AdVent: advertising agency professionals share their festive gripes

'Plug Boy' proved a hit for Sainsbury's. / Sainsbury's

Christmas is the time of giving and for goodwill but also it’s a great time to moan too. As a result, The Drum Network asked member agencies what they hated most about Christmas marketing. Here is a selection of the responses…

Ian MacArthur, global experience optimisation director, Sagittarius

Christmas is coming and the creative goose is getting fat. Here comes another barrage of bloated nonsense to help us punters choose which retailer we should buy our pigs in blankets from. It feels like this year has gone to a new low as more brands feel the need to attempt yuletide brand positioning and getting it ‘oh so wrong’.

The festive season gets cluttered and it requires total synergy between agency and client to crack the brief. The perfect mix of bravery and empathy are the only tools that will stop you from taking a critical hammering from the industry and consumers alike.

Popular culture is the canvas and springboard but that’s no excuse to raid Santa’s sack of mediocrity and pull out ideas that have been done better before. I think all agency teams should sit with their clients and watch two days of previous adverts and deconstruct the mechanics that create success. There're a handful of formulae that will resonate and then you have creative freedom within that framework.

It’s too easy to criticise John Lewis, but the retailer's standards are far higher than almost every other brand and it has succeeded again this year. ‘Piano’ is good storytelling and John Lewis even repurposed the creative from a viewer perspective for sister brand Waitrose.

Lidl also smashed it by running a number of shorts that simply do product placement followed by disaster-based humour. It has cleverly used ‘it’s a Lidl bit funny’ to riff off John Lewis.

But these glimmers are rare when the vast majority miss the sweet spot in one way or another. Iceland went too early creating social media palm oil burnout; Sainsbury’s relies on a visual punchline (yes, the flying plug) to rescue an otherwise dreary ad; Aldi attempted trolling with Veg Dwight but the ship has sailed; and the most spectacular copy-cat award goes to Asda that simply reshot the intro to Jackass the Movie on snow.

Overall it won’t be a December to remember.

Katy Howell, chief executive, immediate future

Christmas on social. Groan. What should be a delight is just tedious for the main part. If it isn’t the umpteenth advent calendar on Instagram or the re-cut TV adverts on Facebook, it’s the endless bauble fest of red, green visuals often accompanies by terrible ‘yule’ puns.

There are some exceptions though. Twitter, as it should, captured hearts with its take on John Lewis with their #NotARetailStore, Lidl did a fab job of poking fun at the John Lewis advert, and Iceland garnered cause-related engagement with its Rang-tang advert.

What’s missing from a social Christmas is creativity. It isn’t enough to follow the mainstream. It isn’t enough to plop your TV advert on Facebook. Audiences demand more, especially at this time of year.

Christmas is a moving feast on social. One day everyone is talking Christmas eyebrows (the latest beauty trend, apparently!), the next day they’re sharing UGC pics from the office Christmas party. Across December we move from the end of year rush, to shopping, decorating, baking, and final to unfettered excitement as we finish up work and get ready for family time. Social follows these moments in people’s lives.

The shame of most Christmas campaigns is that they miss this opportunity to connect. They are one monotonous noise, rather than flexing and bending to meet the moments of relevance in people’s every day.

Now I’ve vented, let's aim to make next year’s social Christmas a wee bit less boring and actually deliver some brand impact.

Liam Potter, creative director, Mashbo

Call me the Grinch, but for me ‘Christmas advertising as an event’ has drained the joy out of festive campaigns. The hype surrounding the annual unveiling of the John Lewis advert, followed by the attempts of other big brands and supermarkets just serves to remind me that our image of Christmas has been dragged out of our brains and served back to us with a price tag to participate.

Of course, the brands and businesses in the same tier as John Lewis do Yule well and with a clear purpose. All the flare and fanfare will deliver the results they’re looking for. What bothers me most is the trickle down effect that causes other, much smaller businesses to think they need a piece of that (mince) pie too.

While a festive flourish on a brand website might actually complement a big brand campaign, a solicitor’s firm is unlikely to see a return on forking out to add falling snow and plinky plonk Christmas music to every page of their website. I have spent more than a few festive seasons talking clients out of implementing creative ideas that won’t make an impact on their business.

The noise around big brand campaigns unleashes a flurry of last-minute demands for festive work regardless, often where creative has been abandoned all year. The deadlines are tight and expectations unrealistic and the budgets thrown at you in panic could have sustained a much more effective year-long campaign.

Becca Tredget, content planning director, Brass

There are four main things I hate about Christmas:

1. A lot of brands go out at Christmas when they simply don’t need to, and it’s the most expensive time of year to do so. Just stop.

2. When brands go live with advertising, it’s usually something soppy. Leave that to John Lewis, they own that space – get your own thing.

3. If you're working on Christmas campaigns, you’re usually on them from June so you hate Christmas by the time it comes round.

4. Spending the whole of December hungover.

Darren Wilson, design director, Fat Media Group

My biggest pet peeve about Christmas campaign creative is that it is always a rush!

Christmas is the same day every year. It’s not a surprise. Yet time and again we receive last-minute briefs with short deadlines. While we always hit them, the campaign is never as strong as if we’d had a decent amount of time to consider them.

My advice to marketers would be to start thinking about your Christmas campaign as early as possible. In fact, start as soon as you launch the current year’s – start thinking about how you can beat it. Eight months later, you’ll have a load of ideas to choose from, ones which you have had time to refine and adapt to suit the current climate (you don’t think it’s a coincidence that Elton John is starring in John Lewis’ after announcing his farewell tour?)

This way by the time you give your agency the brief in, say, September, you’ll have an amazing idea and one that the creative team can really run with and develop in the run-up to December. Instead of a generic campaign with extra snowflakes and tinsel, you’ll have an awesome message about Christmas that really resonates with your audience.

Henry Rossiter, creative director, JJ

The Christmas ad season comes around far too fast, and relentlessly earlier each year.

Of course, it’s a necessity for brands to knock on the tv screen, the laptop and mobile and sing as loudly as possible of what delights they have on offer. Just like last year. And the year before that.

There will be the boring ‘same-old-same-old’ stuff without much thought, or the stuff that’s trying too hard. But there will also be the main present that hits the mark. For me, it was started by John Lewis and ‘for gifts you can’t wait to give’ back in 2011. A small boy who couldn’t wait for Christmas. It was an insight that turned things around to a feeling of what Christmas actually is about - the joy of giving. This year, Debenhams has got a smattering of it, with ’do a bit of you know you did good’.

I take Christmas ads at face value. Some, the purely functional ones, I discard straight away. With others, I wonder why they’re trying too hard and was it really meant for me. And then there are ones that you say yes, you got me, I’ll remember that one.

A good test is, can you remember any ads from last Christmas? I can only think of two.

This year, the one with the piano does hit the right note (though I’m surprised they had to use a celebrity, as I love the charm of building a brand from original ideas). Meanwhile, the brand that blatantly hijacked a worthy cause left me frozen with incredulity and falls flat.

Hey, it’s Christmas and the brands that will resonate with consumers will be the ones that touch an emotional nerve or entertain. Just like presents themselves.

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