How I became a… Christmas advert creator
As a child, Laurent Simon could never decide what he wanted to do when he grew up. “I wanted to be everything,” he says. “I didn’t really understand why you had to choose one thing when there are literally millions of subjects and people you can learn from and work with.” As chief creative officer (CCO) at global communications agency VMLY&R, he found a job that suits his polymath personality to a T.
Simon’s childhood in France was full of inspiration for future careers. His father was in the army but came from a family of academics. His mother’s side were winemakers. His neighbour was a graphic novelist. Simon enjoyed creative pursuits such as writing, drawing and painting as much as he did economics and maths, and he had an insatiable thirst for knowledge. “I was always captivated by everything. I could listen to someone talking about rocks for four hours and find that as fascinating as learning about the space race. It’s just the way my brain is wired.”
This broad range of interests gave him a solid foundation in how the world works. But by the time he left for university, “I wanted to see how people worked.” So he studied sociology and psychology before discovering the world of advertising, the perfect job to balance all of his varied interests.
Simon took a postgraduate course in copywriting and ad direction at the advertising talent incubator, The Watford Course, before placements at agencies AMV BBDO, BBH and Mother. Before becoming CCO at VMLY&R, he was executive creative director at the BBC.
Over the years he has worked on some of the best-loved Christmas adverts for the likes of Boots and John Lewis, including the latter’s award-winning The Bear and the Hare ad from 2013, which became an an audience favourite almost overnight.
How does it feel when your work gets such a stellar reception? “It felt great,” he says. “I think we were fairly fortunate, in the sense that these were probably the first few years where the Christmas ad was grasping people’s imaginations, captivating them. Social media was coming full force. They hadn’t really been like that before.” He compares the feeling to that of a musician or a stand-up comedian on stage. “That approval is really gratifying.”
But creating a festive campaign which wins hearts and minds is no easy thing. The process begins 10-11 months before Christmas, so the teams have very little information on what the mood will be when yuletide rolls around. “It’s definitely the hardest project to work on,” says Simon. “The hard thing about Christmas is that it’s the one time of year where people really care about advertising.” Every major brand and every agency wants to have their say and get it right tonally. “You start so early that it’s like trying to read the room before you even enter the building.”
For Simon, this means you need a decent EQ - high levels of emotional intelligence. His team makes sure to follow the news and scour social media to get a sense of how audiences are feeling, though this has been particularly difficult over the past two years. The number of unprecedented events - from the Covid pandemic to the death of the queen and the war in Ukraine - has made forecasting feel like a much more unmanageable task.
“When you’re dealing with uncertainty,” says Simon, “levity is the key.” A great Christmas ad should be like a great friend. “You can either alleviate worries by being a shoulder or you can alleviate worries by making someone smile.”
It’s easier to create Christmas ads when the British public already has a latent affinity for the brand. “It’s almost like they’re secretly rooting for those brands, and when you do something decent, the love back is 10 times what another brand might get.” This is not an excuse for laziness. “The work needs to have integrity,” says Simon. “Nothing should be leaving the building that doesn’t have integrity baked in. There’s enough noise, enough visual and auditory pollution out there, we don’t need to add to it.”
This is one of the few drawbacks to his job. For some, advertising has a bad reputation, hawking things that people don’t need. For Simon, great advertising means respecting the audience, not cynically trying to pull on their heartstrings or bombarding them with sales messages. “It’s about authenticity versus profiteering,” he says. “You always need to make sure that the work comes from a good place. I want to feel the decency. I want to feel like it’s one person reaching out to another, because when you do that, it shows that you respect the person on the other side.”
Advertising is actually pretty simple, he says. “It’s definitely corny, but it’s a bit like that scene in Notting Hill where Julia Roberts tells Hugh Grant ‘I’m just a girl, standing in front of a boy.’ And that’s advertising to me, just from one person to another.”
This is key to being a successful creative leader. “You have to be good at reading the room,” says Simon. “You need to be able to infer people’s inner desires, see what makes them tick, what they’re worrying about, what gives them butterflies.” A background in psychology comes in handy every day in Simon’s line of work, but the nature of the role changes as you progress. “When people ask me what my job is, I say I used to write adverts and now I just help others do so,” he explains.
For those advertising execs who want to lead teams, a different set of skills is required. “It sounds pompous, but I think you need to be good at everything,” says Simon. “You need to have mastered being a practitioner, because you can’t be a good leader if you don’t understand how it works or what it takes.”
But when you become a master practitioner, you then need to set that aside. “Your EQ is just as important as your IQ,” says Simon. While IQ is key to creating the work, you need emotional intelligence to lead a team. “You need to be able to get people to understand your vision and buy into it. There’s a lot of soft power going on.”
The most important quality of all, however, is resilience. “You need to know how to deal with ‘nos’, because that is what you hear 99% of the time,” says Simon. He’s seen it time and again: talented junior creatives who don’t progress because they lack grit or resilience. “From experience, the creative talent that does well are those who keep on saying ‘OK, I’ll prove you wrong. I’ll take your no and make it a yes.’”
For those who make it, it’s the best job in the world, he says. “Every day I talk about economics, sociology, psychology, art, writing, wellbeing. I talk about loads of different sectors, different brands, different people and demographics.” It is a job perfectly suited to a polymath, someone interested in everything. “It makes it feel less like a job and more like food - every day I’ll be having fish, steak, salads, fruits, that’s what keeps me happy. The diet is so varied, it keeps you motivated and interested.”