A couple of retailers stand out for their originality in this year’s crop of festive ads, but too many of them lack impact, Saatchi & Saatchi’s Richard Huntington tells Joanna Perry.

It has been a year like no other for most retailers. But you wouldn’t know it from the Christmas fare on offer through your TV screen.

Saatchi & Saatchi’s director of strategy Richard Huntington once again met with Retail Week to discuss this year’s Christmas TV ads.

He explains that the tried and tested formula is one that most retailers stick to rigidly. “Everyone makes the same commercial as each other, and everyone makes the same commercial as last year,” he says.

This has more than a ring of truth to it once you compare this year’s ads with last year’s. Boots has stuck with its “Here come the girls” formula and Waitrose is running an edited version of last Christmas’s ad, albeit with a charming re-record of the accompanying song How Can I Keep from Singing, sung by Gary Barlow’s latest signing to give it a celebrity slant.

Another thing that many of these ads have in common is that they promise mothers that this year Christmas will be perfect, and they can play the generous host to family and friends.

“I maybe have a rose-tinted view of Christmas ads in the past. I don’t know if it is that the formula for magic is so well-trodden that it has become boring, or if it is that retailers are just going through the motions,” Huntington says. “John Lewis’s ad makes the hair on the back of my neck stand on end, whereas maybe 20 years ago lots of fake snow and Chris Rea singing would have done that.”

He continues: “Retailers are not at the innovative end of the ad spectrum. They know what works and this stifles innovation.” For this reason, he thinks that Sainsbury’s should be applauded for trying to change the formula with the reality slant of its ad this year.

The other ad that he obviously loves is John Lewis’s, which also resists using standard Christmas classics while still evoking thoughts of what the season should be all about.

In contrast is Tesco’s ad. Huntington says that two periods traditionally evoke Christmas – 1950s America and Victorian England – and Tesco has chosen to go down the Victorian route this year. This, he feels, lacks ambition.

Huntington thinks the most successful ads will be the ones that make the most of insights into their customers’ lives. He says that the John Lewis and Boots ads both do this, as do Iceland’s and Morrisons’ ads to some extent.

This isn’t the time of year for retailers to be rolling out their most innovative advertising work, and it’s also not the time for long-term brand-building. The real measure of these ads’ success will be whether they keep the tills ringing.

1 I Marks & Spencer

What happens? Packed with faces including Stephen Fry, Wallace & Gromit, Joanna Lumley and Mylene Klass, the ad aims to remind everyone of the little things that make Christmas special. The ad has caused controversy for a perceived sexist comment made in it about underwear model Noémie Lenoir “prancing around in her underwear”.

Richard says “This is one for the real M&S loyalists, for whom M&S is a bit of a treat,” adding that the retailer is true to its promise of “quality worth every penny”. “It has the best made ad, and has had the most care and attention lavished on it,” he says.

However, he does feel that “it’s a celebrity ad without celebrities”.

2 I Very.co.uk

What happens? Presenters Holly Willoughby and Fearne Cotton skate around in a snow-filled studio with a cast of many, highlighting the fashion-focused range this new brand has on offer. The ad ends by claiming Very is an online department store.

Richard says “It is very much a brand ad and I didn’t get what it was about. Is this a brand launch? Is the retailer perfect for Christmas as well as the rest of the year?”

“Maybe all they are hoping for is to build quick awareness of the brand, and the celebrities are probably very helpful in doing that. But I’m not sure I understand the range on offer.”

He concludes: “It’s very festive, but very confusing.”

3 I John Lewis

What happens? Beautifully shot images show gorgeous middle-class children opening very adult Christmas presents, then morphing into adults – all set to a dulcet-toned version of the Guns N’ Roses classic Sweet Child o’ Mine. If the song is on iTunes it’s bound to be a hit after this exposure, but will it convince the department store’s target audience to head to a store to buy an iPod to play it on?

Richard says “John Lewis does ad agency advertising – everyone in the industry loves it.”

And he thinks this year’s ad will appeal just as much to the retailer’s middle-class target customer base as last year’s did to advertising executives.

He adds: “The music choice is genius. Usually Christmas ads are a woefully insight free, but this takes the idea of recreating the feeling from childhood of opening presents. It positions John Lewis nicely and engages the senses – it tries to make you feel something rather than think something.

“One measure of a good ad is if it makes you lose your cynicism. I respond to that ad in an emotional way.”

This is Huntington’s personal favourite.

4 I Argos

What happens? Stop the Cavalry plays as a selection of consumers assemble their Christmas lists. The tactical ad supports Argos’s Christmas catalogue and the message that it can help you celebrate for less. No mention of its great multichannel offer or the convenience it provides, though.

Richard says “I’ve no idea what it’s on about. It is really dreary. And why would you choose that piece of music? It is like in-store muzak, especially when you think of the imagination that has gone into some of the other musical choices. It has all the same downbeatness of last year’s ad without the point.”

He doesn’t think that it really explains why you should choose the retailer for your Christmas shopping, and continues: “It is a budget solution but I don’t think you would feel great that you have bought your Christmas presents there.”

5 I Littlewoods

What happens? Dealing with the financial pressures many families feel under this festive season, Littlewoods has gone for a practical ad highlighting how you can buy its products now, and pay off the cost in manageable instalments. The ad features a selection of products that are constructed from blocks in a Christmas scene, to highlight the payment message. No celebrities feature, unlike Shop Direct Group stablemate Very’s ad.

