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Never knowingly underwhelmed: The relationship at the heart of John Lewis' emotional empire

Few brands would get away with John Lewis' Christmas strategy. The much anticipated festive ad is always centred around the character of a small child or animals, always accompanied by a modern cover of a classic song. Yet it's become an event heralding the start of Christmas, and a cultural phenomenon most brands would kill for. So what's the secret?

Every so often in advertising, there is a brand and an agency that seem almost married together, so successful is their relationship. As a result, together, they create a run of campaigns that prove to be a success so strong that it is hard to imagine that work ever coming to an end. At the moment that relationship stands between John Lewis and its agency, Adam&EveDDB.

The two have worked together for six years and, in turn, their partnership has created an advertising phenomenon that generates headline news each Christmas, such is the appreciation for the work. Though the ads date back to 'The Long Wait' in 2011, signs of the magic had already been released earlier that year.

The Drum met with John Lewis chief marketer Craig Inglis and Adam&EveDDB co-founder and executive creative director Ben Priest in an unassuming room within the brand's headquarters in Victoria, where the meetings to plan each campaign are held.

During the next hour, the pair talk me through the seemingly ideal working relationship between their businesses.

"It's been the making of the agency and [its success built] belief in marketing within John Lewis," admits Priest. "People love it. You feel it from real people. I love speaking to people about it, people really care about John Lewis and they will tell you what they think."

Winning the initial pitch process when the agency was still finding its feet was a surprise, according to Priest. "We were a very new, highly shambolic agency in a building that was sort of being knocked down while we were still in it," he reminisces back to 2010 of the business he started with James Murphy, Jon Forsyth and David Golding as they attempted to win the marketing account of a company that had never really embraced advertising before.

"It’s fair to say that marketing had had a stop/start, very brief history at John Lewis,” adds Inglis, who joined the business from Virgin Trains only a year prior to the agency being hired. "Throughout the history there had been no marketing department before a few years ahead of me joining. They were really finding their feet in the business. It’s quite a complex brand with lots of subtlety in it. Partners own the business so that brings something very different."

So to call the advertising pitch in itself was new to the business, but to choose an agency still starting out was a gamble for Inglis, but one that has proven the making of both; the agency itself was bought for a reported £50m by Omnicom in May 2012.

And it was a risk Inglis was willing to take, so acutely aware was he that change was needed to articulate the brand.

"Up until that point that we hadn’t really got it right or articulated the brand in as powerful a way as we could have done," says Inglis. "I knew we needed to do something differently and we needed something that was more of a collaboration. We needed an agency to be in it with us… that’s how we work.”

Ultimately any fears over the agency’s size or experience were put to one side as Inglis recognised they had “by far the best idea” and simply understood the brand. “In the end that was the single arbiter – do they get the subtleties and the complexities of John Lewis?"

John Lewis - Always A Woman TV ad from Matt Woolner on Vimeo.

While John Lewis has been advertising since 2007, the first Christmas campaign from its new agency, 'Never Knowingly Undersold', involved a cover of Guns & Roses 'Sweet Child of Mine'. Though it began the existing formula for covering renowned modern classic songs, even its creators admit that it was just 'fine'. It was the following campaign released in the spring of 2010, 'Always a Woman', which told the story of one woman's life in a minute, when it found the storytelling formula.

Inglis was first shown the advert at a supplier conference when, having then shown it to his boss during lunch, they felt it right to show the 700 attendees too, such was their immediate confidence that it packed the right emotional punch.

Despite the advert’s success, both Inglis and Priest admit to making the mistake of not following the obvious creative formula, having reverted to another vignette advert that following Christmas.

"How dumb were we?" asks Priest, laughing. Another year’s production led to 'The Long Wait' in 2012, which proved another smash. This led to anticipation the following year for 'The Snowman', 'The Bear and the Hare,' 'Monty the Penguin' and most recently, 'Man on the Moon,' which have each captured the hearts of consumers and driven mass attention worldwide.

Asked about the pressure they now feel each year, both agency and client admit that it is about ensuring that the real pressure is to get the creative element right. No two creatives have worked on a John Lewis Christmas campaign, however Priest states that this is not a rule, but entirely down to who comes up with the best idea. 'Monty', for instance, was a script that came in three weeks after production had already begun on another idea, which was then scrapped when all agreed that it was a stronger story.

Inglis believes the success stems from continuity of having the same main small group work on each campaign, which takes some of the pressure away, and allows client and agency to share a "brutal honesty" too.

"We don't control it... it's become this huge thing in its own right. We haven't propagated that. Apart from creating the work, we haven't been behind the scenes trying to force the reaction. It's just happened and grown organically. I know it's not something I can control so therefore not to worry about it. All the pressure I feel is to not let people down and produce the best possible work."

The Christmas planning process for the marketing team, explains Inglis, begins with the creative theme being signed off for packaging and in-store over a year-and-a-half in advance to allow buyers to source products. Following the release of that year's campaign, the marketing team begin work in January all over again before briefing the agency, which too is also by that time considering new story ideas.

This year, long-time collaborator, director Dougal Wilson, did not take the reigns of 'Man in the Moon' but he remains a core part of the John Lewis team nevertheless, having helmed much of its other work. Instead, the director of ‘Man on the Moon’ was a former mentee of Wilson's, Kim Gehrig, who began preparing for it in April.

"Kim had done a couple of things that told us she was the right person. With Dougal I often go down and sit with him for an hour or so then you'll leave him and he'll mull and percolate for a while and you'll get a text to say if he is interested. He's such a great collaborator and so evenly keeled and he gets the brand. It's been lovely to have a regular collaborator and I've never had that," explains Priest.

Other partners have also been involved, with digital production agency Stink Digital having created this year's Man on the Moon mobile app.

"We have half of London on NDAs," jokes Inglis of the secrecy surrounding the concept each year as they explore potential partners, having learned from the power of merchandising and digital activation in recent years to help boost the popularity of the campaigns.

The success of the relationship feels very much like a moment in advertising, one that has picked up many accolades along the way, too. But what happens when that moment passes? Both Priest and Inglis, when looking to the future, admit that it is the teamwork and the public’s enthusiasm for their work that they will both miss the most.

Despite the ad’s success, there’s an astonishing lack of ego in the teams working on the account. "It's not about us," says Inglis. "John Lewis is a bigger brand than us. We're just travelling through.”