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John Lewis Christmas ad 2016: Creatives dream up alternatives to the tried-and-tested tearjerker format

John Lewis' popular 2014 ad featured Monty the penguin

In the UK, the Christmas John Lewis ad has become something of an annual tradition, as synonymous with the festive season as snowflakes, Santa and scarves.

The brand's creative agency Adam&Eve has been bringing a little Christmas sparkle to silver screen since 2009, but it was the retailer's'The Long Wait' film that propelled John Lewis annual unveiling to become a landmark on the festive calendar.

Set to a cover of The Smiths' original 'Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want' the ad told the feel-good story of a little boy who couldn't wait for Christmas because he wanted to give a gift to his parents, rather than open his own presents. The spot set the precedent for plinky plonky piano covers and simple tales about the power of the season.

Since then we've had a lovesick Snowman cross borders to get a pair of gloves for his ice-cold Snowoman, an animated Lily Allen-scored ad about a bear who had a never experienced the joy of Christmas, and a tale about the magic of friendship featuring a penguin named Monty.

Last year, the brand stuck with its tried-and-tested formula and focused on 'The Man on the Moon' in a tear-jerking push which centered around the loneliness faced by the elderly at Christmas.

The department store's hotly-anticipated spot for 2016 is set to launch on Friday (4 November) and the predictions are already rolling in think and fast. There are rumours that Adele is on board and thoughts flying around on what longtime director Dougal Wilson will do differently this year.

So, rather than ask marketers for their prophecies, The Drum asked some of ad land's best and brightest minds to dream up their very own John Lewis Christmas ad. From ditching the melancholy Britpop covers to strapping a GoPro on Prince Harry, their tongue-in-cheek concepts are certainly interesting. Scroll down to see how different the retailer's ad could have looked this year if our creatives had their way...

Ross Neil, executive creative director, WCRS

There’s a tried and tested formula to this so let’s not veer too far off the path:

  • It has to be as white and middle class as possible
  • Insipid, acoustic version of a once good song
  • A character with a whiff of familiarity that tugs at the heart strings
  • A quaint insight about Christmas in general
  • Costs a FORTUNE
  • Product? We don’t need product

So let’s nail this bad boy. Who’s in it? What are they up to? Who does the nation love that isn’t as predictably nauseating as a snowman or a penguin? There’s only one chap that fits the bill… I’m talking Prince Harry! But what will Hazza do in the festive run up? Go to Christmas parties and get sh*t faced of course.

So the script runs something like this – We strap a GoPro (that’s as close to a product that this ad gets) to Harry and witness all the japes, games, mischief and romantic fumblings the hapless Prince gets up to at all the office parties up and down the country. With the proper orchestration and grade this could look lovely.

We end on a semi naked Harry photocopying his Royal Hiney. The end line reads – 'John Lewis, It’s good to go all out at Christmas'.

White? Check. Loved by all? Check. Christmas insight? Sort of check. Cost? Check. Product? More or less.

But wait, what about the music? Don’t worry we’ll get Katie Melua to do a stripped back, spineless, acoustic version of Ace Of Spades. Merry Christmas.

Laura Rogers, creative director, CHI&Partners

John Lewis has the whole emotional storytelling thing in the bag, so why not take it up a few notches? I’m thinking ditch the wistful optimism in favour of gritty realism.

The story could be set in a desolate seaside town and be about a family caught up in the turbulence of the post-Brexit economy. Rather than befriending an adorable penguin, the little girl in this ad meets a gnarly seagull hardened by years of austerity and decreasing chip rations. They bond over a mutual concern about globalisation and trade deficits, which in some vague and unexplained way helps them ultimately discover that the true spirit of Christmas is the joy of giving.

Through these unlikely heroes, our divided nation realises that we can all come together for one special Christmas day, especially when it involves a pair of fleece-lined leather gloves from the John Lewis gift counter. It would be set to Little Mix doing a cover of The Fall’s Neighbourhood of Infinity. Perhaps Ken Loach would be interested in directing.

