The Story behind the Guinness Christmas Advert

In this period of festive celebrations, our Global Head of Beer, Baileys and Smirnoff, Mark Sandys researched the story of one of the best loved Guinness adverts, and the lessons it teaches us about making great Guinness advertising today.


Mark Sandys

It’s the time of year when everyone talks about Christmas advertising. I love watching these shiny, new Christmas ads being unwrapped for the first time. But I also love seeing old favourites return to our screens – in particular the Guinness Christmas ad that has run every year in Ireland since 2004 and which you can see at the bottom of this article. Whilst the ad has only ever run in Ireland – there is something magical about it which makes it feel relevant everywhere. In fact, it’s possibly Guinness’ longest running ad ever in our 259 year history, but relatively unknown and not as heralded as films such as ‘Surfer’, frequently voted the best ad of all time. However, in Ireland, every year our Guinness social feeds are full of comments from people saying it only feels like Christmas when the ad comes on air. When one year the media plan delayed the launch of the ad until December 8th, the Brewery was inundated with letters demanding it be shown!

I have worked for Guinness and Diageo for many years around the world. My Dad worked all his life in the brewery in London and my Grandad was the Doctor at the brewery. I have grown up with stories from Guinness past and find great inspiration from those for the work we do today. Our creative team at BBDO, with whom we have worked for the past 20 years, also use the archive of great Guinness ads as stimulus and standards for our work today. Our creative team firmly believe ‘we have a responsibility to be Guinness’. This is a belief that dates all the way back to Arthur Guinness who decided to focus on brewing black beer when the rest of the world was brewing ale. When someone walks into a bar anywhere around the world, Guinness looks and tastes pretty different from any other beer on the bar. We describe this responsibility as behaving in a way that ‘only Guinness can do’ and we write that on all of our briefs today.

The Guinness Christmas ad has some of the hallmarks of great Guinness advertising:

Firstly, the film looks unmistakably like Guinness and, notably, it does this without ever showing a pint or a can, apart from the sign on O’Connell’s pub wall. Instead the black and white footage of the four provinces of Ireland show subliminal hints of a pint in a beautiful and integrated way, rather than just showing the product or logo.

Secondly, the film has broad appeal and is not limited by being tightly targeted against a particular age group or demographic. Instead the Guinness Christmas ad was written to capture the magic of ‘one minute to midnight on Christmas Eve’ in a way that would appeal to men and women all over Ireland and, and unusually for beer advertising of the early 2000s, signs off with a female voiceover.

Like so many of the great Guinness ads, the film is beautifully crafted by our great Guinness marketing team working with Irish International BBDO, led by legendary creative director Mal Stephenson, with an original music track composed by Kevin Sargent and filmed throughout Ireland capturing the natural beauty of the four provinces. There are so many great marketers behind this ad - Damian Devaney, Tom Kinsella, April Redmond, Paul Kelly and Mark Ody to name just a few.

The result of the music and the cinematography is a film that stirs the emotions. Advertising is more effective when it delivers an emotional impact connected to the brand and we call this 'effective creative excellence'. The Guinness Christmas ad does this in a way that brings to life the three words that have always been at the heart of Guinness advertising: Power, Goodness and Communion.

The story behind the ad is also fascinating. It wasn’t in the annual plan, it was made quickly, with the final voiceover performed by someone actually working for the ad agency, and yet it is magical and enduring. The process of making this piece of work, and the output say a lot about what we value in our marketing for Guinness: teamwork, trust and taking a risk.

The end result is a film of timeless beauty that taps into a deeper truth about Ireland, of nature, friendship, the grandeur of the cities and the history of the land. In many ways it’s a thank you to Ireland. This film is a celebration of Christmas, of Ireland, of nature and of magic, and in doing so it has also become a celebration of all that makes Guinness great as well.