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How the 10 best holiday ads of 2018 worked their merry magic

The creatives behind the season’s most festive ads explain what made them shine.

How the 10 best holiday ads of 2018 worked their merry magic

For the fourth year in a row, Fast Company is highlighting some of the best holiday ads we’ve seen this season. So far, 2018 is awash with memorable commercials, from the clever to the hilarious to the heartwarming. But as is our tradition, instead of telling you why an ad worked, we spoke to the creatives behind the spots to hear how their ads of this festive season came together.

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“#NotARetailStore”–Twitter U.K.

Joe Mackay-Sinclair, founder and executive creative director, The Romans.

Every Christmas, the U.K. collectively waits with bated breath for the John Lewis spot, and subsequently races to Twitter to analyze, deconstruct, and answer the question, “But was it better than last year’s?” A significant proportion of these ad-related tweets (as well as others about washing machine warranties and store opening hours) are erroneously aimed at @JohnLewis, a technology lecturer in Virginia, and definitely not a retail store. Nevertheless, every year, John Lewis (the man) patiently and humorously responds to the tweets he receives, which are intended for his retailer namesake, an act that has over the years attracted a fair bit of media attention along the lines of, what a stand-up guy this John Lewis is.

So we thought, what if for once John Lewis (still the man) got to star in his own ad? And in doing so, we not only reward a cool guy who does a cool thing every year, but also remind the U.K. that Twitter is a place where anyone can join a conversation and share in some seasonal humor.

So, we slid into John’s DMs, flew to Virginia, and shot the most meta ad of the year: an ad about John Lewis, parodying John Lewis ads, starring a guy called John Lewis, designed to jump on the conversation already going on in the U.K. about the other John Lewis ad. The result: millions of views and encyclopedic volumes of media coverage across the U.K. and beyond. Thankfully, the ad trended on Twitter–it would have been a bit embarrassing if it hadn’t–and, for the first time ever, people were able to legitimately tweet their congratulations to @JohnLewis about his new ad.

“Reindeer Games”—Microsoft

David Banta and Shayne Millington, executive creative directors EVP, m:united//McCann New York

In gaming, when a player is about to reach a new level or beat a high score, there is an emotion and tension that is real, memorable, and universal. Anyone who has ever been that close to beating a game—or has watched their child come close–can relate to that feeling. This story is about that moment.

The hero could have been anyone: boy, girl, man, woman, young, old. It doesn’t matter. Because the game is the same for everyone. We wanted the viewer to get caught up in the emotion, not the physical ability of the player. The skill to beat the game comes from the player’s passion, not his or her size or speed. The desire to win is the same for everyone.

The fact that Owen is specially abled and is playing with a new piece of technology from Microsoft is secondary. We wanted to downplay it, almost ignore it. Because the world of video games is one where everyone can be equal, and with the adaptive controller, the field is even more level. This is not a story about a specially abled kid who deserves our sympathy. It’s the story of Owen and his friends, and that epic day he crushed the game, proving, “When everybody plays, we all win.”

“The Magic of Christmas”—Currys PC World

Jack Smedley and George Hackforth-Jones, creatives, AMVBBDO

Dickensian Britain was the best of times, it was the worst of times. The best because they witnessed the very birth of Christmas [as we know it] and yet, the worst because they had nowhere to plug in a 4K OLED LG TV.

Festive traditions haven’t changed much since Victorian times, so we thought it was about time they got an update. As the home of all things technological, who better than Currys PC World to bring outdated Christmas cheer from the lamp-lit age of Dickens bleeping and whirring into the 21st century?

We had ourselves a merry old time sprinkling festive favorites like chestnuts, carols, and mistletoe with a generous dusting of consumer electronics. The street where Christmases modern and traditional collide turned out to be a fun place to be–of course, for everyone but Scrooge.