Richard says “It is a simple story told well and you just have to leave it at that. It will win no prizes, but it has decided what it is about and does it well.”

He adds Littlewoods has determined its specific role at Christmas well – to make it easier to pay for everything – and its message is well-timed. Compared with last year’s ad, which he described as “bemusing and bonkers”, it sets out Littlewoods’ stall quite well.

6 I Waitrose

What happens? New music sensation Camilla Kerslake sings her version of the tune Waitrose picked for its ad last year, How Can I Keep From Singing. The grocer admits that the ad is an edited version of last year’s campaign, which it says contributed to Waitrose recording its best ever Christmas.

Richard says “I swear I’ve seen this ad before. It’s Driving Home for Christmas for posh people.” And he certainly has seen this ad before – last year. In fact, he made the same pun as when he saw the ad last year.

“It is Waitrose version of Boots’ Here come the girls’. I’m not sure if Waitrose is being a cheapskate, or appropriately careful with spending money. Normally you can run an ad for as long as you like, but it doesn’t seem appropriate at Christmas.”

7 I Sainsbury’s

What happens? Jamie Oliver cooking meets road trip in this almost behind-the-scenes ad following the TV chef as he serves up festive treats for Sainsbury’s customers around the UK. The products are highlighted, and real customers get a look-in, but Jamie is very much the star of the show.

The only ad that suggests people make their own canapés, it is on-message with Sainsbury’s marketing throughout the year.

Richard says “How do we solve a problem like Jamie? He’s bigger than Sainsbury’s and it looks like a promo for a new Jamie series. But Try Something New Today gave him a role, and there’s a real attempt at authenticity.”

“You could say that this is the way Christmas ads are going – but it is undermined by the amount of fake snow. I admire the nod to reality and real food you can make yourself.”

He adds: “It’s knitted into the brand’s conversation with customers. For other retailers the Christmas ad is quite separate.”

It’s a brave move, and Huntington says that the grocer deserves credit for this.

8 I Iceland

What happens? No Kerry Katona this year after Iceland was forced to end its relationship with her, but there are still celebrities on show, including Coleen Nolan and a singing Jason Donovan. As always, the prawn ring steals the limelight, as Iceland highlights its low-cost treats.

Richard says “You never know whether these people are carefully selected or they were just available.” However, he thinks Iceland knows what its customers want from a Christmas ad, and it certainly delivers.

“Fundamentally it is about price and insane deals, and being able to be an incredibly generous hostess at Christmas. The real hero of the ad is the groaning table – the celebrities are slightly superfluous.”

“I feel quite satisfied. You know what you are getting and you get it.”

9 I Tesco non-food

What happens? Tesco’s advertising family opening presents harks back to Dickens in this classic Christmas ad. Keen to get in all of its marketing messages, the ad highlights that non-food items can be bought online from Tesco Direct and focuses on the fact that customers can earn and spend Clubcard vouchers on their presents.

Richard says “One solution to making a Christmas ad is to take your ad vehicle and dress it up in Victorian clothing – which Sainsbury’s did with Jamie Oliver a couple of years ago. It feels like it lacks effort.”

He adds that it is right to place the Tesco ‘family’ in the home, which is the place for advertising Christmas presents, rather than stores, which have a transactional feel.

The final Clubcard messages are clumsy.

10 I Boots

What happens? The Sugababes ring out again, as the location switches to the office Christmas lunch. Everyone gets presents, including the guys. 

Richard says “It was the ad I was most looking forward to seeing. It had a nice start a couple of years ago, and last year’s had real insight into secret santa. But it has fallen apart a bit this year. I don’t know if it has too many men in it.

“Boots has found this formula – but faces the law of diminishing returns. In its first year it recognised the brand’s role in women’s lives, in the second it was something women do and in its third year Boots is milking it.”

He thinks Boots has done a good job, but should jump from the concept before it is pushed. He concedes he judges this ad harder because Boots has set the bar so high in the past couple of years.

11 I Morrisons

What happens? National treasure Richard Hammond acts as the “Pied Piper of Morrisons”, leading shoppers on a trip through a variety of kitsch Christmas scenes. Products feature prominently, especially good-quality and made-in-store foods, and Hammond keeps the crowds moving with him. As always, Take That’s Shine plays in the background, and a Morrison’s trolley continues to play a supporting role.

Richard says “It appeals to people who wish it was still the 1950s. I find it fake – but people who wish Britain was a bit more like it was in 1956 will like it.”

However, he likes “the cute fact about making stuff in store” and the way that Morrisons sets its stall out as competing on service and how good its store-made products look.

He adds: “It is like Christmas turned up to 11. I bet it is brilliantly successful.”

12 I Toys R Us

What happens? Harking back to the Toys R Us of the 1980s, this retro ad takes a cartoon format, using the 1980s jingle and Geoffrey the Giraffe mascot. Rather than highlighting particular products and price, it attempts to appeal to parents with the retailers’ overall store experience, perhaps tapping this year’s trend for retro toys

Richard says “It looks like the original ad – like something someone has found on an old VHS tape.”

He is not a big fan, adding that if the store was part of your childhood you might be moved by it, but the ad relies on “creating warm feelings about Geoffrey”.

“It is extremely well branded, and has an unforgettably irritating jingle,” he adds, saying it seems as though Toys R Us has bought some ad space and needed to fill it.