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Creative Christmas Advert Agency Leadership

Ads of Christmas past: Marketing execs pick their favorites

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By Sam Anderson, Network Editor

November 20, 2023 | 13 min read

Christmas ad mania is in full force, with every brand and their mother dropping their plays for the hearts and minds of holiday shoppers. Here, we take a look back at ad execs’ historic favs.

The famous red Coca-Cola Christmas truck

We all have our own favorite Christmas ads - but what tops ad execs' own lists? / Jasmin Schuler via Unsplash

The Christmas ad deluge has truly hit, including the hotly-anticipated first Saatchis spot for John Lewis and a hotly debated offering from Amazon.

Both of those have generated debate about their effectiveness and aesthetic value. But what about the true crème-de-la-crème from capitalism’s rich history of encouraging people to buy stuff at Christmas? We asked ad execs from The Drum Network for their favs.

Kevin Windsor, creative director at The Producers (part of the PrettyGreen Group): Plenty’s Xmess

“Christmas is such a hard brief for creatives. Every year, it’s the same cliches: “All Wrapped Up For Christmas,” “Give The Gift Of… Vibrant Hair,” “Nothing Says Christmas Like… Tampax.” Kill me. Please.

“Brands often say they want to do an honest Christmas ad but then inevitably balk in favor of Richard Curtis-style realism. Not so with Plenty’s 2020 campaign.

“What I love about this campaign is not just that, as a paper towel, the brand acknowledges its role at Christmas. Or the insight that Christmas is messy but that’s what we love about it. It’s not even the perfectly pitched “Merry Xmess” end line. This time, the client had the balls to see the execution all the way through to tinsel being pulled out of a cat’s arse. This is Christmas: cold, grey, intolerable family. And you wouldn’t miss it for anything.”

Stephen Kiernan, creative director, Atomic: Guinness’ White One

“We all crave that white Christmas. The one imprinted on our minds by countless Hollywood blockbusters and mashed-up childhood memories. This classic ad from Guinness taps deep into our collective yearning. From the beautiful monochromatic cinematography to the totes-emosh orchestral score, BBDO’s vignettes of an Irish Christmas tug at our heartstrings. Sure, some of the shots feel a bit dated now, the slow-mo snowball fight is a bit naff, and you’d probably be shot for that delivery of “don’t forget to turn off the lights” now.

But even with its cúpla flaws, after almost 20 years, this ad manages to create a delicious sense of yuletide nostalgia, anticipation and national pride all at once – and not a drop of the black stuff in sight.”

Jody Friedericks, executive creative director, 160over90: Bouygues’ Christmas

“It still has me tearing up every time I watch it. Only a few years earlier, Redbone’s ‘Come and Get Your Love’ swelled in popularity when it was featured in Guardians of the Galaxy, so it was a great way of tapping into the cultural zeitgeist of the time and creating an ‘if you know, you know’ effect.

“The story arc of a family dynamic evolving over the years is relatable and the product (telecoms service and hardware) is woven in so authentically that it feels like a short film about the generational journey toward brand love and loyalty. As an American still so captivated by a French ad, this proves that neither language nor audience matters here. There is inherent beauty in the universal language of family, traditions, and the holiday season.”

Nadine Smith, paid social strategist, Rawnet: John Lewis’ Man on the Moon

“John Lewis’ 2015 Christmas ad transcends the cliché festive tearjerker. In a poignant partnership with Age UK, it follows a young girl’s heartfelt efforts to connect with an elderly man living alone on the moon. It touched hearts worldwide. It’s more than emotional manipulation; it cast a vital spotlight on a pressing issue: loneliness among the elderly during Christmas. It gave Age UK a well-deserved spotlight and encouraged viewers to take action by reaching out to elderly people in their own communities. It’s a masterful blend of storytelling, social consciousness, and Christmas magic. It also increased Telescope sales.”

Sian Evans, head of video production, Definition: Ikea’s Silence the Critics

“Sure, we all love an ad that pulls at the heartstrings, but for some, Christmas also brings with it the stress of hosting. Is my décor Instagrammable enough? Are there enough unnecessary/essential cushions scattered across the sofa? Why don’t we have any festive candles?

“When Ikea launched Silence the Critics in 2017, its first-ever Christmas ad sidestepped the emotion and made those all-too-well-known insecurities and dread around ‘home shame’ relatable. Everyday household objects, rap-shaming the family into giving their home a refresh for the holidays: each one is silenced as Ikea solutions are introduced to brighten up the home. Perfectly ridiculous. Wonderfully relatable. Fabulously festive in the most un-festive way. Plus, why haven’t we had grime music at Christmas before?”

