When you watch the new John Lewis Christmas ad “Moz the Monster,” do you feel it? You’ve never seen it before, but there’s a certain sense of familiarity. Like an old friend wearing a new shirt. Take a look at Twitter and it’s certainly something the brand and ad are being criticized for, but rest assured, it’s all very much part of the plan.
It all began in 2011, when the U.K. retailer and agency adam&eveDDB launched “The Long Wait,” that sparked a frenzy of interest and got every British brand around asking their ad agencies to “make us a John Lewis.” This has evolved into the U.K.’s own version of Super Bowl ad season–when ads are discussed in media and everywhere else as a part of culture–and even spread around the world, with recent yuletide tearjerkers from Spain, Germany and, yes, even the U.S.
Adam&eveDDB chief creative officer Richard Brim says the agency has found a way to manage the huge expectations it has created for itself over the years with these ads.
“It’s such a hard thing, because you go into it at the start and you want to mess it up, you want to change things, you want to do something different, rewrite the way things are done,” says Brim. “And then you realize it holds a place in people’s hearts, and it’s part of the calendar. It’s not just an advert. The Christmas thing here is mental, and it’s brilliant. It’s the only time of year here where people actually talk about the ads in pubs, at work and that.”
People’s expectations for John Lewis ads are a bit like another British icon. “People expect a certain thing. Like (James) Bond, the story is the same every single time. It follows the same premise, just in different ways,” says Brim. “We’re trying to get away from that, and I think this year is a bit different. Last year, what people reacted to was the joy. The out and out joy of a dog on a trampoline. The year before almost felt too sad, so this year we tried to bring the two together. We tried to make it as stupid and whimsical as we can while still maintaining a bit of poignancy. It’s just about messing a bit with which emotions you pull up and which emotions you pull down.”
The agency starts work on the Christmas ad on January 1. And every year, the brief remains the same: Thoughtful gifting. But the ad itself is typically done by March or April, because this is 2017 and a blockbuster ad is no longer just an ad. This year there’s a VR experience, AR fun, a make-your-own-monster app, merchandise, and more.
“The ad is just the tip of the iceberg,” says Brim. “The front of the store’s logo has been changed to the eyes–the O of John and E of Lewis are now two big cute Moz eyes. They go for it at such a massive level–that’s what makes it such an occasion and famous.”
Brim welcomes the critics, but says the goal remains to create something familiar and new. “People might say it’s formulaic, but if we came out with an animated 12-second GIF, they’d be asking where the story and the wonder are,” he says. “You’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t. It’s got more fantastical as the years go on, but as long as it maintains that humanity, that’s the key. “