How to make an epic TV advert

When Aviva wanted to create a new brand positioning, it went to one of the biggest names in the business.

Image: woman in front of country house

Adam & Eve DDB are the creative agency responsible for turning Christmas TV adverts into major, must watch events.

In this episode of the Aviva podcast you can hear from Mike Stern, Managing Partner at Adam & Eve DDB, and Julie-Ann Douglas, Group Head of Brand at Aviva.

"... We've got to come into their world with something different. Something interesting. Something that can catch the eye. Something that can engage an emotion...."

Mike Stern

Adam and Eve DDB

If you're able to, please listen to the audio of the episode. The written word lacks the emphasis, emotion and nuance that comes from hearing our guests speak. 

These podcast transcripts are made using a blend of speech recognition software and human transcription and may contain errors. If possible, please cross-reference with the episode audio before quoting anything contained below.

00:00:08 Nadia Starkey

Hello, my name is Nadia Starkey and welcome to the Aviva podcast, one of our brand specials. Now if you've been watching TV recently, you may have noticed this:

00:00:19 Voiceover from Aviva’s TV advert

We all have hopes for the future. And no matter what lies ahead, we can help you get there. It takes a partnership. It takes Aviva.

00:00:31 Nadia Starkey

That is Aviva's new TV advert. The brand development of which has been led by creative agency Adam and Eve DDB. Now, they’re the people who worked with John Lewis to turn Christmas TV adverts into major TV events, so I'm very pleased to say that today I'm joined by Mike Stern, managing partner from Adam and Eve DDB, and Julie-Anne Douglas, head of brand at Aviva.

So Julie-Ann, I'm going to go to you first. Why is Aviva launching its brand now? And what makes this positioning different?

00:01:04 Julie-Ann Douglas

The timing of this is perfect because we've literally just launched a new purpose, new values, new strategy, and so what we wanted to do was make sure that the brand was complementing all of these elements. 

And we really wanted to make sure that we were standing for something in the long term. 

The positioning that we chose was obviously uniquely Aviva, so the positioning is It takes Aviva - and  I'll get into a little bit about what that means later on – but the great thing about It takes Aviva is that it really helps drive our ambitions to have top of mind awareness, being the go-to customer brand, and it really is a commercial and strategic move for us to really weaponise the brand.

What I wanted to clarify though is that this week – I know we've just seen the TV ad and we’re very proud of that – but it's not just about the TV ad. The TV ad is an external manifestation of our positioning to make sure that it's embedded and people have seen it, but it really is taking the positioning and making sure that we have made it part of the DNA of the organisation just like our purpose and values.

But we want to make sure that the idea and the feeling of “It Takes Aviva”, comes through our customer journeys, comes through our customer experiences and our proposition, so it's something that we're really proud of. We're really proud of the external work that we've done, but it’s really much embedding in the organisation, and is really part of our customer experiences.

00:02:43 Nadia Starkey

And you talked a lot there, Julie-Ann, about It takes Aviva which is great. I guess this is a question for both of you, but how did we... how did you land on It takes Aviva? How did that come about?

00:02:56 Julie-Ann Douglas

On to Mike!

00:02:58 Mike Stern

Yeah, it would be a pleasure! I think there's something pretty special about this as a company, about Aviva. I mean, we when we were initially briefed, we spoke a lot about Aviva's unrivalled breadth in its customer offering: what it can do for people across the whole stretch of their lifetime.

And it was one of these... It was a thought and a set of language that came out of, really, just a group of people in what ordinarily would be in a room kicking ideas about but, in this instance, it was most likely on a Zoom call, I would imagine...

But we were talking about quite a few different other ideas at the time, and there was just a voice in the room - one of our team-mates who started talking about going: “What does it take to pull this extraordinary breadth of people who are realising and helping customers on a journey to their own hopes and their dreams, and there's just extraordinary breadth to what we do...” and really the answer to that, to “what does it take?” well, it takes Aviva.  

And the more that we kicked around those three words, the more it stuck, the more we felt that nobody else can do quite what Aviva does. Nobody else can quite take the role across the entire life span of a customer. To help them move their dreams on, move their business on, move their people on in a way like Aviva does. 

And it was just one of these things, we just went “You know what? It takes Aviva.” 

We sat down with Julie-Ann and the brand team, and we were talking about a few things, and it was towards the end of that meeting that we went: “Look, we've got this... It's very different from what we've been speaking to you about before, but there's something in it. There's something in there that’s so resonant to the uniqueness of this brand and what it offers its customers. And it's just three words.

“It takes Aviva.”

