Sainsbury’s Goes Dickensian for Christmas Ad, Creating a Surprising Origin Story

Wieden + Kennedy London blends history with fantasy

Mary Ann Sainsbury, who co-founded U.K. grocer Sainsbury's with her husband, is a key character in the brand's Christmas ad. Sainsbury's
Headshot of David Griner

Sainsbury’s opened its doors on London’s Drury Lane in 1869, marking a humble beginning for what has grown into Britain’s second-largest grocery chain.

To play off that history as the brand turns 150—plus a healthy dose of magical realism—Sainsbury’s 2019 Christmas ad from Wieden + Kennedy London tells a Dickensian story based around its first location.

In the spot, the dreary life of a soot-caked young boy called Nicholas the Sweep takes a turn for the disastrous when he’s falsely accused of stealing produce. From there, the rather boilerplate setup goes in some unexpected directions, with a bit of help from the store’s co-founder, Mary Ann Sainsbury.

While it starts as a relatively straightforward tale of a young street urchin saved from a life of misery by a kindly benefactor, the ad takes a rather unexpected twist when we learn that Nicholas’ journey actually leads to him becoming… Saint Nicholas. It’s an odd bit of revisionist history that sidelines good old Saint Nicholas of Myra, but it’s doubtful too many viewers will think the brand is literally trying to rewrite one of Christmas’ most central characters.

The spot was directed by Pulse Films’ Ninian Doff, who earlier this year created a visual feast of malevolent vegetables that children must eat to defeat. He also directed The Chemical Brothers’ “We’ve Got to Try,” which was also created with Wieden + Kennedy London to help launch Formula 1’s 2019 season.

The ad was filmed in Romania due to a combination of weather conditions and the convenience of an existing Victorian set.

In recent years, Sainsbury’s has been one of the most high-profile advertisers of the holiday season. The chain’s most famous Christmas spot, “1914,” celebrated the 100th anniversary of the so-called Christmas truce, when German and British soldiers in World War I ceased fighting to mark the holiday in peace.

Last year’s spot, about an over-the-top children’s Christmas pageant, was a crowd pleaser but also oddly similar to a John Lewis & Partners ad that had launched two months before.


Client: Sainsbury’s
Project Name: Nicholas the Sweep
Client Name:
Laura Boothby
Donna Murray-Clark
Laura Zaremba
Rhiannon Lee

Agency: W+K London
Creative Directors: Dan Norris and Ray Shaughnessy
Creatives: Tom Bender, Tom Corcoran, Tomas Coleman and Mat Kramer
Executive Creative Directors: Tony Davidson and Iain Tait
Group Account Directors: Katherine Thomson & Lucy Murray
Account Director: Mike Waywell
Account Manager: Laura Simmons
Account Executive: Oliver Mitchell
Chief Strategy Officer: Ben Armistead
Planner: Rory Foster
Comms Planning Director: Lee Ramsay
TV Producer: Richard Adkins
TV Production Assistant: Dee Fenning
Creative Producer: Rashel Tashchian
Design Director: Karen Jane
Lead Designer: Phil Rosieur
Designer: Jon Barnett
Motion Graphics: Jon Harris
Business Affairs: Alex Coomer

Production Company: Pulse Films
Director: Ninian Doff
Executive Producer / Managing Director: James Sorton
Production Company Producer: George Saunders
Production Manager: Ben Burdock
Director of Photography: John Mathieson
Production Designer: Jon Henson
Costume Designer: Selina Wong
Editorial Company: Stitch
Editor: Leo King
Edit Assistant: Charlie Von Rotberg
Edit Producer: Angela Hart
VFX Company: Time Based Arts
VFX Head of Production: Josh Robinson
VFX Producer: Jo Gutteridge
VFX Supervisors: Leo Weston, Sam Osborne”
Colorist: Lewis Crossfield
Sound Company: Wave
Sound Designer: Jack Sedgwick
Sound Producer: Beth Tomblin
Music Company: Siren
Music Supervisor / Producer: Sian Rogers
Composer: Chris White

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@griner David Griner is creative and innovation editor at Adweek and host of Adweek's podcast, "Yeah, That's Probably an Ad."