We ask Duncan Cowles to create the ultimate Christmas ad, using only Adobe Stock and some expert advice
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Around this time of year there’s one area of creativity that piques everyone and their mum’s interests: Christmas adverts. A rare area of advertising that people genuinely look forward to, speculate around and tear up every time it comes on telly, Christmas adverts have become big business. And if you don’t have one, how can you expect anyone to take you, your brand and your fondness for Christmas seriously?
With this in mind, we decided to commission our own. We’ve spent hours of our lives in the It’s Nice That studio writing about Christmas adverts, to the point where we even gather the studio on a yearly basis to put down their Wacom tabs and watch the John Lewis unveiling together. Despite the fact we sit there like an aloof X-Factor panelist watching each one as its released, we’re not filmmakers and definitely needed a helping hand in making one. In working with the Adobe Stock collection, we’ve commissioned filmmaker Duncan Cowles to make an advert solely made from stock footage.
Because we wanted our effort to be the ultimate, ultimate Xmas ad, we also reached out to industry experts, the art directors, writers and set designers behind some of your favourite Christmas adverts. Each, very kindly, passed on some helpful advice by pinpointing “the one thing” they believe a Christmas advert just has to have. Duncan has taken all their advice and then threaded it through Adobe Stock, making what we believe is the best Christmas advert ever seen. Probably. Hopefully.
Below we take you through each creative’s helpful advice, Duncan’s interpretation and the final result.
A Christmas advert needs to include something inherently human
Duncan’s first piece of advice came from Freddy Taylor, an art director at Wieden + Kennedy and actually part of the mastermind team behind Sainsbury’s The Big Night’s boy dressed as a plug spot. For Freddy, a Christmas themed advert has to “contain something inherently human an audience can relate to,” he advises Duncan. This could be anything from “a theme, emotion, scenario” but in the art director’s recent experience, “we’ve found if you put a boy dressed up as a 13AMP plug, in a scenario people can relate to, doing what plugs do best and give him spectacular aim, Britain falls in love.”
For the filmmaker this piece of advice particularly stood out and Duncan began by scouring the Adobe Stock collection “for kids dressed up, and kids throwing tantrums over presents, people looking bored on Christmas and things like that,” he says. Finding moments like these was relatively straightforward for Duncan when browsing the Adobe Stock video collection, describing it as “dead simple to use, selecting clips and saving previews was super straightforward and all worked nicely,” he tells us. “There was more than enough footage in most cases to choose a few options and save them to a library for looking back at or downloading later. So, I had alternative Christmas clips sorted too just in case they were needed, which was handy.”
The particular moment of relatable stock footage was found when Duncan discovered a boy enthusiastically trying to jiggle a toy car into moving. “I don’t know how many times I’ve seen someone struggle to get an Xmas present to work properly,” he tells us. “If people haven’t had this with a toy car, they’ve almost definitely tried to shuffle themselves along equally as unsuccessfully on an office chair.”
Discoveries such as this clip also led Duncan’s narrative process when piecing stock footage together to create a cohesive storyline. For instance, the shot following our stationery youngster is an older chap driving a similar — but grown-up — version of the car, as Duncan’s tone takes a turn and encourages viewers to be thankful for Christmas, and the memories it creates and could create this year.
Christmas adverts should instantly remind you of how it feels to be a child
For animation director Anna Ginsburg, who previously worked in the art department on John Lewis’ The Bear and the Hare in 2013 (and a whole host of other brilliant non-Christmas adverts and shorts), Freddy’s point also resonates, specifically through creating an element that relates to the joy, excitement and sometimes crushing disappointment of Christmas as a child.
Pointing out The Supporting Act from the BBC in 2017, the memory of “having a best mate you want to share absolutely every experience with” in 2013’s The Bear and the Hare and even noting Freddy’s work for Sainsbury’s this year too, it’s harking back to those memories which captures an audience at this time of year. “I think reminding the audience of how it feels to be a child is vitally important because that’s where all the magic of Christmas derives. Adults are constantly seeking even a fraction of the excitement they felt as a child at Christmas,” she says to Duncan.
Taking her advice on board, Duncan’s film is full of kids and particularly thinks “the shots of the kids trying to get a cracker to explode but it’s not fully working is the kind of ridiculous thing that you’re rounded up to do by parents at Christmas,” he points out, noting how moments that felt irritating or embarrassing back then are sought after now.
Include a nod to classic Christmas footage, but thread through a visual surprise
Duncan’s most difficult piece of advice came from art director and production designer, Anna Rhodes. The visual creator of advert sets for Not on The High Street and Waitrose, Anna’s responsible for creating Christmas worlds through design details and prop choices.
