Sainsbury's vs John Lewis: the battle of the school plays

Three top creative directors compare Sainsbury's blockbuster Christmas ad with the John Lewis and Waitrose spot from September.

Sainsbury's vs John Lewis: the battle of the school plays

Ben Middleton, creative partner, Creature London

11:23pm: Bollocks. The recurring nightmare is back. The sick-in-my-mouth, pins-and-needles-in-my-eyes one where the film we’ve been slaving over for months has been pipped to the post by another agency with exactly the same idea. However, for some completely uncontrived reason, this time I’m caught in a world where I’m repeatedly remembering specific bits of the Sainsbury’s and John Lewis/Waitrose films and just making a series of short comparisons, as I had nothing to do with either of them.

Right, what did the doctor say? Glass of water, deep breathing and imagine swimming or summat – that should do it.

00:54am: God, that was tough going. Having just redreamed the two ads side by side, I can now see they basically have the same beginning. A sweet, grounded shambles to get people's attention without giving away any of the glory of what’s to come. Both set the scene brilliantly, but I reckon Sainsbury’s just wins this round. The little girl’s performance is excellent and, as she conquers her nerves to really start belting it out, the muted whoops and brilliantly British ripple of micro-applause feels wonderfully authentic and non-addy.

OK. Maybe that’s it. One sheep, two sheep, three sheep…

01:42am: I’ve been woken with a dig in the ribs from the missus because I was "Galileo"-ing in my sleep. Both films have musically anchored themselves in populist monsters. With Sainsbo’s having the less obvious, cooler You Get What You Give, I really want that to be the better choice – but, frankly, nothing beats Bohemian Rhapsody. Even if it does feel achingly middle-class.

If, when I close my eyes this time, I’m still trapped in this sleeping horror, I’m going to have a crack at one of those dream within a dream things.

02:21am: Inception is harder than I thought. I just found myself dreaming of watching both ads again on YouTube at work. Clearly, Sainsbury’s is all about the "Squeees". The stunning Christmas-a-thon it’s built around is sprinkled with lovely ideas and art directional touches, like the tree going up, the little bauble girl waving at her mum as she runs past and the giant glitter filled gravy boat. BUT I love the bonkers randomness of "Bohemian Rhapsody in space" more. It’s so weirdly mad and original and (in its two-and-a-half bloody minutes), it delivers it with gusto. Sainsbury’s feels expected by comparison.

Ugh. Right. Enough. Goodnight, advertising. I’m going to dream about flying or something.

02:53am: FFS. There was some flying, but it wasn’t me. It was the star girl in the Sainsbury’s film, and the astronauts and planet children in the John Lewis film. I prefer the girl in the Sainsbury’s ad purely because there’s a great narrative reason for her being there – she was, after all, the star of the show.

OK. What works for the kids? I’m going to sing myself to sleep. Twinkle twinkle little…

03:45am: Well that’s the first time I’ve laughed myself awake. In spite of their similarities, it’s an absolute treat watching these two heavyweights go toe to toe on the lolz, and here’s where the Adam & Eve/DDB craft machine goes into overdrive. It’s so densely packed with great gags, ideas and amazing little touches. From the first reveal of the little boy in his space castle to the Martian singing "I’m not dead", and let’s not forget the singling out of "Mrs Miller" – it’s the much funnier film. But then there's that bit with the waving queen in the Sainsbury’s ad…

Right. Come on SLEEP! I know what’ll work. How did that Diet Coke ad go?

04:30am: Fucking hell, this is becoming exhausting. I can’t stop thinking about that plug bit. Real people will fucking love that. Well done, Wiedens.

04:33am: A brief diversion into another nightmare I have on the regs, where an angry Shirley (our chief financial officer) is tearing out my toenails because we’ve hired a creative team without telling her. I’ve had worse. The white noise of her screams mean I have no problems drifting back off to sleep. 

05:03am: OK. It’s nearly over. The grand finale of each ad has just run through my mind and both are an absolute treat. The sheer joy of the end of the Sainsbury’s film is wonderful and that dad’s cheer when the singing finishes is inspired. The Rushmore-style pyrotechnics that signal the end of the John Lewis/Waitrose ad are nothing short of what you’d expect from two brands looking to make a big bang with their new co-branding announcement. Both endings work brilliantly, but for different reasons and in different ways.

I’m just going to close my eyes and lay here. If I pretend to be asleep, maybe I’ll trick my body into actually doing it. 

05:45am: Oh, who am I kidding? I’m not getting back to sleep now and the kids’ll be up in a minute. It’s all going to be OK. Thankfully, Stu and I haven’t had this happen to us yet, and today is a new day. Fingers crossed that thing we’ve got with the Martians for those new mash potato people isn’t copied by anyone.

