Commissioning Illustration for Retail

In 2017, John Lewis asked the nation what British summertime means to them and worked with award-winning British illustrator Paul Thurlby (repped by Hansome Frank) to create this humorous, celebratory, summer campaign. Peter Cross, Customer Experience Director at John Lewis tells us about his work and the campaign.

Can you tell us a bit about your career and your current work?

I’ve been in marketing and communications all my career. I’ve worked in various companies including L’Oreal and the Cartier Group. For 10 years I co-owned a Marketing and branding agency with Mary Portas and we had a great time doing lots with shops, branding and telly too.

Five years ago I went back in house at John Lewis. John Lewis Partnership is such a fantastic brand and so very loved in the UK, with 50 shops as well as its online site. As Customer Experience Director I am responsible for all aspects of the customer experience – in store and online.

My work is all about customers– how we can make their experience more differentiated, more compelling and exiting. We might do this by considering how we launch products, for example.

I get my kicks from innovation. I love doing something first and doing something big. I work alongside great people every day – it’s brilliant!

Can you tell us a bit about the process behind National Treasures?
Paul’s project was the first time we had done anything on that scale at John Lewis. It was about 6 months from brief to installation. One of the members of my team had seen his work in a book and brought it in. We loved how he conveyed the quintessential British wit and idiosyncrasies in such a lovely, light-hearted way. It absolutely chimed with our values.

In terms of the process – I’ve got something next to me – it’s a note Paul wrote to me on the launch day and it says “we got there in the end”. That sums it up really. It was such a unique commission for John Lewis, and a unique commission for Paul.

We knew we liked each other, that was our starting point. But then we had to both be clear about what we wanted out of the project. There were lots of practical considerations – the number of windows (the campaign ran across all of the John Lewis Shops – that’s about 16 miles of window) – the sheer scale of the mobile installations in store (The Oxford Street store had 220 life sized characters alone).

As with any creative process some drafts worked, and some didn’t so much. I imagine there were times Paul was sick to the back teeth with us (laughs)– but we knew this was a big project and we had to keep it chiming with our values and those of our customers.

Then there were the content based considerations – diversity and inclusion is incredibly important at John Lewis and we had to reflect those values in this project. That’s not always an easy thing to do.

We had some heated creative discussions, but any great creative work needs opinion and debate. Then, when you’ve worked those bits out, the work starts to evolve and get real and then you can really enjoy it!

What do you enjoy the most about commissioning and working with illustration?
The joy is in the creative selection process. Seeing the work come through. Working with talented creative people- and goodness, Paul is just that. In any commission you worry about what you will get back. But unlike photography, with illustration you do have a good idea of what you’ll receive.
There are so many variables with photography – the lighting, the angles and so on – you don’t always like what comes back. But illustration you know the style so you can be confident in what will be delivered.

Do you often work with illustrators at John Lewis?
We don’t work that often with illustrators. Of course, before the National Treasures campaign, we had the high profile Hare and Bear Christmas advert, which was an exception. We do some work with fashion illustration.

The National Treasures campaign has certainly taught us that we should consider doing more with illustration. It went down so well. It’s such an evocative medium. The luxury industry use it far more than the high street- and with more conviction. Why? I think it takes time to commission great illustration – and often the fast pace of retail can’t accommodate that. At John Lewis we attempt to be as considered and thoughtful as we can be and maybe this is why this collaboration was possible.

We are led by photography – and increasingly 3D work and film. When time isn’t on your side there is an inclination to rely on the immediate nature of photography.

However, we do work with illustration outside of the direct retail focus – when we are opening a new shop for example. Illustration is so much better at conveying the spirit of a city. So we work with illustrators on, for example, event invitations – and that always wins hands down over photography.

All illustrations: Paul Thurlby
Photographs of National Treasures: Tom Robinson

22nd August 2018

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