My campaign: John Lewis, 'Always a woman' and the start of the Adam & Eve journey, 2010

Before 'Always a woman', Adam & Eve's founders had a borrowed office in a condemned building and were being sued by Sir Martin Sorrell... and John Lewis was not yet the company that made heartwarming Christmas ads

An agency’s fortunes can turn on a single pitch or piece of work, and that is certainly the case for Adam & Eve. Our defining moment is about the ad that changed everything, and started us on an incredible journey. That ad was "Always a woman" for John Lewis.

We’d had a tough first year, barely existing out of a borrowed office in a condemned building in Covent Garden. We faced career-threatening legal action from Sir Martin Sorrell and, frankly, had yet to deliver the creative goods. This despite starting Adam & Eve with a belief that we could make big, populist work that would sell stuff for clients and be enjoyed way beyond the industry bubble.

A young Murphy

But hope flickered to life when we celebrated our first birthday by winning a lengthy pitch for John Lewis. Back in 2009, John Lewis was a great brand but not a big advertiser. That was soon to change, and "Always a woman" marked the start of a belief in advertising that would have a powerful effect on everyone at the Partnership.

It was also a moment of belief for us. Very typically, the pitch involved a rousing speech from Ben Priest, who made it clear this was an "all or nothing" situation for us and we had to bet the farm on winning. So we did, by hiring brilliant talent we absolutely couldn’t afford – such as Emer Stamp, Ben Tollett and Tammy Einav – to spearhead our team. And, thank goodness, it paid off. But winning a pitch is one thing; delivering the work is quite another.

"Always a woman" was built on a strategy that rested on two simple truths. First, no other retailer so meaningfully spans all the stages of life. Second, data showed almost all purchase decisions in John Lewis are driven by women. We needed the creative leap to connect emotionally with that audience. This came courtesy of Matt and Steve (who still work at Adam & Eve/DDB), Emer and Ben (one of whom still works at Adam & Eve/DDB), Tammy and Mat (who are now joint chief executives) and Dougal Wilson (who is still at the helm of many John Lewis ads).

No other retailer so meaningfully spans all the stages of life

The shoot was fraught, and debates about shot selection and music were fierce, as Craig Inglis (still the client at John Lewis) frequently and happily reminds us all. But the end result was wonderful. Today, it looks like a lot of ads, because lots of brands have "done a John Lewis". But then it marked the start of the marketing phenomenon of the 2000s – advertising to make audiences "cry and buy".

The public’s emotional reaction to the campaign was powerful. Although Twitter and YouTube were still relatively nascent, they both "lit up" with thousands of shares and millions of views, while the news media covered the campaign extensively. Their commentary was often quite profound, centring on British aspirations and dreams, female empowerment and the lives people wanted for themselves and their loved ones. This was all a first for us and for the client – and perhaps advertising hadn’t captured the popular imagination quite this much since the Levi’s ads of the 1980s and 1990s.

A young Golding

The ad went on to be the centrepiece of our IPA Effectiveness Grand Prix-winning case in 2012 and it put our little agency on the map. It turbocharged our momentum, giving other clients the reassurance they needed to work with us. Soon Foster’s followed, then Google, Halifax, Save the Children and many more. Subsequent John Lewis campaigns might have gone even further in creating culture and capturing the nation’s hearts – "The long wait", "Monty the penguin", "Tiny dancer", "Buster the boxer" – but all owe a debt to "Always a woman". And so do we.

James Murphy and David Golding are co-founders of Adam & Eve

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