“We have to see more of each other”—Ruavieja

Juan García-Escudero, chief creative officer, Leo Burnett Madrid

We wanted to try to convince people to spend more time with their loved ones, but we realized that’s easy to do. The hard part is getting them to really change their behavior. That’s when we knew we had to create something different, more than a campaign—an eye-opener–to wake people up to a reality that they hadn’t even realized existed, so that they can become more aware of it and begin to do something about it.

The true heart of the campaign lies in the tool we created: an algorithm that can calculate how much time we have left to spend with the people who we care about most. No speculation, just hard, cold data with a clear purpose to make you rethink your priorities.

The beauty of it is that it has worked in a way we never imagined. It has become the most watched and shared Spanish ad in history, and inspired people to get together for real. A constant flood of grateful messages and pictures of reunions arrives to the Ruavieja team every day, and that’s the best proof that we’ve done something worth doing.

“Santa Crashes Christmas”—ALDI Australia

Alex Derwin, executive creative director, BMF Sydney Australia

“The more the merrier” is an idea that we’ve been working to for a couple of years now. It embodies the inclusivity of an Aussie Christmas where anyone and everyone can drop by night or day. It positions ALDI between that Aussie generosity of spirit and the reality of not blowing your budget sky-high. This year’s ad takes the idea to the heart of Australia and its rural community. Santa crashes his sleigh in Outback Australia and is welcomed with open arms. It’s the contrast between this outsized festive figure and a gritty, hardworking rural community that gives the ad its interest value.

The idea of Santa being stranded in an Outback town seemed so universal and likable, it was too good to pass up. It’s blazing hot down here in December, so the image of an oversized man with a thick beard and a woolly red suit sweating it out in an Outback town gave us all the encouragement we needed to turn it into a campaign. One of my favorite Aussie films is the original Wake in Fright, which is a dark take on small Outback towns. Our story is the opposite of that film—in our Outback community, the locals are friendly, the hospitality is warm, the local pub serves milk, and our community wants to help our hero on his way instead of trapping him.

From script to production, it was one of those projects that got better and better with every iteration. Director Hamish Rothwell has worked on the last two ALDI Christmas ads, and he has again added nuance to the characters and an honest beauty to the environments. One of the reasons it works is because Hamish has successfully played the gray area between reality and fiction. The word authenticity gets bandied around a lot in advertising, but it’s definitely something we were striving for. Our Santa had to be believable–you had to feel for him, and care if he got his present delivery back on track. Perhaps the most pleasing thing about the ad’s success is how it’s been received by rural Australia. The farming community here has been having a tough time–they’ve been through a record drought, with rainfall at all-time lows. This ad celebrates the hardworking, easygoing hospitality of Australians, and Australia seems to have embraced it.

“The Heathrow Bears Return”—Heathrow Airport

Modupe Adeboye, marketing communications lead, Heathrow Airport (Havas London)

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The nation’s love for the Heathrow bears Doris and Edward has been overwhelming since we first met them in 2016. This year, set to Paul Young’s emotive ’80s classic, “Every Time You Go Away,” the bears rush themselves back toward the British twilight, arriving into Heathrow–the same location their eyes met and their love story began 50 years ago.

For many people, being close to the ones they love is what really makes Christmas special. This is why we see the bears return to their family from warmer climes, as many of Heathrow’s passengers make similar journeys home for the festive season.

“A Dog is For Life, Not Just for Christmas®”—Dogs Trust

Peter Larkin, creative director, Nice and Serious

In such a crowded Christmas marketing space, we really wanted to create something unexpected for Dogs Trust this year that would allow them to stand out from the crowd.

A key part of the process was getting the brief just right. Our first couple of attempts led to ideas that were either too celebratory of dogs, which might have had the opposite effect of making people actually want to gift a dog, or too sad—which just isn’t the right tone for the Dogs Trust brand.

