It could be as simple as a nice picture of a robin with Merry Christmas written on it.
It could be.
But it never, ever is.
Welcome to the magical, last-minute, ‘don’t-spend-too-much-but-it’s-got-to-be-more-creative-than-everyone-else’s’ world of the agency Christmas card.
My first experience of the company seasonal greeting came in 1992, six months into my first job. There was a recession on that year. Much the same as the economically shit time we are having at the moment, only with less internet.
I’m not sure whose idea it was to send out a humbug to our clients. It could have been me, but I’m sure I’d have kept one of them as a sample if that were the case. As it is, I scanned this in from the Parenthesis 25th anniversary yearbook…
The brown paper thing was something our Creative Director, Colin Higton, loved to do, though the typography is very Alan Fisher. Regardless of its creative origins, I do remember helping to attach a whole load of these labels, as well as helping myself to a whole load of humbugs.
Having set the creative ‘bah’ one notch above ‘a nicely designed card’ in my first year of employment, we excelled ourselves the following year…
Little did I know that when I came up with this amazingly original idea in 1993, that I’d see a variation on the same theme done by someone else every year that followed.
While this one was my baby, executionally it was another team effort. My job was to draw the snowman blueprint and to eat as may liquorice pipes as I could shove down my gob.
By 1994 our hand-crafted Christmas mailings reached their zenith with this complicated and slightly pretentious offering…
If the previous year’s concept was me reflecting on the great snowmen we made as kids, this was a throwback to my time in the British Spy Association. As a nine-year old secret service agent it was imperative that I always sent out secret messages written in lemon juice, that then had to be heated over a candle to be decoded.
This grown-up version was based on a quote from The Merchant of Venice. ‘How far that little candle throws his beams! So shines a good deed in a naughty world.’ (also misquoted in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factor as ‘weary world’) and came with a candle, stand, match and paper scroll all tied in a literal bow.
By this time Hannah Bird had joined our all male studio and I remember her taking a big lead in making this one happen.
We re-lanched from a design partnership to a limited company in 1995 and completely rebranded the agency. The Christmas card for that year reflected the new ‘retro found images with orange highlights’ identity, casting ourselves as clip-art on a stark white background. Quite a cute idea, but let down by the terrible in-house photography.
What came next is unclear.
Perhaps we were burnt out by the increasingly elaborate mailings of previous years? Or maybe we were just busy? But the Parenthesis Christmas card for 1996 is a bit hazy.
I’m pretty sure we had a humbug-style relapse and sent out a blank card with the message ‘Christmas is What You Make It!’ (We didn’t even send out a little pack of crayons or anything to go with it.) It probably came across as mean-spirited and half-arsed as it undoubtedly was. I remember it being talked about, but I couldn’t say for sure we went ahead with it.
But hey, that was just a blip because by the time 1997 rolled around we were back on top form with a card that promoted the joys of getting drunk and smoking fags…
As an agency, smoking tabs and drinking Guinness was very ‘us’. We were a young agency, staffed by young people with little responsibility outside our jobs and we had a tendency to live in each other’s pockets.
God knows what our clients thought of this – especially that dodgy looking ‘cigarette’ – though this still wasn’t the most offensive card we ever sent out.
This one was…
In 1998 the agency was on the up.
And as we grew upwards, we grew outwards too.
That winter we were in the midst of converting a boat workshop into a swish new studio and it was the pain of working around the mess and disruption that birthed the worst pun I have ever got into print.
Christ What a Mess!
In the early days of her career Rachel Cooper (as she was then) took the moody black and white mess shots and Ian ‘Mad Dog’ Davies did the shiny 3D renders of the new studio. It was a massive deal in our world at the time, but I doubt many other people really cared.
But we did get a call from a committed Christian client who in no uncertain terms requested we never contacted them again.
One of the benefits of our growth, however, was the sprouting of our own photography arm – Brackets – and we embarked on the most laboured series of ‘meet the team’ website portraits in the history of ‘meet the team’ photography.
Because we could.
We ended up with a great set of images intended to show the breadth of our workforce to all of our clients. Everyone was asked to bring in a prop that reflected their interests and it wasn’t a massive stretch to suggest that these were actually unwrapped gifts on our 1999 Christmas card.
Ooh look, Santa’s bought Tim Empson a pint of Guinness.
As the Parenthesis star continued to ascend, we made friends in the industry and ‘rival’ agencies found themselves on our Christmas list.
Talk about pressure.
Looking back I’m sure I had one eye on my peers as an audience when I came up with this graphic design in-joke…
This one is very evocative of the days before pdfs and Powerpoint ‘decks’, when we cut out lots of things and blunted lots of scalpel blades. It’s actually one of my favourites. The embossed blades were a black and metallic silver duotone and the star and plant pot were die-cut in the front of the card.
We must have had a quiet November in 2001 as, inspired by load more Parenthesite photos, I got my shit together early enough to put together an advent calendar.
I still love these images taken from some 1970s wrapping paper, though I always thought that four-colour orange looked ‘peachy’ (though not in a good way).
By the time it came to designing the 2002 Christmas greeting, I was working my notice.
I did develop a digital card with Dave Evans that was based on a PC progress window. The bar would slowly move across while the animated text underneath would say things like, ‘Downloading: Maids a-milking 2 of 8, Geese a-laying 4 of 6’, etc. When it got to the end and it reveal a simple ‘Happy Christmas’.
