Does Advertising have a Christmas Problem?

Rob Sellers
December 26, 2023

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LONDON - We all remember the parable of the emperor with no clothes on. In short, swindlers posing as exotic tailors promise to sell the vain ruler clothes that are invisible to people too stupid to see them. As they weave, a succession of advisors and dignitaries watch the swindlers at work, but despite seeing the obviously empty looms, they pretend they can see lavish cloth being made.

Of course, no one wants to be labelled a fool. Eventually, the emperor parades through the whole town, with the bemused townspeople seeing his birthday suit in full glory, but all pretending they can see him clothed. It’s only when an innocent pair of children shriek out the truth that everyone finally admits it.

If you haven’t guessed yet… I think we might be looking at a big fat naked emperor in the form of Christmas ads, and we’re all the townspeople too scared to point out the truth. 

Firstly, the caveat. Clearly, lots of companies need to maximise the natural consumer demand that has come to define the ‘Golden Quarter’. Investing in media in this period will clearly help them drive sales, and I am sure the ROI modelling done by the agencies and analysts associated with those campaigns is robust.

But this is an article about the bigger picture. Break out of the Christmas bubble (bauble?) and think holistically about the task at hand - maximising marketing investment to grow brands. Unfortunately, our industry seems to be obsessed with the smaller task of ‘making the best Christmas ad’. We need to understand how we got here, and why we seem to be stuck in the festive mud. 

Let’s return to the second week of November - specifically Thursday, 9th November.… a bit later than usual for the hype to begin. But this is when the guys at the Advertising Association went hard on a very successful PR push. We were told by the mainstream breakfast news teams that UK brands were set to spend £9.5bn on advertising in the run-up to Christmas. Nine point five BILLION pounds. But that is only part of the story.

Why did the AA choose 9th November for their news blitz? The result of careful coordination with the (new) team behind the John Lewis TV Christmas ad. The retailer who opened Pandora’s creative box in the first place - with ‘The Long Wait’ in 2011. Suddenly, Christmas advertising wasn’t just Noddy Holder and products/pricing. But here’s our first canary - the indicator that maybe we’re too far down the wrong mineshaft and the air is running thin. For all the fame generated by JLP’s commitment to long-form, high-production value storytelling, the last 12 years have not been stellar for middle England’s favourite retailer. Yes, revenues rose about 30% between 2012 and 2017 (but worth noting that revenue had already grown 17.5% in the 3 years before John Lewis ‘invented Christmas). The following 6 years have seen only total revenue growth of 6.5% - essentially flatlining. And in 2023, John Lewis Partnership reported a £234m loss - only the second in the company’s history.

I’m certainly not saying that John Lewis’s Christmas advertising wasn’t effective. My argument is that fundamental challenges to the business (and the brand) were not being addressed with the same success. At the same time, there were rumours of becoming a ‘property business’ and removing the iconic “Never knowingly…” strapline. But in essence, retailing was shifting fast, requiring focus and strong thinking to transform the stoic and reliable JLP. Stronger omnichannel innovation, better store experiences, better personalisation, stronger use of data, making the brand more relevant to more people, attracting younger shoppers. And overall, a more clear and iconic role for the John Lewis brand in culture outside the Hail Mary of a Christmas masterpiece. 

And it’s not that there weren’t brilliant people attached to John Lewis and its agencies at this time—literally some of the best talent in the whole industry. But you could see the whole focus of Christmas consuming the stakeholders involved. Being briefed in Q1, spending 6 months in development and production. Huge bets were made on creative, and huge investments were made in the media (and integrated activations) around the ideas. My argument is the business would have been better solved by pointing these resources at other, more fundamental problems. 

So fast forward to 2023 and the state of the industry. It seems that this year, every retailer (and many other brands) has put their big creative bet into a Christmas TV ad. I helped one publication (the Grocer) review 18 campaigns with varying appreciation and appraisal. But this is just scratching the surface. And these advertisers would have gone through their own version of the John Lewis conundrum. So it’s worth mapping out just some cold hard facts that might help brands understand that there may be better ways of solving their core challenges.

Firstly, the big one. Does advertising genuinely have a short-term effect on retail footfall? Almost every study suggests it is a soft driver of sales at best, and the return on investing in brand building should be measured over a long period of time. If this is true, it suggests that a retailer’s advertising strategy would be better served by building a consistent brand story throughout the year - well before the festive trading season.

The second challenge is distinction. Reviewing ad after ad, they all seem to merge into one vignette of families / snow / kindness / gifts / food. And Michael Buble. But seriously, challenge yourself to name proper, memorable, distinct and different adverts from this year. Or any year. Because by definition - they are ‘Christmas ads’, the context only seems to land by adopting so many of the same visual and creative tropes. There are rare exceptions (ht Uncommon/JD Sports), and this year, there seems to be a trend towards non-Christmassy music. But standing apart seems even more difficult now than at other times of the year. 

Third. Supply and demand for media. As research for this piece, we reached out to a few people in the media industry to help us understand how much a 30s TV slot might cost 4 weeks before Christmas versus the rest of the year. In short, we did not get an answer. Not even a vague answer. The closest we got was ‘media doesn’t work like that’.

Of course, it’s more complicated, but surely an incremental cost is involved if dozens of advertisers back-load their media spend to the last 6 weeks of the year! And by definition, it will cost more money to reach the same number of people. So, if your ambition is building brand connections for long-term returns, surely it’s smarter to zag while everyone else is zigging (to borrow a phrase). 

So, with these big, fundamental, strategic and commercially compelling questions floating about… why is no one pointing out that the Emperor might be naked?

The big issue is that almost every stakeholder has a significant chip in the game. Firstly, on the agency side. The media crews have made their trading plan, and they need to realise it. That inventory must go to someone, so it would be bad news if the clients pulled back in Q4 en masse. For the creative agencies, there’s not just the nice lumpy fee of creating a ‘big’ ad but also prestige.

We don’t have a ‘Super Bowl’ moment in the UK - a singular appointment to view that the whole nation sees. There is a lazy narrative that “Christmas is our Super Bowl”, and agencies love the idea of being in the mix for the ‘best’ ad. In fact, if you don’t have a Christmas ad in the plans for the year, are you even really a top agency? The emotional energy put into trying to win (or convince a client to commit to) a big Christmas campaign is palpable.

Then, there are the trade bodies, the researchers and the evaluators. The people who love the idea that for a fleeting moment in the year, interest in advertising effectiveness briefly touches wider business journalism. It’s their best opportunity to get a populist story out there to raise awareness of their roles.

And on the other side of that are the journalists. Rightly taking time to cover the collective fervour of the industry and the tsunami of content to review. In many ways, it’s the time of year when their jobs are easiest - a bit of a breather before interrogating business realities in January.

And then there’s the client marketers. Often being passed the task of ‘winning Christmas’ like it’s a realistic thing, and sometimes becoming custodians of corporate behaviour that has become ingrained. It takes a bold, clear-thinking client to make a big pivot and to win the argument to change “what we’ve always done” - risking personal and professional reputations and often trying to get businesses that are obsessed with short-term performance to behave more strategically.

So, with all of these sustaining factors, is change likely? Probably not - but as they say, the first step to dealing with a problem is admitting you have one. Maybe with a few more candid conversations, we can start to chuckle at the Emperor and his bare butt.

Rob Sellers
Contributing Retail Writer