Crafting the full Monty for John Lewis

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A scene from "Monty's Christmas."
A scene from "Monty's Christmas."

Two creative directors at Adam & Eve/DDB tell how they delivered on the biggest brief of the year to produce 'Monty's Christmas'

LONDON — For us, Christmas 2014 started just 17 days after Christmas 2013 ended, when we were summoned — along with the rest of the creative department at Adam & Eve/DDB — to a cramped meeting room in the agency’s basement.

Presiding over the room was our managing director Tammy Einav, telling us (in her inimitable style) that, even though we were all wallowing in the midst of an epidemic of post-Christmas blues, ’twas now the season to get officially jolly again and come up with an idea that would follow in the huge, furry footprints of the just-concluded "bear and the hare" spots.

This being the biggest brief of the year, everyone was desperately trying to assume an air of nonchalance, but there was no doubting the scale of the challenge ahead. Despite having been around only since 2007, the Christmas ad for the U.K. retail chain John Lewis has become something of a seasonal event. We all wanted to be the ones lucky enough to nail it; none of us wanted to be the ones to drop the ball, either.

One last try

Jump forward three months and 50-odd scripts: We still hadn’t cracked it. While we had come close, we had pretty much accepted that this was not going to be our year when, all of a sudden, we were asked to have one last go.

Feeling pretty spent on the subject of Yuletide, we decided to hunt down the only pub in London that felt remotely Christmassy — a peculiar little place in Mayfair that was suitably dark and, for some reason, still had a roaring fire despite the heat of early summer. And here we decided to decamp, phones firmly turned off.

Three days later, and all we had to show for our efforts was one lonely script.

On the upside, it was a script about the friendship between a young boy and his beloved Adélie penguin. It’s a universally accepted fact that everyone loves penguins, so we went back to the agency to put that theory to the test.

Within a matter of hours, we found ourselves in full production mode. Matt Craigie was wheeled in to produce it, and Dougal Wilson from Blink came on board as the director.

Fat and feathers

The first thing we needed to work out was how to cast the penguins — Monty and Mabel, as they were now named, in honor of Dan’s old cat and Rick’s young daughter.

A quick bit of research ended our dreams of spending a summer in the company of a real one, so we had a meeting with Diarmid Harrison-Murray at MPC, who reassured us that their team would be able to recreate an exact likeness of a penguin by locking themselves away in a dark room for five months to make a computer-generated model, unique with its own perfect skeleton, fat and feathers.

By now, Wilson had built up a huge bank of Adélie footage from nature documentaries and suggested that, for the sake of authenticity, all of Monty’s movements and mannerisms should be replicated from real ones.

Next, we had to design the toys with the toy team over at John Lewis. These were the best two days of our lives, when we were asked to have an opinion on things we never even knew we had an opinion on. "The eyes, should they be small and more anatomically correct, or big and googly, therefore cuter?" Hmm.

Then it was on to choosing Sam. The brief to the casting agency was a little boy who you could believe has an imaginary penguin and, after weeks and weeks of searching, we found him in the form of the seven-year-old, Stone Roses-loving Rhys Edwards.

Obviously, a huge part of John Lewis’ Christmas advertising comes in the form of the music. The last two tracks have gone to number one — so no pressure, then. This year’s song, "Real Love" by John Lennon, was one of the first we heard and, while we listened to hundreds more, we kept coming back to it. It just had something about it. When Tom Odell sent his version in, we knew we had our track.

Going beyond the ad

With the ad quickly taking shape, next we had to think of ways to explode the idea. An uncountable number of meetings were had with media owners, tech companies and so on. We soon found ourselves with everything from a beautifully illustrated children’s book (which we brought to life as a tablet and mobile app), to Monty’s Goggles (a groundbreaking 360-degree story using Google Cardboard virtual-reality glasses), to Monty’s Magical Toy Machine (an amazing interactive installation in the John Lewis Oxford Street store).

Jump forward to 8 a.m. on Nov. 6. We’re sitting in a freezing-cold cafe in Wimbledon. The ad is due to be uploaded any minute and our derrières are perspiring like Stereo Kicks in a sing-off.

Fortunately, within five minutes of the ad going up, it had more than 1,000 hits and was the top-trending topic on Twitter within an hour. Phew. We may have pulled it off.

Daniel Fisher and Richard Brim are creative directors at Adam & Eve/DDB.

This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk.

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