Jo Arden, chief strategy officer of Publicis Poke
Jo Arden, chief strategy officer of Publicis Poke
A view from Jo Arden

Should we be putting something new on our Christmas list?

It's the summer hols, lockdown restrictions have been relaxed, so let's start planning for a Christmas 'like no other'.

It's July, lockdown restrictions have been lifted, school holidays are in full swing and the sun is finally out and got its hat on. I'm sure you'll agree, it's the perfect time to think about Christmas 2021.

After the "on-again, off-again" festive season of 2020, people involved in campaigns this year have got a tough gig predicting the mood of the nation next month, let alone five months down the line. But we're nothing if not up for a challenge.

Speaking to people about their plans, not surprisingly, shows a country divided. There are those who will be gathering up the spare chairs to make up for lost time with family, and others who plan to play it safe. For all of us, there is the new knowledge that the decision could be taken out of our hands if Covid cases rise.

There is one thing we can be certain about and that's Covid has created a country in which individual wealth is becoming increasingly polarised. Even before the full, post-furlough effect on employment is clear, there have been economic winners and losers in the pandemic. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies' labour market report (published in July), about nine million UK workers were placed on furlough at some stage. While households made savings by not travelling to work and because of a general lack of stuff to do outside, for many households, losing 20% of their income still makes the difference between getting by and not.

The Resolution Foundation's analysis suggests that the average household has had a windfall of £7,800. But that figure masks a stark contrast in the fortunes of families across the country, with the poorest more likely to have run down their savings as opposed to topping them up. As ever, it is the people with the least who are affected most by a crisis.

The Bank of England sums this up with brutal clarity: "The accumulation of savings has been concentrated among wealthier and less financially distressed households."

The cumulation of the challenges from the past 18 months will soon come to a head – if it hasn't already. So what does that mean for Christmas?

It's not new news that some people are better off than others. Nor that the festive season brings with it anxiety, pressure and, for many, massive credit card bills come January. But in the same way that brands were keen to empathise with the plight of the nation at the outbreak of the pandemic, so it seems there might be an opportunity for a greater sense of unity as the year comes to a close.

The highly addictive YouGov tracker, "British mood, measured weekly", gives us a clue as to what the nation craves. The survey asks people to choose which mood best describes them in the previous week. It has been a changeable time with "frustrated", "scared" and "bored" all rising to record highs in March last year, reflecting the ride we have all been on. But it is our "happiness" that has taken the biggest beating.

The great news is that, by and large, we're a happy bunch. Under normal circumstances, about half of the population describes themselves as happy. But at Christmas last year, only 47% of people were feeling the joy compared with 61% in the previous Christmas. While age, socio-economic group and regionality have very little impact on this figure, YouGov also asked people to describe 2020. As ever, the poorest had a rougher time than the average person, with 28% of people in C2DE groups describing last year as "terrible".

One of the great strengths of our business is our ability to make things that make people happy. Fleetingly, superficially in some cases, but with more lasting impact in others.

Christmas campaigns are the perfect opportunity to entertain and empathise, to provide some of the light relief the nation craves and to make commitments for a better world in the year that follows. Charity tie-ups have become commonplace, which is no bad thing at any time of the year, but maybe there is a new opportunity for all that Christmas spend to have a profounder impact beyond the leftovers.

Perhaps the obsession with Christmas itself is ripe for a rethink. According to ONS data, only half of the UK's population identifies as Christian (a quarter identify with no religion at all). So a greater redistribution of marketing spend across other celebratory occasions, religious or otherwise, could be an interesting strategy for brands searching for more relevance, to more people more often. Sharing in moments of collective celebration – such as Divali, Ramadan and Rosh Hashanah – would also demonstrate a deeper commitment to diversity. The communities that celebrate these festivals in the UK may be relatively small but so – comparative to spend – are those who celebrate Christmas with a religious intent.

We've enjoyed a decade of certainty when it comes to Christmas campaigns, but suffice to say this will be a Christmas like no other. As we sit in our shorts this month, planning the festivities for five months hence, we could do well to think about whether this is yet another aspect of our pre-Covid lives that need not return to normal.

The fundamentals of the season will remain the same: the desire for connection, the joy in each other and, perhaps, the sadness of loss. But there are many other aspects of Christmas that have been manufactured by our industry: indulgence, over-spending, unrealistic expectations. It is within our gift, therefore, to create a new vision for the season, or indeed seasons, of celebration.

Jo Arden is chief strategy officer of Publicis.Poke