John Lewis: A Deep Dive

There’s a new John Lewis ad out:

What is there to say?

Well, as each new offering arrives with its own wider context, especially as it’s the next in a long line of ads that genuinely changed advertising, I think there’s plenty.

And now I’m going to prove it:

First, a little of that context. For the uninitiated, starting with The Long Wait in 2011 John Lewis kicked off a new UK advertising genre: the Christmas Ad. The Long Wait was so influential, every major British retailer soon felt the need to provide a massive, heartwarming 60 to 180-second commercial, often with a slow, sappy version of a famous rock song, that would see the country through what we now understand to be the Tory Austerity years.

Was the sociopolitical element really a part of it? Maybe. The previous year, John Lewis had given us the excellent More Than A Woman, so they were already heading down this path before applying it to Christmas. But the warmth with which The Long Wait was greeted gave the other supermarkets and department stores a clue to what the Great British Public wanted.

I’m not going to go into all the other epics dished out to us by Sainsbury’s, M&S, Asda etc., but The Christmas Ad soon became the UK equivalent of the Superbowl, where six months of planning and a massive budget became the norm.

The extra John Lewis context is that it remained the Granddaddy of them all: usually the best; definitely the most anticipated; but also the one with the most baggage. Raising the bar means raising expectations, so if you want to avoid hearing, ‘It’s good, but not as good as last year’, you have to up the standard and eventually attempt a kind of reinvention.

You can find them all here. They’ve done celebrities (Elton John), initiatives (The Beginner), animation (the Bear and The Hare), but mainly they’ve done sweet stories featuring a child’s relationship with something that can be turned into a toy (Moz the Monster, Monty the Penguin, Excitable Edgar etc.) and sold in the stores.

And all seemed to be going well until…

John Lewis started experiencing massive financial losses. Was it inflation? The Cost of Living Crisis? Shoplifting? All of the above?

Whatever it was, this year John Lewis put the account up for review. This article suggests that was down to putting ever-greater demands on Adam and Eve DDB, the agency that produced all that work. There were also many changes in the management of both client and agency, and that rarely helps with longevity.

Saatchi and Saatchi won the pitch, and their first Christmas work is this year’s Venus Fly Trap ad (I’m sure it has a cute name but I can’t be arsed to look it up).

To me it feels a bit like a photocopy of a John Lewis ad from ten years ago. That doesn’t mean it’s bad, but it’s also not one of the best. Heartwarming story about a kid who sees things differently to his more conventional family? Check. Heartwarming friendly creature that can become a toy? Check. Heartwarming ending that rugpulls a seemingly sad situation? Check. The music is different, but I’m not sure how much this Andrea Bocelli cod-operatic song is going to trouble the charts, if indeed that’s an aim.

Other aims come in the form of merch sales, as The Guardian (regurgitating the press release) informs us:

Shoppable versions will be available on YouTube and Google while the ad will be linked to the widest ever range of associated merchandise including a soft toy version of Snapper the plant for £18, children’s pyjamas for £19 and venus flytrap plants for £10.

Yay! More pointless crap in the world! But that aside, I wonder if people will warm to the tenth John Lewis ad toy offering, or indeed a pair of pajamas. This Venus Fly Trap is definitely not the huggable Monty the Penguin or Moz the Monster, so I wish them luck.

On the good side, I think the strategy/message of starting your own new traditions is refreshing. M&S is actually running with the same theme, but in more of a Grinch-like way that seems to be annoying people (especially with a weird accidental burning of a ‘Palestinian flag’ despite the ad being shot in August), so a nicer, friendlier expression is a better path to take. That said, I don’t think this strategy is particularly clear: the endline says Let Your Traditions Grow, but that sounds more like Grow Your Current Traditions, rather than Create New Ones. And the emphasis seems to be 95% LOOK AT THIS GIANT FUN PLANT and 5% ‘start some new traditions’. In any case, the family go back to their old tree and only involve the troublesome fly trap again out of guilt, so where’s the new tradition?

And that’s it. Not bad, but for this client that’s a long way from what’s needed. John Lewis has to turn its fortunes around during a cost of living and inflation crisis that will have many of their customers tightening their belts. They needed a game changer, ironically one that could change the very game they themselves created, one that has settled into a cosy meeting of expectations rather than a breath of fresh air, a bolt from the blue or, heaven forbid, a paradigm-shifting shot in the arm that could send John Lewis off into a new decade of success.

The funny thing is, they did indeed let their traditions grow: one more year, one more ad and one more repetition of a formula that is now well over ten years old. In fact, after the unusual initiative of last year, there’s a palpable sense of going back to something that worked. the problem is, you can’t step into the same river twice. Things have moved on; the competition has caught up and it’s possible that the people involved may not be up to the incredible standards of the campaign’s originators, or even some of the great creatives who Let This Tradition Grow in its early years.

Like I said, it’s not bad, but that’s not quite good enough.