marked by an open, rapid and honest approach, and that’s very much the case with John Lewis.
While it’s a big and complex organisation, the way the marketing team moves is very agile and so we are able to move quickly and get decisions quickly. The people who work there have a very strong understanding of the business.
Over the years, the development of the campaign has sparked plenty of discussion and debate. I would characterise these debates as an embarrassment of riches, as we always have several options to choose from. [For instance, the choice of song] is so subjective and personal, it can be an amusing final stage.
We’ve gradually refined, shaped and created the campaigns on the basis of what we’ve learned over previous years.
Is there concern over the levels of hype the campaign attracts, bearing in mind the comments made by John Lewis MD Andy Street earlier this year?
We were surprised by quite how much the campaign has been picked up by the media and public. But it appears to be in pleasant ways, with an understanding that a brand like John Lewis is modest and self-effacing.
People at the heart of John Lewis want to ensure that the business is not behaving in an immodest way. Andy Street’s comments were taken slightly out of context - he was saying that some people might have worried that the situation was getting over-hyped [rather than that it actually was].
What are you doing this year to minimise the hype?
We’ve done a little bit of pre-launch teasing, but in quite a gentle way - a quite sweet outdoor [push] and a partnership with Channel 4 has taken idents and hinted at the campaign. But nothing too grandiose.
It’s great that people speculate about the campaigns, but we need to be very clear that it’s not to do with us. The reliance of the work is because people love Christmas, it’s a time of year with great expectation, and people have an affection for John Lewis.
It’s a time of year that people’s minds turn to friends and families, it's typified by homing and nesting instincts. Those have unique potency at this time of year.
What defines the John Lewis Christmas campaign?
Central to the Christmas campaign is the challenge that in essence it’s the same brief every year, which is summed up in two words - 'thoughtful giving'.
It’s based on a simple truth in the business. John Lewis have 350 SKUs which means they are the broadest general merchandiser in the country with more to choose from than any other retailer, allowing people to find an amazing gift for anyone they love. The Christmas campaign is about ensuring that truth about the business chimes with customers.