00:04:46 Julie-Ann Douglas

Yeah, I was just going to say, what we loved about it, I think you guys described it as a wildcard, because it was a bit of a latecomer, which we absolutely loved... and when we really thought about it, we were like ‘it's a natural fit’ because what it ultimately comes down to is partnership. Like what Mike was saying, it literally is kind of... it's not about us, even though it says ‘it takes Aviva’, yes, but it's not us on our own. It's us working really closely with our partners, with our intermediaries, with our customers. Everyone who we deal with. It's a partnership to make things happen, and it is all about making things happen. It's all about action.

It just seemed like a natural fit, and it had this sense of boldness and confidence around it as well, which totally aligned to our company strategy.

 So it was just a bit of a no-brainer in the end. 

Of course, we went through the right channels to say ‘does it fit with our customers?’, we did research around our customers and intermediaries and what they thought of it. We tested it across our businesses and propositions to make sure that it had that flex... and I think the thing that we love so much about it is... Aviva is a very diverse business, and we look after the absolute life cycle of people – from whether it's just getting their car fixed, or a leak in their house, to literally planning their finances and making sure that they have a really good retirement.

So it goes from those... It takes Aviva flexes from the small things or the everyday things that we help our customers do, to the bigger things that are like planning finances and making sure that they are planning for the future, and then the really epic things like the climate commitments that we're making as an organisation, like those are societal things that were getting involved in. Our role in our customers lives and society is what it takes Aviva to do.

00:06:45 Nadia Starkey

So Mike, you guys are really known for working with big retail brands. How was it working with a big insurance company like this?

As you've said, Aviva covers such a breadth of products and life stages. How was that to take? Was it a different approach?

00:07:03 Mike Stern

Great question. There are some key differences and some inherent core similarities, really. I mean, to start with the differences, retail’s got a frequency to it.

You know, talking to retail, our retail clients and retail brands, is that can be a weekly purchase, versus an awful lot of what we offer customers – whether that’s direct to customers, or through intermediated businesses – is much less frequent than that. 

That's not to say we don't want a relationship with those customers, but it's much less frequent, therefore we have to shift our mindset a little bit about how we how we approach the challenge - From something where we're after an immediate action to something where we’re asking people to think a little bit longer term. 

When we're going out talking to customers, we can't guarantee they’re in market for what we are talking about in that moment, and therefore we got to take a slightly different approach. And that extends because you know, retail is often something people look to as a leisure activity as well as a necessity. Unfortunately, financial services doesn't always fall into the leisure activity bracket, so we've got to approach it slightly differently again. We've got to be cognizant of people's mindsets as they’re thinking about, not just Aviva, but the category at large. 

You know, retail for an awful lot of customers is an inherently uncomplex thing. Financial services and the workings involved for some people can be intimidating. It can feel complex. 

That's where Aviva and It takes Aviva comes into it again. It's about making kind of those tasks feel not daunting ones. Uncomplex. 

So there are some key differences which is really, really important. 

But in terms of how you approach a problem or how you approach an opportunity... there’s often actually some pretty core similarities, and those similarities are really around... in any of our endeavours in this brand and marketing world specifically, and Julie-Ann said rightly that it takes Aviva extends much, much, much beyond that... but in thinking about that opportunity is that you are always thinking about going... You are talking to a set of individuals, and you are asking them to listen in - potentially when they don’t want to listen in – and you're asking them to take up a bit of their time to listen to what we've got to say and take it on board. And that, from retail to financial services, to FMCG goods is absolutely universal. 

Therefore you've got to find something about your brand that connects with something about that audience in a way that engages them when we’re more often than not, in the marketing community at least, being interruptive.

You know, people are on their phones looking at something, watching something else, they’re out on the streets... and we come into their world. And therefore when we come into their world, we've got to come into their world with something different, something interesting, something that can catch the eye. That can engage an emotion.

And that is a core for whoever we work with.

Because we always stepping into somebody else's world and asking for some of their attention. We're asking for some of their attention to think about something that they were not primed to think about. And therefore we’ve got to come at it... it is beholden on us to take an interesting and innovative approach to engage those individuals in a moment with something that is resonant to their own lives that they can engage with, that feels emotionally in tune and emotionally in step with how they live their life and what their wants and needs are and introduce what we're about into that conversation.

Whether you are one of those retail brands or you’re a financial services thing, there are some differences which means that we necessarily have to change and adopt our approaches. That's super, super important, but there were also some core similarities that the fundamentals of which don't change.

00:10:41 Nadia Starkey

And I think the advert is called... is it called “the journey” Julie-Ann? I have to say it's so cinematic. There's no products or services being advertised within the advert itself. Is that intentional?

00:10:57 Julie-Ann Douglas

Yes. Everything we've done is very intentional. 

