There’s a moment near the end of ‘Love, Actually’ where Martine McCutcheon’s cleaner Nathalie says, in a letter to prime minister Hugh Grant, “If you can’t say it at Christmas, when can you, eh?” And it’s a sentiment that gets the core of the National Lottery’s festive ad which, appropriately enough, takes the form of a very British Christmas romantic comedy.
On the hottest day of the summer, the team at adam&eveDDB pitched the idea of turning that big Christmas moment into a festive rom-com. It was, says Anna McInally, head of marketing communications at The National Lottery, love at first sight. Referring to that iconic Love, Actually line, Anna says, “You know, if you can't believe at Christmas - whether that be love, whether that be winning the lottery - then you can't believe ever right? So we just knew we were onto something amazing.”
The ad follows a modern twist on Brief Encounter, as two train passengers who have found themselves without a seat, strike up a conversation. As they hurriedly depart, the young man in question uses a National Lottery ticket to try to scribble down his phone number - and the rest of the spot follows the young woman as she tries to tip fate in her favour and reunite with her fellow passenger.
It’s not the first time that the National Lottery has had an advertising push at Christmas, though where previous years have focused on marketing activations and shiny special events for people to play, 2022 is all about storytelling and big emotions like joy, love and hope. If you can’t say it at Christmas, indeed.
At the beginning of 2022, Camelot, which runs the National Lottery, set out to be present and relevant during the times when people care. They identified three big moments - the Jubilee, the ‘Summer of Sport’ with the Commonwealth Games and Women’s Euros, and, of course, Christmas.
“This is the first Christmas in a long time when people can actually get together and really enjoy it, rather than having the cloud of covid over it. “We had three big moments, with Christmas being our biggest moment. So, we've gone for it,” says Anna.
Having decided to to hit Christmas in a big way, it was up to the planners at adam&eveDDB to figure out how they were going to do it. In the summer, National Lottery had already created a big summer caper with their campaign ‘The Chase’
, in which a community comes together to help a man whose lottery ticket has been blown away. So they needed to follow up that hit with a strong insight that could inspire another big idea.
“As ever in ad agencies, it all starts with the strategy,” says Ben Tollett, ECD at adam&eveDDB. “Top planners Heather Alderson, Róisín Mulroney and Stuart Williams set the train wheels in motion with the proposition, ‘Imagine a win this Christmas’. It was such a strong and simple thought that, for a long time, this was the endline of the final film.”
What’s striking is the campaign’s focus on emotion and community and love, rather than the materialistic, blingy elements of what a ‘win’ could look like. It’s a decision that very much resonates with the mood of the nation as the UK faces recession.
The National Lottery’s own research bares this out, says Anna. “We've done some research, talking to players about what's important to them at the moment, and it became really clear that, yes, people want to win. People want to win money, right? But it's not really about the money and stuff. It's about creating memories, creating experiences, helping people out, sharing the joy.
She adds, “People don't really talk about flashy cars or yachts. They’re dreaming about a better life together, about having amazing experiences, and having more time. I suppose that's what was really important for us - people don't play the lottery for a rational reason, people play because they want that little bit of hope. That little pink ticket that we provide does provide that hope.”
Ben agrees. “A story about moolah is never going to be as captivating as a story about people, love and human connection,” he says.
And so, that ‘win’ was imagined as a Christmas love story by creative team Jay Parekh and Forrest Clancy. According to Ben, their story was simply unignorable. “They first pitched the love story idea, which included this standout scene of a couple swapping a phone number on a Lottery ticket, passed out of a train window. It was such a brilliantly powerful moment that I couldn’t get it out of my head. Nothing else I saw caught my imagination in quite the same way,” he says.
It was also an opportunity to have a proper rom-com watching binge… for research purposes, you understand. “We revisited all the old romantic comedies: Love, Actually, When Harry Met Sally, Twelfth Night… Turns out rom-com has been a much-loved genre since 1602,” says Ben.
If you’ve got a movie-level story to tell, what you need is a movie-level director. Tom Hooper - the director of Oscar-winner The King’s Speech, hit musical Les Miserables and Cats - was brought aboard. “It’s a thoroughly British rom-com, so naturally our thoughts turned to the top UK film directors,” says Ben. “Tom Hooper blew us away with his initial treatment, and then continued to blow us away throughout. His incredible craft and painstaking attention to every last detail really shines through in the final film.”
According to Anna, Tom’s vision and passion shone through in his treatment. And that passion, she reveals, comes from a very real connection with the National Lottery. The lottery generates £30 million a week for good causes - and one of those good causes was funding Hooper’s lauded King’s Speech movie. “It was a few days before the shoot and we were talking about some stuff. He was like, ‘this matters to me, if it wasn't for the National Lottery, I wouldn't have been able to do the films I’ve done’.”
That passion translated into a real attention to detail in the production. The casting, shares Anna, was a point of obsession for Tom. Up until two days before the shoot, he was hunting for the perfect female lead. And when it came to ensuring that all important chemistry, Tom insisted on keeping the two leads apart until they started filming, in order to capture that frisson and sense of discovery.
While the casting and performance are the core on which the whole ad rests, the team didn’t slouch when it came to the other elements of the production. The spot was shot on location, on a ‘live’ in-service train. The team had to commandeer two carriages as the train ran up and down the UK on an eight-hour shooting day. The decision to shoot on a real train as it runs helps create a feeling of recognition and groundedness. Being stuck on a train without a seat on an overpacked train en route to the festive family get together is, for thousands, a very real part of the Christmas experience.
But the decision to set the story on a train wasn’t an easy one. The pre-production process was beset with challenges. While trying to secure a train station in which to shoot the final reunion, the death of Queen Elizabeth II saw stations go into shutdown mode. It’s a mark of creative ambition that the team insisted on the romantic train setting.
In the end, they shot the big finale at Waterloo Station in the wee small hours. “Filming overnight on Saturday in Waterloo Station was a toughie,” recalls Ben. “By the time the sun rose I was definitely feeling rather worse for wear. Some of the 5am clubbers making their way home were in a better state!”
Surely they might have been tempted to shift to something a bit more controllable and easy to navigate, like a bus? “There was a moment and the agency said, ‘we're not doing this on a bus’,” laughs Anna. And ultimately it was the right call. “There’s something about the train station that’s quite romantic.”
The train station motif also provides the perfect excuse for some fun activations now the campaign has launched. The team will be setting up photo opportunities for commuters in train stations in London and Birmingham. But that’s not all. After the spot sits TV debut in the middle of hit ITV show I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here!, there will be huge 48 and 96 sheet billboards, social media cutdowns and even playful OOH special builds that show the pink lottery ticket fluttering in the wind. It all leads up to a huge finale - a sold-out New Year’s Eve party at Wembley Stadium.
In terms of commercial objectives, the marketing team hopes the ad will of course drive penetration, participation and positivity around the National Lottery. But they’ve also got a bigger goal too.
“I think, aside from that, it's about people recognising this brand as part of Christmas this year, and actually going 'you know what, that makes complete sense'. It’s not a flashy, shouty brand, but a game of chance and hope. It’s about actually realising that if the world’s shit, we all still have a little bit of hope. And when we’ve got hope, anything is possible, right?”
And if you can’t say that at Christmas, when can you?