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The 2020 ad agency office Christmas party: Alpacas, Zoom fondue and giving back

The office Christmas party might look a little different this year, but as ever marketers are getting creative about how to mark their end of year festivities in the midst of a pandemic. We explore how the annual Christmas knees-up is changing (for better or for worse) in 2020.

Ahh, the office Christmas party. Love it or loathe it, it rolls round just once a year, giving employees across the globe the chance to let off some steam before the holidays.

Advertising, in particular, has a bit of a reputation for raucous Christmas celebrations. Some agencies go all out on a theme or stump up for a fancy venue where mince pies mingle with alcohol, creating a recipe that‘s sure to require an aspirin (or two) the next morning. In recent years, ad land has made efforts to be more inclusive in its Christmas celebrations, lessening the focus on booze and instead booking retreats, wreath-making classes and other activities for staff.

However, in 2020 nothing is proceeding quite as normal, Christmas parties included.

Some ad execs are seeing this year as welcome reprieve from a lukewarm turkey lunch while thanking their lucky stars they won‘t be the recipient of yet another Baylis & Harding soap set in the secret Santa draw. Others, meanwhile, are lamenting one last chance to connect with colleagues in what‘s been an extremely tough year and let loose over a negroni and a Christmas cracker.

The Drum catches up with people across ad land to find out what they’re planning this year in lieu of the traditional celebrations, as well as asking them what they will — and won’t — miss about the classic office jamboree. And we ask the question: will this year change how we view the Christmas party long-term?

‘Our foundue tradition is coming to Zoom. Everyone needs to kick back and be silly at Christmas’

Persausion PR owner Jane Austin is (literally) getting cheesy this Christmas. She has a Zoom extravaganza planned for staff and argues that everyone needs a little silliness in their lives after a hectic year.

“Our Christmas party is usually held at the St Moritz Swiss restaurant in Soho (with a suitably sozzled festive singalong around the piano at the Coach and Horses after). I ring the cowbell after lunch, say a few words, and normally have a cry, tell everyone I love them etc. Embarrassing.

“The Persuasion Christmas bash this year will be Covid-friendly via Zoom, and will involve DIY fondue kits sent to the homes of all party-goers (complete with bread, cheese, wine, cornichons, salami and kirsch), with celebrity guests courtesy of Cameo, a live Popbitch quiz and other surprises all afternoon to keep up the cheesy theme. As its on Zoom, our colleagues in New York and Barbados can join in, looking forward to watching them having molten cheese and kirsch for breakfast.

“Some traditions I will miss are: hugging my colleagues and the animated random conversations resulting from a bucket of wine and a bellyful of cheese. I’ll miss Olivia, Kezia and Jody singing ‘Like a Prayer’ at the piano in the Coach & Horses. I won’t, however, miss swaying in a Soho street around 9pm on the Friday night before Christmas with twenty people finding somewhere to go next.

“From a work point of view, I’ll be glad from a break from the relentlessness, everyone – understandably – is so insecure right now. I’m also looking forward to consigning the 12ish Zoom calls per day to Room 101, and just focus on researching and writing. I’m just so happy we’ve survived this year and we’re all healthy.

Everyone needs a Christmas party, we need to kick back and be silly. I doubt anyone is spending much this year, that would be insulting to those who have been made redundant or suffered pay cuts. I always found those lavish ad parties of yore a bit nausea-inducing anyway because of the budget; they also felt too much like prescribed fun.

And I really hated the fancy dress ones. One agency had an 80s one and I turned up dressed like a miner with a donkey jacket, bucket and placard. ‘Kylie’ on the reception desk asked what I was as she didn’t know what a miner looked like. She said it was ugly. Let’s never go back there.“

‘We’re giving the money we would have spent to charity, but next year we’re going to have a ‘freedom party’’

Dan Cullen-Shute is chief exec and founder at indie agency Creature. Usually he dons his chef whites and prepares a slap up meal for his colleagues, but in 2020 Creature is donating the money it would usually spend on a knees up to charity. He believes in Christmas parties though. And next year, he‘s hosting a ‘freedom‘ party for the agency.

