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Sainsbury's 2014 IPA Effectiveness Awards Shortlist Interview

Film director Kevin McDonald’s movie montage of real Britons at Christmas helped the retailer enjoy £70m incremental profit, a ROMI of £3.98 for every £1 spent.


Q1. When and why did you decide to launch a campaign?

MG: ““It’s hard to express just how critical the Christmas trading period is for a major UK retailer like Sainsbury’s.  It will make or break your P&L for the entire year. If you fail at Christmas, you fail.  

“A great retail Christmas campaign isn’t just about advertising a product or a service, the stakes are much higher. You need to do nothing less that capture the imagination of the entire British public.

“In autumn 2012 our brand was riding high after a successful sponsorship of the London 2012 Paralympics.  Our plan for Christmas 2012 was strong but we knew we could do better. This was the point at which a planner at AMV BBDO came up with an idea that was so ambitious we knew it would take 15 months to develop – this idea was Christmas in a Day.”

CM: “'Christmas in a Day' was rather unique for us, in that it was planned more than a year in advance.  During our creative development for Christmas 2012, in the autumn of that year, we generated a range of ideas, of which 'Christmas in a Day' was one. 

“I don’t know what we were thinking, as it would of course have been impossible to produce for 2012 (I think we had some vague notion that we would get people to send us footage they had recorded the previous year, which of course would have been no good at all).  But our clients saw the potential in it immediately and after conversations with Kevin MacDonald, we commissioned the film in October 2012.”

Q2. How did you feel about the original brief?

MG: ““We didn’t actually write one.  That may sound surprising but AMV BBDO has been our advertising agency for almost 30 years.  They are sufficiently entwined in our business as to have an intuitive understanding about what’s needed. 

“In a way the brief for a retail Christmas for Sainsbury’s never changes.  We need to encourage regular Tesco and Asda shoppers to ‘trade up’ and do their main Christmas shop at Sainsbury’s and we need to stop our current shoppers being tempted by Waitrose and M&S.  

“What has changed in the last few years is that the market has increasingly been dominated by advertising that focuses exclusively on promotional prices. At Sainsbury’s we have long believed that customers care about quality just as much as price, we also believe that brands are important. Customers like Sainsbury’s, they trust us, and they understand that our values are important to us. So whilst the brief was similar to previous years we wanted something more ambitious that would really separate us from the category noise of price and promotions.”

CM: “The stakes seemed to be raised every year, often by John Lewis, but before them by M&S, but the prospect of creating 'Christmas In A Day' was nowhere near as daunting as the prospect we now face of trying to match or beat it!”

Q3. How hard was it to get the campaign signed off?

MG: “Harder than you can ever possibly imagine. There were probably half a dozen points where we came up against fundamental barriers; it took every ounce of our creativity, resilience and sheer blood mindedness to keep the project on track.  

“First, we had to earn the trust of Kevin McDonald, an Oscar-winning film director. It was vital that he understood that we would respect his creative freedom and not overtly commercialise his work. 

“We had to get over 200 people who had sent in their clips to let us use them for our campaign. We had to meet the head of the British Army to get permission to use the clip of the soldier returning home. And we had to persuade our board to let us book an entire ad break to air a piece of content with no product message (actually that bit was easy because at Sainsbury’s they trust us to get on with our job).”

CM: “It’s no exaggeration to say that Sarah and Mark, our clients, are amongst the bravest and most visionary marketers around, and both have an instinctively good judgement for creative ideas. 

“They were convinced we had something special from the first scant paragraph, and meeting Kevin sealed the deal.  It was remarkably simple, largely because we were operating with a safety net – if we didn’t get anything any good, we would have time to create something to fill the gap.”

Q4. When and how did you first know that you had been successful?

MG: “I remember vividly the first time AMV BBDO showed me the first rough cut of the film. The hairs stood up on my neck, a tear rolled down my cheek and I think I muttered the words ‘this is f*&%ing gold dust’. From that first moment the project gripped me emotionally in a way no campaign ever has before. 

“The day we launched the campaign was also quite a surreal day. At 9am we released the film in advance via Mail Online.  The reaction was instantaneous. Our phones starting ringing off the hook from journalists wanting more detail. 

“At lunchtime I presented it to our internal wider leadership team. When it first aired during the break in Coronation Street, it started to trend on Twitter, BBC 'Newsnight' called and I ended the day doing an interview for a Jeremy Paxman feature on Christmas advertising.

“More importantly, we saw our brand metrics start to tick up from the first week of the campaign. From sales week 37 through to the vital Christmas week we hit our sales budget and outperformed our key competitors.” 

Q5. What was the biggest challenge in demonstrating the effectiveness of your work?