What kind of saddo dreams about bloody ads, anyway?

Anna Carpen, creative partner, And Rising

First up – the school I went to looks like an actual prison compared with these schools. I thought this was Brexit Britain? Where are these schools getting the budget for these mega-productions? Remember that episode of The Simpsons where Lisa Simpson dresses up as Florida? That was far closer to my memory of school plays.

Nevertheless, I loved performing and used to fight tooth and nail for a main part. If Sainsbury’s or John Lewis and Waitrose had been involved in my school plays, I would have probably wet my M&S pants. Because these schools have everything, from hydraulic stages to costumes crafted better than Broadway.  

Of course, it’s not about the hydraulics, it’s the feeling. Which is what’s really on display in these ads. School plays are wonderful things. You’re there in your makeshift costume, which is Pritt Sticked together (glue gun if you’re lucky). There’s an incredible buzz backstage. School always felt different at night, didn’t it? You’d peep out of the curtains to see where your family were sitting. Your heart would skip a beat as the lights dimmed (or, at my school, the dodgy strip lights flickered off).  

It appeared John Lewis and Waitrose had made one of the best school play ads ever. With their iconic track, large budget and world-class director.

UNTIL PLUG KID CAME ALONG.

And there – in one leap into an electrical socket – Sainsbury’s stole the crown.

Next Christmas, no-one is going to want to be Mary, Joseph or Little Donkey. Children up and down the country are going to be demanding Plug kid costumes. Among all the hype, Saino’s even managed to bag a quote from Plug Kid’s mum.

"PLUG KID! PLUG KID!" They will chant as he walks the school corridor.

He’ll tell his kids, his grandkids, the story of Christmas 2018. The year he was Plug Kid.  

Maybe this is the first step to his success – maybe he’ll end up being prime minister? Or will success get to him and he’ll end up like Lindsay Lohan?  

What I love about Plug Kid is that people watching at home have fully embraced him. Meme factories have been churning out #plugkid relatable gifs. Plug Kid is the hero we need right now. It’s a level of positive craziness the world is missing.

Authorities, institutions and the government will be deeply concerned that the nation’s kids will start sticking their fingers in plug sockets. "Sorry mum and dad, I was just trying to be Plug Kid." Hey, it’s 2018 and anything could happen.

Back to the battle of the school play ads. As a creative, it’s really annoying when you make an ad that’s really similar to another one at almost the same time. It hurts like little daggers in your heart, because you feel completely unoriginal. 

But agencies will continue to do it while there are brands with nothing new to say, and then run advertising that follows suit. These ideas float in the ether of culture – that’s why it’s so important to have a wonderful mix of different creative humans working in agencies.  

Finally, shout out to the OG – Richard Curtis. He directed the best school play Christmas scene ever in Love Actually. And Lobster Kid who randomly turned up at the birth of baby Jesus.

Hermeti Balarin, partner, Mother

September 2018. 

We open on the Sainsbury’s Christmas ad shoot at Black Island Studios. Client and agency sit in the playback area sipping flat whites and browsing through their phones when they spot a John Lewis ad that just dropped out of the blue. Is it Christmas already?

They all huddle around a phone to watch. As the first few seconds go by, their collective jaws drop. It’s a Dougal Wilson school play extravaganza. The exact same script that they are shooting. Even the endline and strategy are similar.

Panic quickly spreads through the set. Then the agency. Then the client. Surely they can’t carry on making an ad that’s the exact replica of another big brand’s ad? Especially with them running so close together. Surely everyone would notice? And that would be terrible. Terrible. 

Cut to two months later. It turns out that they decided to stick with the original plan. In their minds, they were trying to convince themselves that it’s different enough. Surely the black-and-white footage and the orange bits of selective colouring would be enough to differentiate the two nearly identical ads? Surely the laugh-out-loud plug scene would set them completely apart? Surely.

Sadly, their Christmas wishes did not come true. As soon as the ad came out, the entire country spotted the similarities straight away. No amount of orange selective colouring could split them apart. People were perplexed and some even cried foul. How can a big retailer run a nearly identical ad to another big retailer two months apart? 

Moral of the story: at a time when our industry needs to signal change and originality, this has to go down as a big facepalm moment. They missed a brilliant chance to prove that advertising can be nimble and adapt. Surely they could have come up with a brilliant re-edit idea. A different media approach. At least a different insight or tagline. Anything. 

And to think that the John Lewis version was already a poor cousin to Love Actually.

Get a grip, adland. Or you won’t be around for long. 

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