Sainsbury's Brings Beloved Kids' Character to Life -- and Tops U.K. Book Sales

How Did a Supermarket and an Ad Agency Persuade Judith Kerr to Pen a New Children's Classic?

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This week saw an unexpected new title shoot to the top of the U.K's official book charts: "Mog's Christmas Calamity," by children's author Judith Kerr. Aged 92, Kerr has penned a new book featuring "Mog," a cat beloved to generations of British kids – but what's really unusual is that she wrote it in conjunction with an ad from U.K. supermarket chain Sainsbury's.

The brand's Christmas spot this year brings Mog to life on screen in a whole new story by Ms. Kerr, who both writes and illustrates her children's stories. Since the ad broke last Friday, the new book, available exclusively in Sainsbury's stores, has sold 74,453 copies, according to Nielsen BookScan. That's 17,000 more than the No. 2 book, Jeff Kinney's new "Wimpy Kid" title.

So how does a brand persuade an author – especially one of Ms. Kerr's standing and integrity – to collaborate on an ad?

Alex Grieve and Adrian Rossi, executive creative directors at Sainsbury's ad agency AMV BBDO, said that the starting point for the team was wanting to do a campaign to support child literacy (all proceeds from the book, and a related soft toy go towards Save the Children's campaign to improve child literacy in the U.K.)

From there, they had the idea of bringing a character from an iconic children's book to the screen. However, finding the right book and the right author was harder.

"We both spent ages re-reading our favorite stories from our childhoods and then even longer talking to our kids and their friends and parents about their best-loved books," says Mr. Grieve. "Very early on it became apparent that Judith Kerr's books were right at the very top of the list. It's not an accident that she is a national treasure. Her combination of gentle wit, charm and nostalgia appears effortless. But, of course, it is anything but."

With Sainsbury's, the agency approached Kerr's publisher HarperCollins to see if she might be interested. (This could have been seen as a very long shot -- after all, Kerr had "killed off" Mog in 2002, in a book called "Goodbye Mog" aimed at gently educating children about death.)

Meeting the author was "pretty terrifying," admits Mr. Grieve. "Although she's 92 she's as sharp as a tack and has a mischievous wit." However, Kerr did agree to let the agency use Mog, and although Mr. Grieve says she was "very protective" of her character, he describes her as "incredibly respectful" of the advertising process. "Whilst, ultimately, she had final sign-off on everything she gave us room to develop and expand Mog's world."

The story of the ad – told in the book -- sees clumsy Mog unwittingly save the day when an overcooked turkey sets fire to the oven early on Christmas day in her owners' house. She accidentally calls the firefighters, while causing chaos in a calamitous chain of events that will make kids roar with laughter.

Once the agency had agreed on the story with Ms. Kerr, it worked closely with director James Rouse of Outsider on crafting the films. Framestore – the animation house responsible for bringing Paddington, another beloved U.K. book character, to life last year – was charged with capturing Mog in 3D form, and inserting her into the film's live action sequences, (see more about how it was done in the "Behind the Scenes" film, below).

Grant Walker, VFX supervisor at Framestore, said: "Our biggest animation challenge was bringing the already established form of Judith's illustrations to the screen whilst maintaining the personality and qualities evident in the books."

"In the books, we are given written descriptions of Mog's feelings as events unfold around her; as animators, we worked with director James Rouse to use facial expressions and careful timing to demonstrate those emotions, and portray Mog's inherent character. It was important that Mog herself was funny, rather than creating an ad in which funny things simply happen to her; our audience needed to connect with her emotionally, and feel her concern and delight at the relevant moments, to fully engage with the story."

Another challenge was getting Mog's cuddly shape right. "Building an internal skeletal and muscular structure is not unusual for a CG creature, but we took it a step further and built a dynamic volume-preserving fat layer, which was much more sophisticated than any we had used before," says Mr. Walker.

The result, with a voice over by Emma Thompson and an original score by an Oscar-winning composer, Rachel Portman, is something akin to a mini-movie. In a wonderful touch, Ms. Kerr herself appears in a cameo as a neighbor who says that Mog deserves a medal -- a line from the original "Mog the Forgetful Cat" book.

"HarperCollins suggested that Judith might be up for a cameo. Thankfully she was," says Rossi. "It was truly wonderful when Judith appeared on set and, we hope, a special moment for her to see the characters she had imagined and drawn, in the flesh."

While the new book is proving a hit, social media responses to the ad have been positive too -- with some saying that it trumped the John Lewis "Man in the Moon" spot in the heartwarming holiday stakes this year. And in a new crowdsourcing element, Sainsbury's is asking people to post videos of themselves reading "Mog's Christmas Calamity" to social media in a campaign called The Storytellers. The clips will eventually be used to compile a film of the whole story -- which will run as an online ad.

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