MG: “It’s hard to comprehend the scale of the UK retail market at Christmas. The total category advertising spend for the 10-week run-up to the Christmas period is over £100M. 

“This is on top of a total category investment in price, promotions and coupons that will be in the hundreds of millions. The challenge is disaggregating all of these factors and isolating the effects of the campaign.”

CM: “The complexity of the story and campaign were really the biggest challenge.  Explaining how all the pieces fitted together to create a cohesive campaign was pretty tough, as we had so many different individual pieces of creative work to account for and measure. ”

Q6. How did this campaign compare to previous campaigns by the brand and competitors?

MG: “This was by far the most ambitious campaign Sainsbury’s has ever done. Many people say that their campaigns are ground-breaking, I’ve been in this business for 16 years so please, trust me, this campaign really was ground-breaking. Using a content-led approach for a main Christmas campaign was a totally unique approach. 

“Looking at our tracking, it was the most liked supermarket advert since tracking began. It smashed all our competitors out of the park. Many journalists reviewed all the Christmas adverts and declared Sainsbury’s the winner. Whilst that doesn’t put money in the till, it does a huge amount for internal pride and morale.”

CM: “Sainsbury’s had always lived in real life, so the tone and form of the work was in sympathy with Sainsbury’s values, but we had never been quite this real before. 

“Neither Sainsbury’s, nor our competitors had ever tried anything of this scale, authenticity or ambition before. Tesco’s Christmas advertising in 2013 did give us a few moments of concern when we first saw it, although once we realised that they had used actors and a director to attempt to create home video reality, rather than doing it completely for real, as we had done, we were able to relax.”

Q7. What lessons did this campaign teach you?

MG: “That integrated campaigns of this size and scale require immense amounts of hard work and intricate co-ordination. There were over 300 people at a number of agencies and production companies that supported both AMV BBDO and my internal team. It required a monumental effort in terms of project management and collaborative working.

“Doing something that is bold and brave is quite scary. The rewards are worth it but it’s not for the faint hearted.”

CM: “We have learned that content marketing is all about over-commitment to the quality of the content. So much is made by brands but not watched, as they see content as a lower cost and lower priority, versus their advertising.”

Q8. What were the low points/high points of this campaign?

MG: “The final scene in the advert shows a soldier returning home unexpectedly from a tour of duty in Afghanistan.  The reaction of his children is quite overwhelming.

“Of course for many military families whose loved ones had paid the ultimate sacrifice and laid down their lives for their country, Christmas is not an easy time. 

“Whilst we liaised in advance with the MOD and the Royal British Legion, we started to receive a number of letters from army widows who found the advert painful to watch.  I personally read and responded to every one of these letters, we also reached out to the Army Widows' Association to get their advice on how we handled this very sensitive subject. 

“There were many high points - the sense of camaraderie that we built within the whole team, seeing the reaction of the public and the impact on sales.  I also truly believe we got people to think about what was really important to them at Christmas time. Encouraging them to worry less about material items and instead enjoy time with their family, friends and those closest to them.  At Sainsbury’s we call this helping our customers 'Live Well for Less'.”

CM: “The low point was the slow wait through January and February 2013, before we knew whether we had anything that was any good, or even usable.  Those months were excruciating. 

“The high points were the moment when Kevin showed us his first assembly of the footage and we knew we had something, the moment we first presented the advertising edits to Mark, who had refused to watch the full length film until he saw the ad edits (I can’t tell you exactly what he said, but one of the words began with the letter ‘f’ and he was excited), and then the moment we launched, which I have described above.”

Q9. What would you do differently if you did this campaign over again?

MG: “Honestly, nothing.”

CM: “If we had worked even earlier with Google, we could have achieved even more online. We pursued many different options for distribution of the full length films and probably could have committed earlier to achieve more.”

Q10. If you could have worked on one, other IPA award-winning campaign over the years which would it be, and why?

MG: “A campaign that I have long admired is ‘It's a Skoda. Honest’ (Gold, 2002).

“It’s a case study that reaps the rewards for having the conviction to buy brave work.

“It took balls to target anti-Skoda prejudice so openly. The campaign took an observation about the brand in culture (the fact that it was the butt of a thousand jokes) and played it back so deftly that it transformed the brand’s fortunes and reduced marque rejection from 60% to 42%.”

CM: “I still consider BT’s It’s good to talk (Grand Prix, 1996) to be one of the very greatest advertising campaigns produced by any agency anywhere. Combining commerce and purpose and backing the power of advertising more emphatically than any brand before or since. I hoped one day to work at the agency that produced it.”

Last updated 09/09/2014

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