What the John Lewis Christmas ad reveals about where the retailer is headed

John Lewis Partnership's Sarah Gillard was speaking at Campaign’s Purpose Summit.

Purpose Summit: Gillard and Willan
Purpose Summit: Gillard and Willan

John Lewis Partnership generated debate with its decision to move away from a single story to a series of vignettes in different visual styles with this year’s Christmas ad, “Give a little love” – but it is the type of social interactions depicted in the spot that shed the most light on the direction of the business.

That's according to JLP partner and mission director Sarah Gillard, who said: “Probably the most visible sign of our renewed sense of purpose being at the heart of everything we do is this year's Christmas ad.

“Perhaps it was inevitable that this year, of all years, we would shift the focus of the narrative. It's still about thoughtfulness and kindness, but this time it goes beyond the immediate family or home environment to include the community, neighbours and people you've never met.”

The ad campaign is accompanied by a major charity push to raise at least £4m for organisations including FareShare and HomeStart – something that Gillard described as “a really significant step change for us” when compared with previous charity partnerships, which have had targets in the tens of thousands.

Gillard was speaking alongside Becky Willan, managing director and co-founder of brand purpose agency Given, at the online Campaign Purpose Summit today (Thursday).

The session followed a series of announcements in recent months about bold initiatives from John Lewis Partnership, including moves to turn unused store space into housing, the launch of a buy-back scheme across the whole product range and efforts to hire care leavers.

Being an organisation genuinely led by purpose, Gillard added, meant “re-engineering the mechanics of how the business operates, defining what success means to us, what metrics are used to measure progress, how the executive team and leaders are held to account for making progress in those key areas, and how resources are allocated to ensure that purpose is considered alongside the normal financial metrics of any business”. 

She admitted that this work was “process-heavy”, but said it was vital to avoid the “purpose washing” that businesses are sometimes accused of when their professed purpose is undermined by certain aspects of the way they operate. 

Willan, whose agency was brought on by JLP chairman Dame Sharon White to assist the development of the retailer’s approach to purpose, outlined three principles to successfully embed a purpose-led mentality.

“Being purpose-driven is an idea that has to be operationalised comprehensively across your business,” she said. “And this means seeing purpose more like a management approach and not simply a marketing strategy.” 

The first principle is co-creation. This means involving all employees in generating ideas and giving feedback to the greatest extent possible. “Successful purpose implementation is probably only about 10% amazing purpose idea, 40% great plan and actually 50% of that comes down to internal buy-in,” Willan suggested. 

The second principle is substance over strapline. A successful approach to purpose is not about having a “magical new idea”, Willan argued, but working out how to make it happen in practice.

She explained: “This meant setting out to define really bold commitments and really focusing on this super-practical stuff that actually leads to change: so creating new metrics, new decision-making tools and even new mandates to make purpose a tangible thing that could be delivered from day one.”

The final principle is a plan. It is not necessary to have all the answers immediately, Willan said, but she added that “for our purpose to be successful, it has to be lived and, for that to be successful, it needs to be understood, owned and used by everyone. This needs simplicity, but it also requires a really comprehensive plan.”

In the first year, Willan said, the business prioritised the actions that would have the greatest impact, meaning integrating the thinking into leadership behaviours and staff culture via a new people plan and finding pioneers in the business to “work with us to get runs on the board early, to help learn, iterate and test efforts that could be scaled over time".