The purpose of the brand ad, basically, was to launch the positioning. So to make sure that the idea of It takes Aviva was understood and in people's brains, that they understood that it was associated with us. 

But then we also wanted to make sure that we were talking about the breadth of what Aviva offers, so not - as you said, Nadia - going into product specifics, but we wanted to talk about the breadth of the products that we do, and to really show that through storytelling and through how we are involved in people's lives and through the ups and the downs and everything in between, from young to old.

And Mike touched upon it with regards to building an emotional connection. So the way that we wanted to launch ‘it takes Aviva’ is through the story of this woman's life. The reason why we did it through this is even though we think about ourselves as kind of like logical human beings and so forth and we make rational decisions and we are rational people... the science and the research actually does say that, largely, we use our ancient subconscious brain to make decisions, regardless of how much research and everything we do. We have an instinctive pull towards things. 

And so what we wanted to do is to drive that emotional connection to the brand, to make sure that we were going to be top of mind in people's consideration set.

And as I said it is strategic because if we're top of mind then that drives consideration, then that drives purchase. So, this is part of a wider campaign and are part of a wider marketing strategy for Aviva. So I'm not saying that we're not going to do any product advertising ever again. Of course we will. That is part of the wider marketing mix, and it's very important for us. But the purpose of the brand campaign is really to drive long-term profit and long-term growth and to really commercialise the brand, and to really help all the rest of the businesses kind of achieve their targets as well. 

But yeah, we've taken a lot of cues from other brands that have done this. We're not kind of renegades in this path. Apple’s done this. Procter and Gamble has done this. There's a balance between brand advertising and product advertising, so this is just one part of a bigger strategy.

00:13:35 Nadia Starkey

There's no denying that this was very timely, this advert. I think there's a moment at the end where Layla, the lead actress, where she sees her family and gets to hug them, but what immediately came up is that thought of... how did you manage to do this in lockdown with all of the covid restrictions and everything?

I mean, Mike was that that must have been a challenge like you've never had before.

00:14:05 Mike Stern

Certainly a challenge. Certainly a challenge. 

What was interesting was, from a wider level, from the moment you know the lockdown and restrictions came into people's life... actually the mechanics of going out and filming and shooting, and you know all sorts of different material, wasn't actually... you know there is no government ‘full stop’ to it because you can't do these things working from home.

But what was clear as a business and as an industry, everyone took a step back. It was really, really important to us that in trying to create and generate materials in this very, very particular period, we were doing it in a way that followed all relevant protocols. That we had all relevant contingencies in place. That there were backups on backups. 

But really that is primarily about making sure that the people we are shooting with, shooting for, shooting around and shooting near are safe.

And whilst there was that moment of, you know, we were allowed to shoot from the get go, that we took the time to make sure that we were doing it the right way.

Just because we ‘could’ doesn’t mean that we ‘should’, and therefore what we did was pause, make sure that all those measures were in place to ensure the safety of those around us. 

Whilst it did impose certain restrictions, we work with production partners, with colleagues, who are extraordinary adept at doing this. That are experienced, that have lived it for a long, long, time.

Whilst it threw up challenges, they were relatively known, so you mitigate where you can and you put your best foot forward, and you plan, and you plan, and you plan again. 

And that was why we were able to achieve it. We were able to achieve something extraordinarily powerful that looks like it was shot in any other normal period of time, in any other normal time frame. It’s simply from... you work with people, and the British film industry is second to none in that regard, the people who can think on their feet, manage contingencies, manage disruption... 

But yeah, as I was saying, we followed industry wide and industry standardised protocols to do it. We were lucky enough as an agency to be involved in setting up those protocols and those standards and it worked. It felt and looked different behind the camera, but we're very pleased at what was in front of camera. What ends up on screens is relatively unaffected by it.

00:16:54 Julie-Ann Douglas

Just going to say from a client standpoint, it was seamless. They were swans. Like literally everything was like very calm, but the amount of detail that had to go to pull this off was insane. 

Just one of the details was: normally as a client, we would go to the shoot, and actually we were able to have one of the team members go for a couple of days, but for the rest of us we actually had really special iPads that we used just for the shoot to be able to see what was being shot.

So it was like we were there. I was literally sitting on my sofa – suffering from my COVID jab I have to say – but sitting on my sofa watching the shoot as it's happening and speaking to the guys on set. 

So I think as a kind of legacy from COVID is people don't necessarily have to be on the shoot. You can save a lot of money from shipping people all around, like obviously the agency has to be there, but I think that the technology has moved on so much that it was like everybody was there but it was just a lot more convenient.

But we got the exact same result with a lot more work from DDB side, but it was an amazing experience.

