AMV BBDO deputy ECD Toby Allen explains the thinking behind ‘Xmess’, a campaign that faces up to the reality of mess, and the love needed to overcome it
You probably didn’t predict that one of the most exciting works of commercial filmmaking to enter the landscape of UK Christmas advertising this year would be an ad for a kitchen towel brand. But ‘Xmess’ for Plenty looks set to be just as memorable, if not more so, than the cosy festive offerings from the usual suspects - the supermarkets, department stores and designer clothing labels. What’s more, its perspective of Christmas is far from a cuddly fairy tale. It comes at the most fraught, messy time of the year with the gritty honesty of a Ken Loach film. And somehow, it leaves you feeling the true warmth of Christmas. That’s some kind of festive miracle.
Keen to understand the thinking that went into this bold new approach, LBB’s Alex Reeves caught up with deputy ECD Toby Allen.
LBB> This is AMV BBDO's first work for Plenty since winning the account. Where was the brand when you started and what were the big-picture goals with it?
Toby> Plenty had a long-running brand character ‘Juan Sheet’
, a sort of household hygiene hero. When we pitched for the account, we felt a superior product like Plenty needed to pull away from the pack and talk in a different way about mess. After decades of spotless kitchens and Truman-show families, it was time to stop demonising mess as a disaster or celebrating it as if it was lovely. We wanted to show mess in the context of our real lives, and the effect it has on our relationships. Our brilliant strategist Margaux Revol observed that the ones we love the most – kids, partners, family, friends, pets – make the most mess, but we love them all the same. We summed up this thought in the platform idea we pitched with: ‘love is messy’. We think it’s a deep idea that can run and run.
LBB> Was this always going to be a Christmas idea? Or did you realise it worked as a Christmas ad somewhere along the creative process? Why is it such a good fit?
Toby> We presented the Xmess idea at pitch. It seemed the obvious time to launch ‘love is messy’ as there is more love and more mess at Christmas than most other times of year – it’s like the Olympics of mess and family tension. From a sales angle, Christmas is a time when people stock up and trade up to premium brands. From a cultural angle, we liked the challenge of a humble kitchen towel competing in the UK’s Christmas ad battle as a way to earn fame for the brand.
LBB> Plenty is an Essity brand - a client your agency's been smashing taboos alongside for several years now famously with Libresse/Bodyform. How does this campaign align with that strategy? I feel like it's shaking up a category in a similarly bullshit-free way.
Toby> Essity’s purpose is to break barriers to wellbeing. Part of that is breaking harmful cultural norms. So when AMV BBDO works with Essity in any category, we try to shake up the status quo and get to something deeper. The kitchen towel category had always shown very sanitised mess. Drawing an analogy from period care, we felt orange juice was the ‘blue liquid’ of the category. We wanted to challenge that with radical honesty about the reality of living with loved ones and the mess they make. Previous Essity work has had advertising firsts in showing period blood, or singing vulvas, and we wanted to show some firsts in the portrayal of mess too. We’re advertising to grown-ups, so let’s talk to them as grown-ups.
LBB> How did the idea congeal into a solid script? What moments needed to be there and how did you organise them into an order that makes sense?
Toby> Like the use of the word ‘congeal’ – sounds like the turkey gravy on the kitchen floor. We started out with the premise that Andy Williams was lying through his teeth: Christmas is not the most wonderful time of year, it’s a test of love. Then we tested that premise to destruction. We borrowed from the comedy writing process, putting together a ‘writers’ room’ of creatives. Andy Vasey, Prabs Wignarajah, Jamie Starbuck and Dan Warner have been through the family-Christmas-ringer many times so there were no shortage of tales from Christmases past – we picked the truest and the funniest. But there’s no point in having the right notes in the wrong order. We didn’t want a montage ad, for it to be a proper Christmas ad, it needed to be a story. So we then sequenced them into the chronological order of a typical family Christmas day, to build the relentless onslaught of mess our central character has to deal with. Then we shaped that into an emotional journey - so that early in the day he’s thinking ‘why do I do this every year’, then he accepts it, and by the end of the day he’s resolved that there’s no place he’d rather be.
LBB> How did Covid affect your considerations in creating the campaign?
Toby> We crafted the final line of the VO to leave it open-ended: whether we’re with our families or apart, ‘there’s no place we’d rather be’. But whatever Christmas we end up getting, we wanted the film to serve as a funny reminder of the mess that happens when we're actually under one roof. It’s one of the reasons we went with ‘Love Hurts’ by Nazareth, a deliberately retro track from the ‘70s, to be timeless. It’s interesting seeing the reactions: some people see the ad as a metaphor for the 2020 shitshow, most see it as a humorous escape from it all.
LBB> It has similarities to the recent campaign for Canadian tissue brand Kruger. I imagine you were working on this one before you saw that. What did you think when you saw it and did it affect the way you thought about approaching the Plenty campaign?
Toby> We saw the Kruger commercial when we were already in production, and we saw more differences than similarities. Kruger celebrates human imperfection with a montage of mess and a thumping track. We are telling a twisted love story about the mess our nearest and dearest make and the love required to overcome it. Mess on its own is just mess; we wanted to show it within the context of our relationships. That’s where the dramatic tension, the storytelling and the humour come in.
LBB> What was production like? What were the biggest decisions there alongside director Steve Rogers and the Somesuch/Revolver teams?
Toby> There were big decisions to make during production: What is realistic cat poo? Was that projectile vom too projected? What’s the right facial expression to pull when you walk in on someone eating a vol-au-vent on the toilet? Hats off to the Essity marketing team – they embraced this process with us and enjoyed it. Most clients would run a mile from that sort of thing.
LBB> Some moments are pretty full-on. There must have been an urge to want to dial them down. Did you do any dialling down? What guided that decision?
Toby> Real life and real mess are full on. Of course we consulted with various broadcasting bodies to make sure that the ad would be allowed on air, and we wanted everything to be relatable so people could see themselves or their families in the film. But other than that nothing was off limits, and we didn’t do much dialling down. Partly that is because we have exceptionally brave and trusting clients. But also because we were all aligned behind one principle – the worse the mess, the greater the love needed to overcome it. That tension is the source of the comedy, and the emotional pay off at the end.
LBB> Do you have any favourite bits? Or any subtle touches you'd like to point out?
Toby> In just over 90 seconds you go from tinsel being detached from a cat’s bum, to feeling a warm glow for our families at Christmas, that’s quite an emotional rollercoaster. Balancing the love and the mess, the physical and the emotional, the tenderness and the humour took real craft, and we had a master of craft in Steve Rogers. The look between son and father after the dropped turkey has real empathy. It’s a love story, not a gross fest. There are some pretty funny sync points in the lyrics too, Sam at 750mph did a great job massaging the music to make those hit.
LBB> Anything else you'd like to add?
Toby> No cats were harmed in the making of this film. Though there are reports of some having to look away.