“I should say up front: I bloody love Christmas. Not in an ironic, trendy way – just in a ‘this is the very best time of year’ kind of way, which has, I suspect, played a part in driving how we approach the festive season.

We have a bit of a Christmas tradition at Creature: every year, we take everyone, including freelancers, placements, interns, and anyone else we can scoop up, out to a house in the country somewhere, and, essentially, have a massive dinner party, catered by me and the other founders – Stu, Gibbo, and, to a certain degree, Ben, but as he once memorably put it, he’s more of a ‘bringing the vibes’ kind of chef).

We’ll all get there early, and while most of the crew watch a Christmas film, we get cooking. We have some other traditions, including, for whatever reason, the placement team getting terrifyingly drunk and, on one memorable occasion – not that they could remember it - having a massive fist fight on the dance floor, but those aren’t OFFICIAL traditions, so they don’t count.

I know it might sound a little bit twee, but we, like everyone else, see Christmas as a chance to say thank you to all the brilliant folk at Creature, and we’ve never wanted to do that by throwing money at an over-priced hotel and watered-down cocktails in Central London. We roll our sleeves up and do the hard work ourselves, because that’s always felt like the best way of doing it.

This year, it‘s going to be slightly different. We were initially thinking about having a party-lite in the office on 3 December, when lockdown was lifted – but as the date got closer, it just felt a bit wrong. So, we decided (brace yourself for the schmaltz) that the best present we could give everyone this year was to allow them to stay well away from Central London in the run-up to Christmas, so we binned it.

We’re donating the money we would have spent to XLP, our charity partner, and, completely illogically, are already planning a massive ‘freedom’ party in the spring, when the world starts to feel a bit less restrictive.

In the meantime, we’re just going to send people a few little treats, have a quick ‘fuck me, that was a year’ gathering, and hope that the placement team can summon up the energy to get terrifyingly shitfaced on their own.

I bloody love our Christmas party, and in a year of omissions and disappointments, this is one that will stick with me.

Of course ad land still needs Christmas parties. Does it need gratuitous, old fashioned, alcohol-fuelled, cocaine-snowstorm Christmas parties? Well, no, obviously not.

But a moment where people who’ve worked their arses off all year can get together, toast the good bits, laugh at the shit bits, recharge all the cultural capital they’ve expended in the ‘HOLY SHIT WE’RE NEVER GOING TO GET EVERYTHING DONE’ fortnight that the rest of the world calls ‘December’, and generally remind themselves why they choose to spend their days working in an industry with people they like, rather than in one that would make them loads of money and/or be a little bit less stressed? Fuck yes.

(NB I’m aware there are agencies full of people who don’t actually like each other, but I can’t speak for them.)“

‘Adland needs a Christmas party, and so does Carpetland, Poundland and PC World'

This year Marissa Jennings, managing partners at Who Wot Why will miss mulled wine round the photocopier, but she‘s bringing the magic of the Christmas party online for staff.

“For 2020‘s Christmas party, we played ping pong, and then traveled onwards to an Austrian Beer Keller. Our group got separated and ended up at different parties, and then we partied ‘til dawn at the office.

This year it‘s on Zoom, and the Christmas elves are beavering away to surprise the rest of the gang. Tensions are mounting and the Amazon orders on my account are piling up. I am expecting goodie boxes and some antics coupled with no doubt some serious competition for the virtual prizes. There's a lot of alcohol in those boxes too.

This year we have missed the mulled wine and decorating the office, and putting up the tree. We will miss the dancing on office tables at 4.00am, and the hangover stories that usually involve Matt Gooden.

Apart from the whole of 2020 and having to wear face masks that make my glasses fog up, what we‘re not missing is usual frantic boxing up of the Christmas gifts we design and package for clients every year. It’s always a mammoth task. This year we have gone digital, with a sweet idea, and it is nice to have a break.

