Will crisis kill the blockbuster Christmas ad?

The coronavirus pandemic calls many institutions into question, including the blockbuster Christmas ad. As marketers press pause on business as usual, will this tradition survive?

John Lewis: 'The bear and the hare' is a story relevant for these times
John Lewis: 'The bear and the hare' is a story relevant for these times

After months of solitary hibernation, a bear wakes up and reunites with all of his friends outside for a big celebration. 

This is the plot of John Lewis & Partners’ classic 2013 Christmas ad, "The bear and the hare", but it could also be a storyline for the future, when the public emerges from isolation after the coronavirus pandemic. As the retailer has shown with a long line of festive hits, the most beloved Christmas ads have always held a mirror up to people’s emotions and way of life. 

But this crisis calls much of what we previously valued into question, including some ad industry institutions – the cancellation of Cannes Lions is one prominent example.

Just as in recent years there were leaders who had begun to question the relevance of Cannes, the lavish tradition of the blockbuster Christmas ad has also come under scrutiny. When the pandemic ends and people return to a semblance of normality, will this marketing milestone need a reset?

"I don’t think anyone is going to be making Christmas ads in the way they were last year," one creative leader who wished to remain anonymous tells Campaign

Christmas advertising, dubbed the UK’s Super Bowl moment, is for some marketers the biggest time of their year. The elaborate craft and big budgets poured into these campaigns require months of forward planning and, at this time of year, many of these would have already been in development.

The godfather of those, John Lewis, and its agency Adam & Eve/DDB, famously tend to already have a budding idea by January, when people have just taken down their Christmas trees from the previous year's celebration. Yet, at the moment, most marketers have pressed pause on business as usual as they try to survive this crisis. 

Strain on long-term marketing plans

The changes that the pandemic has so far effected have been swift and unexpected, with many companies facing threats to their businesses and ways of working. This precarious environment has brought a greater sense of immediacy to marketing strategies – causing numerous brands to narrow their focus to the next couple of months, rather than the full year, agency leaders observe. "We’ve got to get through now," the creative leader says. 

Indeed, some advertisers that are typically major players in the Christmas calendar may not even be around when the festive season begins. Debenhams, which is filing for administration after coronavirus forced it to shut its UK shops, is one example. As the economy grinds to a standstill, no-one can confidently predict where the country will be in a few weeks, let alone the end of the year. 

The pandemic raises both logistical and creative dilemmas for brands and their agencies. Christmas ads tend to start filming as early as the summer, when some experts predict that lockdowns will have just started to ease. Yet, even if the situation has improved by then, some precautions and government rules may still be in place that could restrict production. Exactly what those constraints might look like is unclear, putting a strain on any long-term marketing plans. 

The ways in which agencies and production companies are working around those restrictions now may offer a clue for the Christmas period, however. The lockdown has already spawned a new genre of advertising rife with user-generated and influencer-created content, illustration, digital techniques and animation. The latter is already a festive advertising trope, and creative directors and producers predict that we will see even more of it this year, because it has a long lead time and can be done remotely. 

greater resurgence of craft

If more live-action directors are compelled to branch into animation, this could bring a fresh take on the medium, George Floyd, head of sales at Academy, says. This is just one example of how creative talent could be forced to rethink how they work or try new approaches. "Heads of production [at agencies] are all saying something really interesting is going to come out of this time," Floyd explains. "It levels the playing field for everyone as well." 

Now that the initial coronavirus-induced panic has subsided, "there are starting to be some interesting ideas again", Biscuit UK managing director Rupert Reynolds-MacLean observes. Reynolds-MacLean is among those who predict that agencies and their clients will adapt to more innovative creative forms not typically seen during the Christmas period, which tends to favour traditional films. 

"Undoubtedly, we will emerge from this crisis with greater agility and more fluidity around production techniques," Sarah Douglas, chief executive of Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, says. "We’re already seeing brands respond to this moment in time with apps or community activations, not ads. I can’t help but think this will also be the case at Christmas. There won’t be a natural default to the entertaining blockbuster." 

Yet Douglas also believes that Christmas will see an even greater resurgence of craft: "We’ll come out of this phase slightly hungry to put the craft back in, because the production techniques available to us in lockdown are constricted."

Change in tone

Besides production constraints, another creative challenge is how to compose a story in these uncertain times that will resonate at the end of the year. "We don’t know what the mood of the nation will be," the anonymous creative leader notes. "As an industry, we will have to be in massive listening mode. We’re meant to be reflective of culture and we haven’t been for a long time."

Or as another creative boss who wants to also remain anonymous puts it: "You can’t write for that time [Christmas] in this time – it feels wrong. I’m going through [ideas for festive ads] and thinking: ‘I don’t know how to judge this work.’" 

Maybe no-one will be in the mood for a Christmas blockbuster when the time comes, especially if the economy has not yet recovered. "I imagine the tone of all [Christmas ads] will change," Reynolds-MacLean points out. 

Brands that do want to advertise will have to adopt "humility", Douglas warns, offering "a more circumspect reflection of what the country needs and how they can demonstrate understanding and empathy for the year that we’ve had."

But Chris Gallery, a partner at Mother London, thinks the public will be hungry for signs of normality, of which Christmas advertising is one – the debut of John Lewis’ campaign is often seen as the start of the festive season in the UK. "Instead of being bored by Christmas ads, people might be really happy to see them come back," he says. "More so this year – we want to be given permission to feel good about things."

As in previous festive seasons, we can expect to see a raft of sentimental spots that pull on the heartstrings, especially after the challenges people will have overcome this year, Gallery predicts. But he encourages brands to embrace "escapism and a bit of fun" as well: "Be inspired by how much we're all enjoying fun memes and take note that the most successful form of entertainment at the moment is Tiger King.

"There will be an amazing Christmas ad that brings us all to tears, but there’s enough of that in real life. Maybe we can try to bring a bit of joy to the proceedings."

No matter how this period plays out, Christmas will still be seen as an important marketing moment for many businesses, although their priorities may change. For example, brands that in recent years have wanted to play up their environmental or ethical credentials might fall back on more overt sales-driven messages to rebuild after the downturn, one agency leader suggests. Retailers, which were already under strain before this crisis hit, might abandon the principles of craft and entertainment in favour of recouping sales.   

New and unexpected players 

Come Christmastime, the ad market is likely to look quite different. Some advertisers that previously went big during the festive season will have reduced their budgets or folded completely, while stable businesses such as supermarkets, which are seeing "Christmas-level sales" now because of the pandemic, will want to solidify their positions in the market, Gallery says. 

There could also be new and unexpected players that emerge as the mince pies come out and the lights are switched on. Brands that have become staples amid the pandemic, such as delivery services or video-conferencing apps such as Zoom, might see Christmas as a chance to "keep the love" that they have built in this period, Gallery adds. This would open creative opportunities for the industry. 

"I’m excited to see who has the new-found confidence to enter the fray at Christmas. Will there be an Ocado Christmas ad, for example?" he says. "We’re hoping this will be a new dawn of creativity – let's see if Christmas can show us that."

Brittaney Kiefer

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