Anatomy of an Ad: How Havas and The Mill helped create Heathrow Airport's first Christmas ad

The bears were created using CGI for Heathrow's first Christmas advert

At a time where the streets are filled with busy shoppers scurrying and bustling in and out of shops trying to gather gifts and treats for their loved ones, Heathrow Airport decided to use the festive season to remind people that the most important part of Christmas is being together with its first ever Christmas ad.

With almost a quarter of a million people passing through Heathrow Airport daily, and that number increasing during the Christmas period, the campaign began its life with a simple instruction for Havas - create an emotional connection to the airport.

Explaining the genesis for the concept, Ben Mooge, Havas London's executive creative director, said he felt that finding the emotion within the story was the easiest part: “You just have to walk around Heathrow at any time of year and people are naturally, there are people bursting into tears every couple of minutes. It is a really lovely backdrop to write a story.”

The second advert of the year for Heathrow, Rebecca White, business lead of marketing at Heathrow, reveals to The Drum the bears were "inspired by our First Flight ad."

The summer advert, released in July as part of the celebration of 70 years of Heathrow, followed a little girl as she prepared for her first flight with her parents. Her owl suitcase, which is in tow with the girl, somewhat becomes the star of the show. At the end, a young boy of a similar age joins her walking through the terminal alongside a robot with the text ‘To the next 70 years of first flights’ appearing at the end.

“It opened our eyes to the idea that Heathrow has so much emotion wrapped in one day,” White continues. “It was actually then an obvious next step to look at Christmas when the most special moments are happening.”

The teddy bears, revealed at the end as actually being an elderly couple flying into Heathrow to visit their family, are followed from the moment their plane lands to meeting their family with the typical wait at security, struggle to get their luggage and trip to duty free. All seamlessly created with the help of The Mill and CGI.

Mooge explained he wanted something that wasn’t often seen in advertising, which is why it was decided to use old people.

At some point during the idea stage, the team progressed from featuring the grandparents to something loved equally that could resemble the characters, which is how they ultimately came up to use teddy bears.

Havas' head of European Communication, Faye Raincock, adds: “We knew the elderly couple would be really different as they are never really portrayed in advertising, but then someone suggested we do something that would resonate across generations. Even some grown adults still have their teddy bears from when they were children.”

The first filming began with the use of stop motion animation before realising to make the bears really move like the characters at the end, CGI would be more appropriate.

“The biggest challenge was how we were going to make the bears characters shine through," offers Neil Davies, executive creative director at The Mill, who was fully aware of the technical job ahead to bring the inanimate objects to life.

Starting the animation with pencil sketches, the team at The Mill took months to develop the bears form and size before getting into the nitty gritty. Davies reveals: “After the pencil sketches we went onto the mammoth task of the tiny stray hairs on the hats and noses to the oversized and slightly wonky stitching on the clothes.”

However once the bears were designed, there was still more to do. Mike Chapman, the 3D lead on the project, explained how he wanted the right balance to make the bears appear as authentic teddy bears but also remain similar to the human couples characters.

“Once we’d built the bears we had to find out how they moved. We actually took the teddy bears we had been using for reference and shot little stop motions for tests.”

With almost five million views, the tear jerker has meant that Heathrow Airport joined the ranks for one of the best Christmas ads this year competing with retail giants, including John Lewis’ ‘Buster the Boxer’ and Marks & Spencer's ‘Mrs Claus’, for the first time.

Much to Mooge’s surprise, the ad hasn’t only been left on the screen. “The success has been ridiculous,” he says. “There are taxis driving around with the bears faces on them. But they deserve to be everywhere I think.”

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