Tim Jones, creative director, RPM

Our music, is a charity orientated single that brings all the tracks and artists from previous ads coming together for one big tear-jerking mash up. All proceeds going to support our stars…

It’s called 'John Lewis Anonymous' and a village street is set in the bleak early evening. A young boy stares out a window, chin in hand, he sighs, fed up. We see a village hall, harsh fluorescent light emanating from windows.

Cut to the door. Through the small, frost-edged window we see a circle of brown plastic chairs, soft-focus shows many of them occupied.

Cut to a close up brown paws clutching an alarm clock. The camera pans up to reveal the sleep-deprived, bloodshot eyes of an animated bear. A lone tear spills down his cheek. He speaks words we can’t hear.

Cut to a pair of webbed feet on a chair’s edge. The camera pans up to reveal a penguin, rocking. The bear pats him tenderly on the flipper.

Zoom out to reveal two grim-faced men. One, bearded, bespectacled, in a well-cut flannel shirt; the other, with his Tommy Shelby fade, tattooed arms flailing in a protest we can’t hear; human husks of a stressed out creative team.

Cut to reveal the seated ghost of an old man. He is holding a single balloon, as a puddle of water on the ground inches towards him.

We track the source of the water, see a carrot, a lump of coal, as the camera pans up to reveal a noseless, one-eyed snowman.

Cut to a shot of the whole group as the camera slowly retreats from the circle. They speak in turn as a kind looking woman with a clipboard nods and offers unheard verbal reassurances.

As the camera retreats through the frosted window into the bleak winter’s night, the fluorescent glow of the village hall lights fade…

Super: ‘A John Lewis Ad Is Not Just For Christmas’

Wayne Deakin, executive creative director, AKQA

So when asked to rethink the John Lewis tried-and-tested format what do you do?

Here’s a quick thought: why not take, 'Never knowingly undersold', and go bolder, go brash! Forget the usual middle-class tastefulness and replace it with ‘Never knowingly under-budgeted’. Let’s create the world’s most expensive moment.

I am thinking of epic musical. Constructed not on well-crafted storytelling, as that would be the right thing to do. Instead, we make it random nonsense and ridiculous like the early morning antics of the office Christmas party!

A musical starring the cast of Bake-Off, Strictly Come Dancing, Coronation Street, a few token movie stars, Taylor Swift, some supermodels, the cast of X-factor, 12 cute puppies, 12 funny cats, and a partridge in a pear tree. And of course, we would use an old famous music track sung by a new young voice to land a few emotion punches.

After all, it's Christmas - a time for spreading joy and goodwill with your agency to help their Q4 bottom line when things slow down. Why not let your agency enjoy some festive fun after they’ve worked so hard the rest of the year?

Or maybe we just forget the whole ad battle and put everyone’s collective Christmas budget towards building a permanent place to keep the vulnerable safe during Christmas and do some good putting the food leftover to better use. Creating something that actually can live beyond ninety seconds and makes a real difference in peoples’ lives at Christmas.

Or maybe I am just a Grinch and should get ready for the brand’s next touch of magic with a warm cup of cocoa.

Mike Kettles, executive creative director, Momentum Worldwide

I’d like to see a campaign centered around imagining and anticipating how good Christmas is going to be. Specifically, I’d like to see a two minute ad of people simply imagining. No depiction of their fantasies, just people staring into the middle distance to the sound of jingle bells. We close with a call to action asking the viewer to imagine their own Christmas, thus allowing the John Lewis creative department to clock off early this year as a ‘thank you’ from us all for years of award winning hard work.

Any involvement of John Lennon on the soundtrack will be considered ‘too on the nose’. I’m sure we can look forward to ad breaks filled with breathy women exhaling songs from the late nineties to massive record sales for her and muttered derision from fans of the original.

This year I hope to see (or hear) the archetype flipped on its head and have Shed Seven, Dodgy or even Slade ruin Laura Marling’s Christmas. Nobody likes to talk about their charity work, but this angle is a great way to take the edge off seasonal capitalism. How about John Lewis hosting a slap up Christmas dinner for local homeless people in their flagship stores ? We could use some of the saving that was made in the creative department to produce live-streams of those who really need some Christmas cheer having the best day of their lives – imagine that!

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