Adland needs a Christmas party, and so does Carpetland, Poundland and PC World.

We all need Christmas parties to round off the year with a bang. Anyone who says otherwise is a total Scrooge and should be put on Satan‘s naughty list.“

‘We’ve hired a Zoom goat and an alpaca’

Andy Oakes, managing director at Bluestripe reveals his plans to liven things up on Zoom for his colleagues.

“Last year’s Christmas party was an excellent affair. Lunch at Dishoom followed by a cocktail making class in Soho and then drinks in the Union Club. Nearly all staff accounted for and very little collateral damage which is always nice.

This year’s party will sadly be a virtual affair BUT we have hired a Zoom goat and an alpaca to be on the call. I’m not entirely sure what they do but it seemed a great idea at the time. We’ll also be doing an escape room challenge and there is talk of ’adtech lingo bingo’. I’ll be spending my time with the goat when that bit is on.

I’ve kept one tradition going (which actually started in my time at The Drum, when Justin, one of my partners and I have a shot of single malt. At 10am. In retrospect, it’s daft idea. I suspect we’ll do that over Zoom this year as well.

I’ll be glad to avoid secret Santa this year. There’s only so many wigs or hair products I actually need. And that’s a very small number.

Ad land does need Christmas parties but have a think about how much you really need to throw at them. It would be a very bad look if you made redundancies in the year to then throw a lot at a party.

Some of my favourite parties have ended with a few close friends having a drink in the local. Of course, some have ended up on the stairs of The Queen of Hoxton in Shoreditch as well...“

‘Move over Live Aid, we’re getting musical this Christmas’

Mike White, chief executive and founding partner at Lively, is also organising a good old virtual, and very musical, knees up, and is donating the rest of the budget to charity.

“We’re not blowing budgets on cards, venues and food this year. We’re doing what we do best: creating a global, virtual, interactive Christmas knees-up.

It’s going to be great fun as well as do good, and our party budget has gone to Action for Children’s Secret Santa campaign. So next week we’re livestreaming a DJ set on Twitch from London, while the team performs a cross-continent karaoke gig between Shoreditch, New York and LA, with co-founders playing air guitar.

The key to it all is that colleagues are taking it in turns to write a line of self-created content for a unique Christmas song – on Slack. Sample lyrics include: ’We need to toast Christmas so mine’s a double, have you met my support bauble?’

The Lively virtual staff band will play the song that’s been created collaboratively on the new interactive platform they launched this year. Move over LiveAid: this is LivelyAid2020.“

‘We don’t need flamboyancy or expense to have a great time’

Cat Davis, group marketing director, The Mission Group is predicting a gentle saunter upstairs to bed this Christmas, instead of the traditional stumble home on Southern Rail.

“We hired the basement bar The Bird Cage at Bird of Smithfield in London last year, and our entertainment was the amazing drag act Miss Candy Heals. Candy hosted our annual Krow awards followed by a cabaret show, we then had a DJ for the rest of the evening. The drink and food was free flowing, naturally.

This year, it‘s all about Christmas jumpers, silly hats, a daft quiz, an awards show put together via an online poll. We‘ve even organised a delivery of make your own cocktails winging its way to every member of the agency. Then a trip to the virtual pub together on the last day of work.

This Christmas, I won’t miss the stumble home on Southern Rail that’s for sure. This year, I envisage it’ll be a gentle saunter upstairs to bed, which is far more civilised. The photos/videos the morning after should also be more sedate; fingers crossed that I don’t win the prize for “most embarrassing moment in a Zoom meeting!”

The ad industry has a history of wacky and raucous parties but they feel so inappropriate now. 2020 will be a quieter, more personal affair. At least we’ve all proved to ourselves that we don’t need the flamboyancy or expense to have a great time.

While we’ll all miss being in the same room, we’re bringing everyone together to celebrate each other and for getting through a year the likes of which none of us have ever experienced before.“

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