After spending some time focusing the brief with the client, the idea appeared from one of our creatives. Quite simply, It’s just ridiculous to think about treating an animal as a present—wrapping it up would be madness. So, what if we showed people treating their regular Christmas presents like dogs? The result was a brilliantly simple idea that connects a bit of festive fun with a very real, and serious, Christmas message.

“The Never-ending Stocking”—TK Maxx

Hollie Walker, creative director, Wieden+Kennedy London

TK Maxx isn’t quite like any other shop, especially at Christmas. You never know what you’re going to find in there, and you always get more than you bargained for, which is why giving shoppers the chance to get their mitts on a never-ending stocking and get Christmas presents for a whole year felt spot on for TK Maxx.

It’s a campaign with an in-store activation at its heart and its own set of Christmas feels. While other ads tend to get all sentimental, we always try to do something a bit different that’ll stand out among all the Christmas merriment, and a never-ending stocking burping out loads of brilliant gifts felt like it would do the job.

“KFC Crossroads”—KFC

Hermeti Balarin, partner, Mother London

KFC Crossroads is funny, irreverent, surprising, and provocative at a time of year when ads are usually none of those things. Most Christmas campaigns are completely generic: Christmas is a time to share, to come together, blah blah blah . . . almost any brand in the world could say something similar, and indeed most of them do. Then you have to get into an arms race on media budget or celebrity sparkle to make any impact. So, for KFC to stand out, we had to do the unexpected.

And that wasn’t the only tradition we wanted to steer clear of. Once a year, millions of us sit down to eat our Christmas Turkey. But it’s dry. It’s boring. Most people don’t like it. And we spend the other 364 days of the year resolutely not eating it. In contrast, people love fried chicken (remember when there was an unfortunate shortage of chicken [in the U.K.], when people called the police demanding the crisis be resolved?). So we brought back our strutting chicken to remind everyone that while turkey may get its 24 hours on December 25, for every other day of the year, there’s finger-lickin’ good chicken.

Going for humor instead of people’s heartstrings meant we stood out from the crowd and got lots of laughs, especially from our fans on social media. When people watch it, there’s an a-ha! moment of acknowledgment–when you really think about it, everyone only eats turkey because of some strange festive obligation.

[Note: Mother London was also the ad agency behind this year’s most heartbreaking ad, “Rang-Tan.”]

“Bouygues Christmas”—Bouygues Telecom

Stéphane Xiberras, president and chief creative officer, BETC Paris

It is always funny the way some ads find great successes and become super popular. We can try all we want to understand and find the perfect recipe for the perfect holiday ad, but unfortunately, it is rather tricky to pin down. In the case of Bouygues, I immediately fell in love with the script that I found simple and fair in regards to the product. I also liked the idea of remembering the time when we were all mad about our Startacs and proudly programmed our favorite tunes for ringtones. That was the future, right there in our pockets!

However, there were four essential ingredients that were key to the success of this particular little comedy: the director (thank you so much, Martin Werner!), the casting of the dad (and the way that his aging doesn’t get too cheesy), the music, and the dancing. Mentioning the music, I’ll admit we were a bit lost to begin with. Music is so subjective, it is hard to be rational. Some of us wanted a rock anthem, others a pop hit from the time, but I just thought, no, this is a film with a tiny, quirky dance move, we need something groovy that stays away from the old ’80s hits. In short, we struggled to find the right match. And then one day, the creative team said they thought they had it. I listened and just thought, “These guys are too good, it is spot on.” It was the perfect mood, and given that I’m a huge Marvel fan (RIP, Stan), it didn’t take much convincing to go for this little wink to the Guardians of the Galaxy and its legendary intro scene.

Sure, some might say, “Alright, it’s a family story: You added a Christmas tree and some good music. That’s it, then—the recipe for the perfect holiday ad.” Yes, but no. Look at the first scene, the actor in his shorts, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, his plump little legs doing the silly dance: That’s also the secret of the film. Like in all good ads, the first seconds decide if you’re going to “buy” the story or not.

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