When strategy got stuck up the chimney

When strategy got stuck up the chimney

These are bewildering times, if only because there's plenty of Christmas advertising that doesn't seem to have a strategy, writes Laurence Green.

I have mixed feelings about Christmas. Not the actual event itself. Bring it on as Tesco might say but, rather, the strange spectacle of our industry for the eight crazed weeks that pre-date it. Hurling cash at various screens, twitching at the vaguest preliminary mentions in social media of carrots and spacehoppers, having "a favourite". Advertising as the new Quality Street.

Don’t get me wrong. I understand the commercial realities that drive us all there – Christmas trading, especially for retailers, is a binary affair.

Win and you win big. Lose and the party is over (and you’re clearing up in the morning).

As an adman, there’s much to love about these few weeks. The (relentless) appeal to the emotions, timelengths that allow stories to be told, a seasonal spike in water-cooler moments. Each, in turn, ordinarily good predictors of effectiveness.

But as a strategist, these are also bewildering times, if only because there’s plenty of Christmas advertising that doesn’t seem to actually have one. At precisely the point in our calendar when competition and clutter intensifies, too many place their trust in the gods of execution alone.

Strategy is more than a top level "plan of action". Although you will find plenty of other dictionary definitions, it’s better understood as a careful, credible and detailed plan to bring about a desired future. Or, more simply, in the words of strategy guru Roger Martin, the act of "choosing to do some things and not others".

Right now, there’s only patchy evidence of that choicefulness on our screens. The strategic premise of some of Britain’s biggest advertisers can currently be summarised as, "We sell things" meets "It’s Christmas!"

"Tis the season of goodwill, however, so let’s applaud those who have made choices in their Christmas campaigns rather than name and shame those who haven’t (you know who you are).

So it’s full marks to Harvey Nichols for dodging the whole Christmas thing altogether by celebrating instead the choice Italian goods now in store.

Respect to Argos for betting on speed. A tip of the hat to Game for sacrificing "gifters" in order to singlemindedly focus on gamers. And, last but not least, an honourable mention as always for John Lewis, because – for all the chat about disruption – consistency is a strategic virtue too.

As the above examples demonstrate, strategic choicefulness isn’t just a good thing in its own right: it opens up more distinctive, dare I say it more memorable, creative opportunities.

Inconsolable Italians, speed-skating yetis, the brazen sell-out James Buckley and bouncing badgers all flow from strategic choices just as surely as they do from the complementary tributary of the creative imagination.

With all the hysteria that now attaches to the Christmas advertising season, it’s easy – understandable, even – to get drawn towards generic insights and executional tropes.

But, other things being equal, the winners at Christmas will be those advertisers who have gone about their seasonal business most thoughtfully. The ones who have made choices.

Laurence Green is the founder of 101.

Start Your Free 30-Day Free Trial

Get the very latest news and insight from Campaign with unrestricted access to campaignlive.com , plus get exclusive discounts to Campaign events.

Become a subscriber


Don’t miss your daily fix of breaking news, latest work, advice and commentary.

register free