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‘It needs to feel like a warm hug’: How McDonald’s created Christmas ad ‘Inner Child’

The Drum questions Leo Burnett creative director duo James Millers and Andrew Long about the new McDonald's Christmas ad

McDonald’s UK has wrenched hearts (again) with an emotional Christmas spot. The Drum questions Leo Burnett creative director duo James Millers and Andrew Long to learn how they crafted the animated ‘Inner Child’ spot.

McDonald‘s latest Christmas ad tells the simple story of a single mum trying to get her son into the Christmas spirit. However, she faces resistance from the mopey teen, until his inner child wins out.

From ink to animation

McDonald’s has favoured an animated spot for the last two years, and offered reindeer and carrot snacks for four years. The ‘#ReindeerReady‘ series reminds parents of McDonald‘s healthy carrot sticks, available to all those with hungry reindeer nearby.

Creative director Long acknowledges that the pandemic difficulties in shooting live-action didn‘t inspire the animated route. Instead, the idea was in the bag as early as late January.

“Animation was the best possible way to tell the story, we would never be able to tell it in live-action.”

The scripts were completed just as the UK entered lockdown one in March, and then production was in the hands of Passion Pictures and AgainstAllOdds, an SFX agency with form delivering super-cute animated ads.

Pencil-sketched storyboards bridged the gap between the written word and what the animators would finally deliver. Long’s partner Millers says: “Emotionally, what we got isn’t really miles away from the pencil sketch.”

And you can be sure they‘d know. Long claims to have watched the various versions of the ad 1,000 times. With animation, every detail must be considered. The duo recount designing the appearance of the leads, the minutiae of their costume, all the way through to their setting, which informs how viewers feel about them – and how hard the story lands.

For example, a humble cul-de-sac houses the spot‘s single mum – it’s a nice home, but its not too nice, ideal for a cute family that really needs a good Christmas. Look closely and every now and then you’ll see the primary colours of McDonald’s crop up in the décor.

Derek Picken and Niklas Rissler from AgainstAllOdds directed the spot. They claimed that time was the main challenge, for two reasons. Picken says: “First, we had to tell a complex story in 90 seconds. Second, we had to hit a tight deadline given everybody is spread across the globe and working remotely.“

It was daunting at the start, and the agency wasn’t hugely sure it could develop such work remotely – now it does.

“You have ultimate control,” says Millers, though the project didn’t arrive without doubts along the way. He admits: “There’s a middle stage where you have blocked out characters that are basically like cubes. You have to remember the emotion from the 2D sketch. Your characters will get faces at some point – your boy will come to life, but until then, you have to imagine, cross your fingers and trust the people that you’re working with.”

Mid-summer jeopardy aside, we know how the story ends, with a beautifully animated story that emotes hard. Millers describes the meticulous process of finishing the animation – adding new details layer by layer, additional camera angles, colour, and tinkering with depth of field and depth of snow. “You spend a few weeks just crafting and grading it,” he says. But Long says it wasn’t until the epnoymous Inner Child, “the driver of the story“ was added, that the spot clicked.

There were few surprises in production. The story was beat-for-beat what was sketched, and Alphaville‘s Forever Young was always going to be the soundtrack – the question mark was over who would deliver the cover. Becky Hill was picked out to hit the right notes, lyrically and tonally, though the decision wasn‘t easy. Long says: “Where you are trying to make people feel something, it becomes even more important.”

Reindeer evolution

On McDonald’s carrot offering, Millers says: “Over the years, we’ve explored the functional acts of leaving carrots out, but this year we focused on what that meant on a very human, emotional level. At Christmas, it is those strange little rituals, the little moments, that help you feel kind of young again.”

Long agrees: “What was really important for this was to try and find a story worth telling that actually connects with people you know on a deeper level. The teams at Passion and AgainstAllOdds brought it to life wonderfully for us.”

In the grand scheme of things, it is another humble ad that will land with its intended audience – the broadest British audience you’d find, during its launch slot on ITV's I’m a Celebrity (bought by OMD).

But where does this ad fit into McDonald’s canon? The brand’s about telling broad human truths, as Long says, and being “very down to earth and very relatable” Millers admits that McDonald’s is a “massive populist brand“ that’s loved by most in the UK.

Years of delivering on the product side, and heartening marketing, have built a solid base to build from. When conceiving ads, Long, in response to a question about Burger King’s style of in-your-face, PR-led efforts, says: ”We always think about what the general population would like to see, that’s what leads us, not what Jimmy and I think would be cool. We want to be creative, but we want to do it for a good reason.”

That same insight helped delivered the ‘Return of the Mac‘ ad earlier this year.

Emotion, empathy, or understanding where the viewer is at can be tricky. You can only go so far when tugging on the heart-strings, something Burnett’s learned a lot about since its pilloried ‘Fillet o’ Fish‘ spot in 2017.

Millers says: “Emotion is interesting, you can land in so many different ways and McDonald's has a good heritage in that. It can’t be so emotional that it makes people feel uncomfortable, we aim to be like a nice warm hug.”

So, ‘Inner Child‘ marks the start of the campaign. There’s further elements, including a partnership with FareShare which will see it provide 1 million meals to families in need, as well as an additional audiobook going deeper into the relationship of mother and child. Bespoke Christmas jumpers and mobile games are to follow.

See where ‘Inner Child‘ ranks against previous Christmas ads McDonald‘s.

2017: ‘Carrot Stick

2018: ‘Reindeer Ready 1’

2019: ‘Reindeer Ready 2’

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