00:18:11 Nadia Starkey

And Mike, with all your years of experience and all the adverts that you've seen and created... that moment, I think it aired on the 10th of April... was it still an exciting moment after all that work?

00:18:26 Mike Stern

Incredibly! It always will be, for any piece of work we do. But you know, we are a longstanding and extraordinarily proud partner of Aviva, and we as a collective team pour an awful lot into what we do. Anybody does in in their job. Anybody who's proud of what they do does that. And you know we're no different. 

You pour your own emotion into it; you can't help it. To see that then go out onto the screens, the posters, the phones of the real world will always be a very exciting experience.

It can’t be anything but. 

Whether you're a few days into a career in this sort of thing, or years in, it remains a fundamentally exciting thing to see something you're proud of be out in the world. 

Until that point, it is an exercise almost entirely in theory. You know, you have spoken about it, you know it's good idea. You've tested it to the right people. You deployed the right people at the right moment and the right production partners to make it a reality. You’ve discussed it within an inch of its life... and yet, no-one's seen it.

Then it goes out there, and at that point it's a fundamentally exciting moment.

00:19:48 Nadia Starkey

And to that point, Mike. I imagine if you are the one telling the story and you've done the storyboards and you know all the intentions behind what the message is... What is the message that you want people to take away from that advert? What, if nothing else, even if they don't know the background or intentions, what is it that you hope they take away from that?

00:20:14 Mike Stern

First and foremost, it is an understanding that on life's journey, which has got ups and downs in it, which isn't a pure kind of trip of roses, that Aviva recognised that. And Aviva can be a fundamental partner in you taking the necessary steps along that journey, so tomorrow is brighter than today. 

That's quite long hand. If I stopped the man in the street and said “please repeat back what I just said after seeing this advert" … that wouldn't happen, but that's not how this sort of communication works.

But you want people to go ‘there is an empathy for what life is like, and Aviva can be there for me when it matters, to move it along’ and I think that's the sentiment and I think if we've done that in a way that drives an emotional connection, we've gone an awful lot of the way there. 

People read adverts... It's so funny! You know, whenever we do the testing of communication which we do a lot, and you know, we do rigorously and meaningfully... everyone's got a different point of view. 

Everyone's learned life, everyone’s learned experience, everybody's lived life is different, and therefore everybody will look at a piece of communication in a very unique way. Therefore, people with infer different things from it. Different moments will resonate with different people for different reasons. So we never expect there to be a single version of the truth played back to us, because that's not how people consume things or how people process things.

So there will be always be a variance in what people read into it, what people see in it, what resonates with them.

But this idea that throughout the ups and downs of life’s journey there's a partner in Aviva there. It's an important outtake for us.

00:21:51 Nadia Starkey

Julie-Ann, is there anything other than that lovely message that you would hope people take away from the advert?

00:21:58 Julie-Ann Douglas

 I think Mike captured it beautifully. I think it is about being there in the good times and the bad, that's what we do, and in some ways we're kind of at our best when we're helping people through the bad times, or the not so great times, and just trying to give them some hope and optimism that things will get better, and we’ll help them through it.

I just wanted to mention as well, the positioning and the ad, but the positioning in particular... the other reason why we really liked it is because it could drive a lot of employee pride. 

Obviously we're nothing without our colleagues, especially our frontline colleagues. They are dealing with these customer issues, problems, celebrations as well... and if we didn't have them as Aviva - because they are Aviva - we wouldn't be here. 

So what we really liked about It takes Aviva is this sense of pride that it gives to our employees in the role that they do for the customer every day. Whether or not they are customer facing, or whether they are working in the legal department, or IT or whatever, everybody has an opportunity to bring this to life.

00:23:17 Nadia Starkey

So, Julie-Ann, we've talked a lot about the advert and I think you touched on this at the start, but the advert is just the beginning. So what comes next? What have you got planned?

00:23:28 Julie-Ann Douglas

Yeah, so the brand advertising is just part of a wider campaign. Specifically, the TV launched, we follow that up with social media, press, out of home and some media partnerships are on the way.

This is obviously working in conjunction with the wider media strategy, so there will still be the product advertising going on to drive our trading and results and so forth. 

So in between looking at what's going to drive long term revenue, profit and growth, which is what we're aiming for the brand side of things, we're also making sure that we're hitting our short-term numbers with all of our product advertising.

00:24:06 Nadia Starkey

Brilliant, well, thank you very much to my guests today, Mike Stern, Adam and Eve DDB, and Julie-Ann Douglas from Aviva. If you haven't seen it yet, keep your eyes peeled for the TV advert and if you'd like to learn more about Aviva's new brand campaign, please check out the show notes or visit

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