The 3 gifts of advertising leadership

This Sunday evening, the usual family debate about whether to watch Downton Abbey or Homeland was unusually won by the Downton contingent. Although I was on the losing side in this particular discussion, the one advantage was that it meant I had the opportunity to witness a beauty parade of all the new Christmas retailer ads in the commercial breaks. Having just read an analysis of these in the Sunday Times earlier in the day, I was intrigued to see whether I agreed with their conclusions over the winners and losers in the now-traditional festive showdown.

I have to admit that as the various big name retailing contestants appeared in break after break, I was left with a sense of disappointment at the overall level of originality and impact. Until, that is, the hot favourite John Lewis appeared and came up trumps once again, their latest offering being the story of a boy trying to improve the love life of his toy penguin.

What is it that makes the John Lewis ad stand out for yet another year? For me, there are three key ingredients that the most gifted marketing leaders bring to advertising development.

    John Lewis recognised several years ago that the high emotional stakes during the Christmas period offered a unique opportunity to build a stronger bond between the brand and its consumers. But their real breakthrough was in discovering that for most people the most poignant emotion at this time of year lies in the giving, as opposed to the receiving, of presents.
    Based on the realisation that Christmas provides a very special opportunity to express how you feel to the people you love, the John Lewis team were then able to capture their communication strategy in a wonderful, campaignable, but very simple creative idea – ‘thoughtful gifting’. 
    Inspired by this creative platform, the brand has been consistently successful in expressing the core idea in a variety of emotionally charged, beautifully crafted executions. In addition to this year’s Penguin, we’ve seen the Hare and Bear, the Snowman and, my personal favourite, the boy counting down the minutes to the moment on Christmas morning when he can give his present to his Mum and Dad.

Appearing in the final Downton ad break with the confidence of a headline act, in my view the John Lewis film out-scored its rivals in each of these areas and fully justified the top 9/10 score given to it by the Sunday Times jury.

John Lewis’s advertising has achieved a rare distinction in becoming part of the culture of Christmas in this country, giving voice to a particular angle on the role the festival plays in people’s lives. But with this achievement comes an ongoing pressure, one I know that Craig Inglis, the Marketing Director, feels keenly – how not to disappoint? With each year’s success comes ever higher expectations. Fulfilling these year after year is no mean feat, particularly as the other retailers put ever more effort into knocking John Lewis off its perch.

At its heart, the leadership mindset required is a painstaking determination to reach new levels of excellence and a refusal to accept second best. Also essential is a commitment to the craft of advertising development. In recent years, with the explosion of digital channels, a big change has rightly taken place in the way we as marketers think about brand communication. But for all the drive to create more engaging and involving multi-channel campaigns, there remains a true art in creating single pieces of brilliant advertising that play a vital role in the overall communication strategy.

The three ingredients I’ve listed lie at the heart of this craft and the simple fact is that most advertising does not succeed in reaching these standards. John Lewis has pulled it off once again and as a result can probably look forward to receiving three gifts of its own again this Christmas  – higher consumer engagement, increased sales and better financial returns.

Originally posted on the Marketing Society blog.

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