We thought it was quite sweet.
Everyone who watched it said it took too long to load and not much happened at the end.
It never ran. I remember there being lots of huffing and rolling of eyes, and some muttering about ‘donating some money to charity’, by which point I had packed up my pencil-case and was out of the Canal Basin Warehouse door forever.
Fast forward a year and I was coming to the end of my very short-lived career in creative recruitment at Big fish.
I’d inherited this logo, which I didn’t mind. I think everyone assumed I had done it, but it had already been created by a nice chap called James at BMB by the time I was on board. While it wasn’t strictly my job to handle the marketing, I inevitably muscled in and took over things like the recruitment ads and of course, bashing out a quick Christmas card.
When you look at the logo it’s not hard to see where the snowman came from.
I joined Vital towards the beginning of December 2003 and their card for that year was already well underway, but I did arrive in time to sign it.
The logo at the beginning of my tenure had been in place for a year or so, but despite a few people’s different attempts to explain what the silver and red dots were supposed to represent, I was never 100% convinced by it.
I spent the next couple of years trying to make them relevant in a number of different ways (which I am sure the blog will cover at some point) though when it came to Christmas 2004, I thought they were crying out to become physical baubles.
I forget why this never went ahead – sourcing, timescales, cost or some other equally valid reason. The one-off prototype is rumoured to still exist at Malcolm’s house and he’s been promising to bring it in for me to photograph, but in the meantime, here’s an artist’s impression…
So anyway, that year the red dot ended up being a holly berry instead, and some spot UV and die-cutting later this spiritual successor to 2000’s scalpel tree was the result…
The following year when the Christmas card brief flew into the studio I ducked and it hit my pal, then Deputy Creative Director, Paul Beacham, square in the chops.
Paul was always a bit of a Flash whizz and with cute critters being a bit of a speciality, it was his turn to try and turn the Vital dots into something…
By Christmas 2006 the dots were no more, having been replaced by my visual identity that featured the handwriting of everyone who worked at the agency.
This was our first card under the new look, so it was only proper that it featured the gaffer’s Vital flipped in a ‘Vision On‘ style to form the shape of another Christmas tree…
In 2007, and following the release An Inconvenient Truth, the green agenda had risen to the point where it had stopped being corporate rhetoric and people were actually starting to take action. Leamington was still a few years away receiving domestic recycling boxes however, and this cute idea was born out of seeing the new year recycling schemes that were taking place at a few of the chain stores in town.
Basically a brown envelope, it was deliberately under-designed with simple, one-colour line art, and a message inside encouraging people to use it to collect all their other cards in and take them to be recycled.
It was simple, cheap and, from what I remember, went down really well.
Then the economy fell off a cliff. If we hadn’t already made a shift away from shiny cards with high production values, we would have done in 2008.
My response to those particular belt-tightening festivities were ‘The Twelve Tips of Thriftmas’, an idea which our writer Dennis O’Neill and designer Lisa Preece developed, delivering a charming series of animated emails in a suitably witty and whimsical style…
It’s interesting to see how, with the continued slog of a poor economy and the rise of crafting, how relevant this one is four years later.
Another sign of those times was the upped investment in Vital’s digital team and for Christmas 2009 we entered the crowded market of creative agency online games. As a first stab, this was incredibly well received by our clients, suppliers and peers and the leader board got quite competitive. Created entirely by Leigh Dunks and Rob Wilson, the marriage of stylised graphics and gameplay were spot on.
(It was actually re-skinned slightly and is enjoying a second life on Olympic skier, Dave Ryding’s website if you feel compelled to have a go.)
If Vital’s Snowball Fight was Star Wars, 2010’s Rooftop Drop was The Empire Strikes Back.
A darker, more visually rich sequel that picked up where the previous instalment left off. Helmed this time by Graeme Longstaff, though again built by Rob, Santa travelled across the rooftops as the player tried to aim the deposits from his sack.
UPDATE: Rob has just pointed me in the direction of this one. It’s covered in two year’s worth of pixel dust, but you can have a go here.
It was tempting to have a ‘Richard Marquand‘ come in and complete a trilogy of games, but after two in a row there was an appetite to go back to something physical and I was keen that we revisited one of the more creative and ownable self-promotional things we’d ever put our name on.
The irony of recycling our own recycling idea was not lost on me.
I’d always thought that this idea had more mileage than being a one-off thing. Despite using recycled paper and stock from managed forests, I do wonder how many more trees would be around if I’d not been doing this job for two decades.
Not that I want to get all ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ on your ass.
So it was that we dusted off the concept, reworked it under a new headline ‘Turn Your Christmas Cards Into Trees’ and commissioned Paul Barton to make it beautifully reflect the current Vital identity.
Last year it reached more people, in higher places and the feedback was even more positive, so we decided to enter it into a few awards. A Gold in The Roses Creative Awards and three nominations in Midlands Cream later, I’m glad to have brought the idea out of retirement.
When the headlines about Ash Dieback stared to appear at the end of the summer, I figured it’d be the right thing to do to keep this one running. Paul and I collaborated again to create this version highlighting the current woodland crisis…
We owe it to the trees, man.
Special thanks to everyone who worked with me on this stuff and especially Tim, Nicola and Jeremy who ultimately signed it all off.
Merry Christmas one and all x