It’s no lie that this year, Christmas will be a bit different. But one thing stays the same - we all slow down and wait patiently for the John Lewis Christmas ad of the season. Year in, year out it has been one of the events in UK advertising that gathers the whole nation in front of the screen, quietly awaiting what is in store this time.
The brief for the John Lewis spot for many years has stayed as ‘Thoughtful gifting’, but this year it went through an evolution - into ‘Thoughtful gestures'. This comes in line with the general trend in Christmas advertising in Europe, that has led marketers to lean more on relatability and comfort, over glitz and glam this holiday season. A simple message - actions mean more than gifts, and those you give to your loved ones are the most important of them all and will remain the most needed in harsh times.
The philosophy of acting before speaking is also carried through by John Lewis this year in their ‘Building Brighter Futures’ programme, which supports projects from organisations within the care sector, working to build happier futures for care-experienced people, as well as helping prepare them for employment and providing direct apprenticeship opportunities within the John Lewis Partnership.
And this leads us to the film - ‘The Beginner’ - telling a heartwarming, but human and real story, created by adam&eveDDB with input from partner charities Action for Children and Who Cares? Scotland. The protagonist of the story is a man, trying to learn skating, but going through some difficulties. As audiences watch his hobby develop into a passion, they start rooting for the character’s progression, but are still left ‘questioning the motive’. Then, we meet Ellie, a young teen who is at the man’s door with a social worker, holding a skateboard, awaiting to enter her new foster home.
LBB’s Zoe Antonov spoke to creative directors at adam&eveDDB, Matt Gay and Feargal Ballance, about the creation of the film, the partnerships behind it, and what it meant to create this year’s iteration of a John Lewis Christmas.
LBB> What was the brief for this year's campaign and what were your initial ideas on it? How did they change along the course of the making?
Matt> The Christmas brief for John Lewis has been ‘Thoughtful gifting’ for many years. This year that was evolved into ‘Thoughtful gestures’ which tied in well with the launch of the partnerships Building Happier Futures programme and their commitment to children in care.
LBB> Why did you decide that this story was perfect for the nation's mood this year?
Feargal> It really came down to John Lewis and their charitable decision to create ‘The Building Brighter Futures’ for children in care. And to use this incredible Christmas platform we’ve created to launch it. There’s no other advert out there that the nation seeks, waits for and has an opinion on more than the John Lewis Christmas ad, so to use this moment to do what we did was brave, smart and the right thing and time to do it.
LBB> Tell me more about the main character learning how to skate - how did you come up with his story and character, and how does it relate to the little girl's story?
Feargal> Of all the ideas presented to us this story really sang out. It was heartfelt, quietly heroic and, most importantly, handled the subject matter with respect. The POV of this man in his 40s learning how to skateboard, regardless of his advancing years, public embarrassment and aching joints to have the smallest chance of making a foster child feel more at home was perfect. Once the story had been crafted we then worked closely with the charities to make sure we were being authentic throughout the casting, location, tone and of course the pivotal arrival moment.
LBB> Why did you go for this particular track for the music and why was it your best choice?
Matt> Picking music for the Christmas ad is always tricky and always brings about plenty of debate! This year we were particularly mindful that we need to land the right tone as well. We wanted something joyful and fun as the dad learns to skate but something sensitive to the ending and final message. Conversely, we didn’t want a track that was overtly heart-warming upfront and signposted the ending. The pared-back version of Blink-182’s ‘All the Small Things” seemed to work perfectly.
LBB> Tell me about John Lewis' partnership with Action for Children and Who Cares? Scotland and how did it affect the storyline of the film? How did you relate the brand to these charities?
Feargal> John Lewis have a range of products where a percentage of the sales will go to Action for Children and Who Cares? Scotland to support their work with children from care. Customers can also donate through a giving tree in any store.
LBB> This year the relatability level has risen and there is a genuine connection with the customer, rather than a glitzy portrayal of happy holiday times. Why do you think that is and will this time define the sector for the future, or will trends keep changing as we go forward?
Matt> As I mentioned before, we kept asking ourselves “Have we got the tone right?”. “Are we reading the room?” Which I believe we did. There are things happening in the world that we have to acknowledge, and I feel that is why the campaigns this year have a more genuine and authentic feel to them. That said, times will change in the future and I’m sure brands and creative agencies will follow suit.
LBB> What did you want to inspire in customers with the film? What was your main message?
Feargal> It really was as simple as that sometimes doing can mean more than giving.
LBB> How long did the campaign take from start to finish?
Matt> We brief teams in March, so there are many months trying to find the right script before we go into production in the summer. The bar is quite high for John Lewis Christmas, and everyone has an opinion on it, so the task is equally exciting and daunting.
LBB> What was the most challenging part of the making? And the most fun?
Feargal> Year in year out John Lewis is the most challenging thing we’ve ever been part of. It’s the expectation, our own high standards and of course what’s gone on before. But the great thing about it, is that it draws on the best part of Adam & Eve – the people. When you’re in the trenches there’s no finer crowd.
LBB> Any final thoughts?
Matt> We’re delighted with how the campaign has turned out and how it’s been received. It’s many months of work and lots of brilliant people have worked extremely hard to make it happen. It really is a team effort. And of course at the heart of the film is an extremely important message, and we hope the initiative can really make a difference in young people’s lives.