As a result, in her job Anna has learned that “every good Christmas advert creates its own new and idiosyncratic version of what the festive season looks like in order to suit the characters and narrative of that particular film,” she tells us. During her research Anna is on the hunt for these moments and how to create them, and advised Duncan to find “a new way of ‘doing’ Christmas that is still steeped in heritage with recognisable nods to the old, but threaded through with a new or surprising element in order to stand out from the crowded Christmas ad hygge-maelstrom.”
Although admitting that giving the film — a film entirely made up of stock footage — a cohesive look and feel of Christmas is difficult, Duncan tackled this by opening his advert with 8mm family archive stock footage, “my attempt at a ‘nod to the traditional’ with an unexpected visual element,” he tells us. “I also suppose that an advert is entirely made of stock footage is an odd visual aesthetic/language in itself…”
A festive hit has to be a tear jerker
When quizzed on the singular element a Christmas ad needs, Generator Films producer Laura Ruddock reveals that it is all about emotion. “I don’t think there’s been a hit festive ad out there that hasn’t been a bit of a tear jerker,” she tells us. “All the big ones know the score, The Man on the Moon, The WW1 Christmas Truce, The Bear and the Hare… oh god, I’m crying just thinking about it!”
What Laura’s picked up on with these adverts is how Christmas “is a bit of an emotional time for us all, so pulling on the old heartstrings is a formula primed for getting your ad shared,” she advises Duncan. This is an element the filmmaker similarly gains from Christmas adverts too, “I think for sure if it gets folk crying, then you’re onto a winner.”
An emotional side to advertising is also what attracted Duncan to Christmas adverts in the first place too, noting how he remembers “being devastatingly upset at the 2011 John Lewis advert, The Long Wait,” he recalls. “Christmas is a time of heightened emotions, both good and bad, happy and sad, so it makes sense for an advert to reflect this,” he says. “People buy emotions, not things, and plenty adverts often don’t get anywhere near close to making you feel anything.”
Therefore feeling and the memory of receiving a gift, terrible and thoughtful, is the underlying message of Duncan’s filmmaking in this instance, with emotion heightened by a classic piano solo backing track throughout as it “is what pretty much every Christmas advert ever has, which is odd for a supposedly happy time of year.”
The storyline should have a twist at the end
A poignant and key piece of advice for Duncan came from Christmas advert connoisseur, writer of John Lewis’ Monty the Penguin Daniel Fisher, who has also written for Christmas advert clients including Harvey Nichols and Mulberry.
For Daniel, Christmas adverts, of his own doing or ones he enjoys, have to include “a big, compelling storyline with a twist at the end of the tale,” he tells It’s Nice That. Take for instance Daniel’s narrative around Monty the Penguin, where it’s only in the last frame that you realise the whole advert’s narrative has been make believe. “What you’ve been watching is actually the imagination of a little boy, and every little boy or girl in the world at that age has that imagination,” Daniel points out. “It wasn’t fantastical at all in that sense, it just had that twist that brought it back… The big ‘aha!’ that completely changes the story.”
Duncan utilised Daniel’s advice particularly during his storytelling and own voice over of the film, which takes a darker turn around midway and this provided a turning point in its making. “Originally, I think I was going to take it down a darker path… to pull at the emotional heart strings,” he explains. However while writing Duncan decided upon “luring you in like a normal Christmas advert but then break it down into something different halfway through, which would then act like the twist Daniel referred to,” he says. “It was quite a tricky balance to get the Christmas advert tone in a scripted way, but then also utilise my style as a filmmaker, which is a bit more improvised.”
The result is a storyline which starts warmly, featuring Freddy’s aforementioned relatable moment, before using Daniel’s twist to discuss the true meaning of Christmas by referencing the possible impending doom of global warming, but in a way that only encourages you to make this Christmas the ultimate Christmas.
The final, ultimate Christmas advert
Looking back on the filmmaking process now — from the advice we passed onto Duncan and the narrative and Adobe Stock journey he consequently went on — the director hopes the final result “puts a smile on people’s faces,” he explains, also noting how “it’s not to be taken too seriously.”
Despite all the advice and the hundreds of Christmas orientated clips Duncan searched through to curate this final film, it seems that as long as a Christmas advert evokes emotion of any kind, it’s a definite hit. “I’m happy enough if it gives folk a giggle,” says Duncan. “I suppose if here was a serious message to take away from it, then it would be to really enjoy the present moment,” he advises to you viewers. “Not the present moment in terms of the moment you get given a Christmas present, but just the ‘here and now’ present moment… Even the seemingly annoying or irritating stuff that happens at Christmas, appreciate it while you can.”
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About the Author
Lucy (she/her) joined It’s Nice That as a staff writer in July 2016 after graduating from Chelsea College of Art. In January 2019 she was made deputy editor and in November 2021, became a senior editor predominantly working on It’s Nice That's partnerships. Feel free to get in contact with Lucy about creative projects for the site or potential partnerships.