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Creative Agency Culture John Lewis

40 creative teams, 300 proposals… secrets of John Lewis Christmas ads finally revealed


By Sam Bradley | Senior Reporter

April 6, 2023 | 10 min read

It was one of advertising’s best-kept secrets – but no longer. Court documents released this week reveal the exhaustive process followed by Adam&EveDDB to make John Lewis’s lauded Christmas ads. With the account about to change hands, here’s what the retailer’s new agency can expect.


40 creative teams, 300 proposals… secrets of John Lewis Christmas ads finally revealed

John Lewis and Adam&Eve were cleared of plagiarism at London’s high court this week after a children’s author claimed the retailer and its long-time but soon-to-be former agency had copied her idea for its 2019 ’Excitable Edgar’ Christmas campaign. In addition to explaining the reasoning behind that decision, judge Melissa Clarke’s written judgment on the case references much of the evidence involved – giving a revealing and unprecedented glimpse into the agency’s much-coveted Christmas ad-making process.

The documents show how the creation of each Christmas campaign is a year-round endeavor, beginning almost as soon as the last one has aired. It involves narrowing down ideas from hundreds of candidates submitted by dozens of creatives across the agency, before winnowing away potential designs to find the perfect hero character for the next spot. Enter the dragon...

The brief

As noted by judge Clarke, Adam&Eve’s Christmas spots were “characterized by their high production values and heart-warming messages”. Its 2019 entry, featuring a lovable dragon who finds community at Christmas, was no different. The character ended up a plush toy and as the hero of a picture book, cementing the ad’s reach.

In 2019, John Lewis changed its approach to its Christmas campaign and briefed Adam&Eve that January to create work that served both the retailer and its sister supermarket brand Waitrose. According to Holly Kicul, senior advertising manager at John Lewis, the brief stated that the ad should be “greater than the sum of the parts, not a compromise for either or both brands,” and focus on the theme ‘thoughtfulness at Christmas’.

Paul Billingsley, then the managing director of Adam&Eve, told the court that each year the agency would send John Lewis’s brief out to about 40 of its creative teams. The agency’s creative directors, led by chief creative officer Richard Brim, would ‘sift’ through as many as 300 proposals per brief.

Iterative process

Some of those ideas would be carried forward from year to year – including a ‘lonely dragon’ concept that became ’Excitable Edgar’.

Adam&Eve’s ideas were meticulously recorded throughout this process and its defense in the case rested in large part upon documentation showing the advent of ’Excitable Edgar’ in 2016, by creative Simon Lloyd, years before it ended up on TV. In fact, the idea was pitched to John Lewis’s marketing team for three successive years before finally making the cut.

Brim’s witness statement details the original idea behind the dragon, developed between himself and Lloyd: “I had once owned a dog that used to get so excited that it would urinate, and the idea was that the dragon would get excited and let out a little puff of smoke or flames in a similar way.

“In particular, [creatives] Lloyd, Christine Turner and I discussed the dragon becoming so excited about Christmas that he would let out little bits of fire from his nostrils and accidentally set fire to things. I recall that one idea we came up with was that there had been a storm and the power had gone out, and that the dragon would ultimately find use for its flames by lighting candles.“

Once the team arrived upon the idea that their temperature-incontinent hero could light not just table candles but also a Waitrose Christmas pudding, it was added to a shortlist of five ideas to be pitched to John Lewis for the 2019 spot.

The proposal, first named ‘PALS’, was outlined in a short treatment:

“This is the tale of an adorable young dragon but one who suffers at this time every year. For he is simply so excited about Christmas that he cannot control the flames from his mouth. He burns everything he encounters, putting a real downer on everyone’s Christmas spirit. His friends and family don’t even want to go near him. So much so that one Christmas he leaves to make everyone around him happier. But his best friend has other ideas. On Christmas day he sees the incredible spread laid on and sees a special something needs to be lit. A delicious plump Christmas Pudding. This turns into a simple gift that helps display true acceptance and makes the little dragon realize that people really do care. Especially at Christmas.”

At a meeting in final week of May 2019, the team had discarded three of its shortlisted ideas, with the choice coming down to Edgar and an idea dubbed ‘Unexpected Guest,’ which itself ended up as John Lewis’s 2021 campaign. The agency and client agreed on a final script and began speaking to directors, production companies and animation studios – inviting each one to submit treatments for the short film, before director Dougal Wilson and production shop Untold were chosen.

The look

The ad’s original summary was accompanied by a mood board, which featured eight separate designs for ‘Dave’ – the codename for the dragon. Untold also submitted its own ideas for the character’s aesthetic – initially based, the judgment states, on a baby hippo.

The client, though, pushed for a friendlier and more rounded dragon, “cute” rather than reptilian and predatory. According to the court judgment, they considered a host of designs from “very traditional looking dragons of the type that might slay St George” to “young dragons looking a bit scruffy and semi-fledged” and “older teenage dragons with attitude”. Some of those iterations can be seen in a ’making of’ video released by the brand after the ad aired.

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Sketches were swapped back and forth between director Wilson and Untold, and in the end they settled on a “dumpy physique,” which Brim said expressed “cuteness with a degree of realism”. Clarke’s judgment describes later development of these designs into a CGI character as taking “many hundreds of hours of work”.

The story’s setting shifted around too, from modern suburbia to a simplified medieval locale, and while Edgar’s own design was changing, the agency was working to storyboard and scout location for a September shoot. According to Brim, the script was merged with the storyboard, rather than written and rewritten as a separate document.

Research process

The production process behind the ’Excitable Edgar’ tie-in book also provides a look at the level of security demanded of those working on anything associated with the ad. In June, months before the ad would air, John Lewis began planning a picture book with publisher Nosy Crow.

Kicul said JLP kept the script a secret and only gave the publisher a series of sketches from Untold to work with. As the publisher and illustrator developed the book, John Lewis marketers steered its plot to match the TV ad. The final look of the dragon was only revealed in August, with the book finished by early September.

In July, after Kicul asked the agency to ensure there was “clear water” between the spot and any other dragon story, Adam&Eve’s account management team reviewed dozens of other dragon characters.

They eventually created a 45-page document comparing around 90 dragons in children’s books, buying several to double-check any similarities. That research was kept away from the team working on the ad.

Following its September shoot, the ad was unveiled amid typical fanfare in November ahead of the crucial Christmas season. And while the authenticity of the idea was challenged, the exhaustive and exhausting process by which it was created was never in question.

As judge Clarke summarized: “I have been extremely impressed by the professionalism, thoroughness, care and creativity disclosed in the evidence of all those involved in the creation of the 2019 advert and Excitable Edgar. They each appear to be at the very top of their game in their respective industries, and I consider they exit this litigation without the slightest hint or shadow of a stain on their creative integrity.“

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