David Golding
Dec 21, 2023

Will you pass the Christmas ad test?

Despite big research agencies insisting that what matters are long-running and distinctive brand assets, the tide is turning against classic advertising campaigns.

Will you pass the Christmas ad test?

Right now this website is chock full of research, rankings and ratings of the Christmas ads. But there’s a different sort of Christmas test that matters much more. And everyone reading this is likely to be put through it. 

The methodology is very simple, and the results are immediate. There you are sat at Christmas dinner and an aunt asks, “What is it that you do again love?” You say advertising, because outside of the flummery of our business that is what you do and that is what people call it. “Oh, that’s nice.” 

And then it comes… “So, what ads do you do?”

Proudly you tell her about that highly-awarded poster with the women weeing herself, or that charity stunt, or that seven-minute purpose-driven (mood) film voiced by Greta herself.

And what do you get? “Not sure we know those, do we Terry?”

Terry doesn’t know them. 

Then young cousin Jack gets roped in… “Have you seen that Jack, it might be in your programmes or on that Tik Tok?” 

“Nah,” says Jack, not even looking up from his phone. 

And that’s it, another year gone, and your client’s secrets remain safe with you. 

I’ve always been lucky with this. I had John Lewis. And now we have “those MoneySuperMarket ads with Judy Dench”, or that Nationwide campaign with that “bad banker bloke”. These are nailed on to pass the Christmas test, because they are campaigns, designed to be memorable, and well branded. They have ownable assets where each ad builds upon the last, and therefore create implicit long-term memories and brand perceptions among audiences who have better things to think about. 

This is what advertising is meant to do. For much of my career the best advertising was always the big campaigns. Maureen Lipman, Dotty, Carl Lewis, German beach towels, Latham and Boff, a big sparkly finger in the sky, the Flower Duet….and they all worked. Every IPA Effectiveness Grand Prix winner has been a classic long-running campaign. If only everything in life was as reliable.

Genuine campaigns are the hardest advertising to conceive and the hardest to motivate our industry behind today. They bore journalists and never trouble juries. The next ad in any campaign will at best drop silently into The Work section of this website, and actually probably won’t even make it that far. 

Despite the big research agencies repeatedly telling anyone who’ll listen that what matters is still long-running and distinctive brand assets, and a clearly defined and consistently built brand positioning, the tide is pushing against classic advertising campaigns. Clients move on too fast to worry much about long-term brand health, and agencies know that one-off creative fireworks and stunts burnish their reputations far more than slow-burning campfires.

I was intrigued earlier this year when news of our industry’s most celebrated independent agency selling for fantastical sums failed to feature in the national papers. When we sold Adam & Eve to DDB all the major titles wrote about the fate of “the John Lewis agency”. It was the fame of our campaigns that generated that newsworthy interest. 

And I think it’s interesting that other, more successful creative industries still powerfully embrace campaigns. They call them franchises or series, but they are ultimately just the same as long-running campaigns. It’s multiple seasons on Netflix, the latest Call of Duty or GTA, or a brilliant ongoing podcast series that creates culture these days, far more so than advertising. 

Of course, there’s always a place for PR-style stunts, special builds and provocative messages, many of which (when real) are fantastic. But these are not more creative, more powerful, more important, or more effective than good proper long-running advertising campaigns. Just ask Alexander Orlof, or Lightening the Lloyds Black Horse, or the Kevins, Bacon and Carrot. Did somebody say campaigns? 

So, when it comes to passing the sprouts and passing the real Christmas test, we would all be well served to remember that the name of our trade website is Campaign for good reason, and our real job is to build demand, brand preference and active behaviour over the long term and with millions of people like your aunt. 

David Golding is co-founder of New Commercial Arts.

Campaign UK

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