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Xmas conundrums, greening adland and a Zoom alternative

14 Sep 2020  |  Dominic Mills 
Xmas conundrums, greening adland and a Zoom alternative

Dominic Mills debates a Christmas dilemma, and it’s not just which five people to invite over for lunch

This morning, I noticed my local Co-op was displaying mince pies and Christmas puddings. And with the weather today heading towards the high-20s and more than 100 sleeps before the big day, it had me thinking: what will advertisers do this season?

After all, time is running out — if it hasn’t already — for them to decide what to do, a problem highlighted by Boris’s sudden introduction last week of the Rule of Six which, if it lasts, will put the kibosh on large family Christmases and therefore creates a problem for advertisers.

The problem is not hard to figure out. Most seasonal TV mega-productions are all about socialising, whether it’s the pre-Christmas party or the multi-family, multi-household, let’s-all-gather-round-the-dining-table/tree-for-a-blowout-meal/exchange of pressies 60-second extravaganza. This genre, it should be said, tends to feature large with supermarkets and other general retailers, although by no means exclusively so.

And the problem is compounded by the timing. Christmas ads are usually done and dusted by now, ready to run from November onwards, with perhaps only the edit, the post-production and the organisation of collateral left to do.

If, as one production expert suggested to me, scripts written during the summer reflected the prevailing mood and rules (i.e. more lax than now), then advertisers have got big (and potentially expensive) decisions to make: if their ads follow the traditional norms, do they rip them up and start again? Do they rely on the edit, either to parallel the rules, or to produce two versions, one showing the extended family and one showing a smaller, more nuclear family, and use whichever is appropriate?

Tricky. No advertiser wants to get caught on either the wrong side of the law — a snooper’s paradise, as a cartoon showing someone phoning from behind the curtain to report that their neighbours had bought a box of 12 crackers suggests — or national sentiment.

You can also add in two other wider concerns.

One, for some retailers, especially those with extensive high-street estates, this could be the last-chance saloon. Many limp along during the rest of the year and rely on Christmas to fill the coffers and, increasingly, buy them some more time to get their offline act together (or not). Debenhams, for example.

And linked to that is the whole Black Friday phenomenon. If its upward trend continues, how much of a blow will it deal Christmas?

Two, job insecurity. Unless the furlough scheme or some alternative is running, many households will either be living with unemployment or fearing it. That will put a dampener on things and consumers may not look too kindly on what they see as wanton extravagance from brands.

But at the same time, advertisers won’t want to get away from certain Christmas fundamentals: optimism, excitement, family, joy, generosity, sharing and so on.

So agencies and clients have two issues to deal with: what do they say, and how do they say it?

So good luck with that. Normally I dread the November arrival of the Christmas season. This time, I’ll be watching it more closely than usual.

Greening adland: the grown-ups get involved

I don’t think I was alone in wondering how — and feeling uncomfortable about it — those constituencies in adland most vehement in their support for low carbon squared that with the industry’s profligacy in two obvious areas: one, shooting expensive commercials in exotic locations many miles or time-zones away (South Africa, for example); and its tendency to jump on a plane at the drop of a hat for a client meeting or an awards ceremony where the sun shines 12 hours a day.

You can’t begin to make a meaningful impact on solving climate change, I thought, unless you know what your own contribution to it is, however small it might be in the overall scheme of things.

So let me extend a plaudit or two to the AdGreen initiative launched last week jointly through the Advertising Association, the IPA, ISBA and the APA (Association of Production Agencies). You can get the details here.

It is doing the sensible thing, starting with a scheme to allow production-related carbon footprints to be measured, and then provide help, advice and tools that make it easier to take the steps to reduce it.

That’s a significant start and I’m looking forward to seeing the findings, but the thing I’m watching out most closely for is due in November, published to coincide with the UN Climate Change Conference (COP 26) in Glasgow.

It will take the form of a report calculating the industry’s carbon footprint, including not just production but also other activities undertaken by agencies and suppliers. There’s more on this particular initiative here.

One of the things it will also do is pull together all the various efforts individual agencies are making, of which there are many but by their nature granular or atomised, and where collective adoption of good ideas and best practice could make a real difference.

One that interests me most comes from Mindshare, and is called ‘Change the Brief’, which asks clients to consider a parallel, more sustainable option, for every brief they give the agency.

Clearly that involves a lot more work for the agency at a time when money is squeezed, but if it is widely adopted and becomes the norm, it could over time start to make a significant difference. If it works for media, it could have even more impact on creative.

While I may be critical of some of the ‘freelance’ activism of some adlanders around climate change — elements of ’saviour syndrome’, you might say — I think it has had the effect of making the industry grown-ups wake up and think, ‘we need to get on this otherwise we’re behind the curve’.

They may still be marginally behind the curve — and slower than some would wish — but I think they’ll catch up fast.

For those who are interested, I will be chairing an IPA-sponsored debate about agencies and climate change at AdWeek on 1 October.

Forget Zoom, try National Trust instead

Compared to others, I have been spared the worst excesses of Zoom meetings culture. But inspired by a short National Trust ad, I’ve found a wonderful alternative.

Here’s the ad, which I can describe quicker than you can watch. Waves wash-up on a pebble beach. ‘For more calm’, it says, ‘visit our [National Trust] website’. And that’s it.

And so it is now that I've taken to rearranging virtual meetings as physical ones, taking a stroll around National Trust properties, sorting out what needs to be sorted and enjoying the calm.

It won’t work for everyone, and The National Trust is a Marmite organisation (increasingly so), I accept, and not accessible (in both senses of the word) to all either. But it has more sites in and around London than you think, and plenty of green space. The same goes for English Heritage and local parks too.

Try it. And, even if you don’t like the National Trust, it does exceedingly good tea and cake.

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