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Mark Wiggins, senior creative manager, Search Laboratory: Coca-Cola’s Holidays are Coming

“Christmas is all about the nostalgia of childhood, when the season was at its most magical, so conjuring these emotions in viewers is the perfect way to get noticed. The Coca-Cola advert has barely changed since it was first aired in 1995. For a millennial like me, hearing the first play of ‘Holidays Are Coming’ each year takes me back to being eight years old. In a market where the brief seems to have become increasingly contrived – putting together the ingredients for the most emotionally charged ad – the fact that Coca-Cola doesn’t change is its biggest strength. We may marvel at the originality of John Lewis or Aldi each Christmas, but nothing takes you back to the innocence of childhood Christmas quite like those Coca-Cola trucks barrelling across your screen.”

Rafael Pitanguy, deputy global chief creative officer, VMLY&R: Haddon Sundblom’s Santa

“When think of the most memorable Christmas campaign of all time, you probably end up remembering Coca-Cola. The history of Coke and Christmas is so connected that one almost becomes a mirror for the other. That’s why I’m going back to the beginning, arguably to the place where this all started: 1931, the year when Coca-Cola commissioned the super-talented illustrator Haddon Sundblom to imagine and create his version of Santa Claus. That’s when the warm, friendly, and larger-than-life figure was born. Although I wasn’t there to witness the moment he came to life, he’s the Santa I’ve written my letters to, left my cookies for, and the one I dress up as (please don’t tell my kids) every Christmas for the past six years. More than a campaign, more than an icon. That was the moment when Coke created real magic.”

Kimi Brown, senior content writer, Don't be Shy: Tesco’s No Naughty List

“Christmas 2020 was pretty bleak. We were all stuck inside waiting for the latest lockdown rules to ring out for Christmas day. Surprisingly, my favorite Christmas ad comes from that fateful year: it owns up to all the ways we didn’t quite play by the rules in 2020, lightheartedly recounting the absurdities of the year.

“It was just what we needed when the world was depressing: a hilarious departure from tradition during a Christmas like no other. It was a brave move from a brand as big as Tesco. No one had made light of the pandemic until this point, so it could've gone horribly wrong. But it didn’t. The tone was spot on. The humor was well pitched. It was risky, but relatable; funny, but not flippant. Bravo, Tesco.”

Paul Dunleavy, creative director, APS Group: IrnBru’s Snowman

“I’m no Scrooge, but amid the saccharine ads and endless cute Christmas characters (and inevitable associated merch), this noughties Irn Bru ad stands out for a darker sense of humor that you don’t typically associate with the season of goodwill. It's funny, but it’s no cheap gag: from the animation to the soundtrack, the level of production and craft is incredible, and the reverence and love for Raymond Briggs’ iconic original film is very clear. Surprisingly for an ad about a snowman turning on his maker, it’s joyous.”

Will Tunstall, chief design officer, Tommy: Cockburn’s Dinner with the Russians

“One of my earliest Christmas ad memories was for Cockburn’s port in the 80s. It riffed on Bond with silly pronunciation humor around the silent ‘CK’ of Cockburn’s: a confused Russian says he must therefore come from ‘Moscock’, to which the British dryly agreed ‘Yes… I think you probably do.’

“I still see ‘Moscock’ if someone offers me port, 40-something years later – in a time where my kids only glimpse Christmas ads in prerolls as they wait for the skip button. A captive audience, universal cultural nods, endless repeat watches: all gone in favor of totally on-demand content. Which, of course, is incredible and (for the rest of the year), preferable – but Christmas advertising will never be what it was – a moment of shared excitement where a good line could last a lifetime.”

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Taylor Orford, junior creative PR, Ogilvy UK: Toys R Us’ Magical Place

“You have to give credit to an ad packed full of Christmas nostalgia that doesn’t actually mention Christmas once. Toys R Us’ Magical Place first made an impact on my sister’s childhood in the 90s, then again on mine when it was brought back for their Christmas spot in 2009. The song brings all my Christmas spirit to the forefront, even when listening to the Punk Rock version on Spotify (highly recommended). I was so fond of Toys R Us around Christmas time that I’d make my parents drive the long way around the back of the shop so I could get a glimpse of the delivery lorries, just to see if Geoffrey the Giraffe had donned his Santa hat yet. I’m not sure whether that’s a testament to the little details making an impact, or me being far too obsessed with a cartoon giraffe.”

John January, co-chief executive officer, Signal Theory: John Lewis’ The Boy and the Piano

“I’m an utter sucker for Christmas ads. I love all of them. Cynics tell me these works are silly and sentimental. But I’ll counter with the fact that there’s a human truth in them. These spots are avatars for the deep human need for joy, comfort, and meaning. The season’s repetitive rituals play directly into this, and advertising is the perfect complement to help deliver that dopamine. Classically, the Peter Comes Home Folger's spot sticks: you can smell that coffee. Great to engage multiple senses: I never want my Hershey’s Kisses bell choir or Corona palm tree to stop running. But if you’re going to pin me down, this John Lewis spot crushes. The storytelling craft, the direction, the acting. I’m wiping my eyes right now.”

Creative Christmas Advert Agency Leadership

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