Sunday, 20 November 2011

How do you choose a director for your TV commercial?

The other day I was trying to sell a director to a client. It wasn’t going well. I kept thinking, 'why aren’t they buying him? He’s bloody brilliant. One of the best in town.'

The trouble was so much of it was in my head; 16 years of making ads, locked away deep in my skull. But it wasn’t as easy as I imagined to explain to my client why he was the man for the job.

So I went back to the office and asked myself what goes into choosing the right director.

The reel? The treatment? Is he a good bloke? Will the production company supply hookers and a yacht at Cannes?

After getting a script through the Creative Director, Research, BACC, the Client and over a million and one other hurdles, it’d be a shame to give your baby to a wrong ‘un.

The reel
Sounds obvious, but have they directed enough of the right type of work? Say you’ve got a comedy script, how do they deal with casting, performance and timing? If you strip away the beautiful cinematography and pumping soundtrack, is there anything left? If you’re just after a ‘look’ that’s fine.  But it's important to know the difference. A guy whose background is in effects won’t be so good for a dialogue heavy spot. 

Who comes up with the shortlist of potential directors - creative or producer? There seems to be no rule. I remember at BBH working with Philippa Crane.  She came in with a stack of directors I'd never heard of. All brilliant; rap promo directors from the US, quirky short film directors from Sweden, students fresh from Central Saint Martin's. She was amazing. It's no surprise she was the one who discovered Flat Eric on Quentin Dupieux’s reel.

BBH have a fantastic heritage in breaking new directors, whether through the efforts of individual producers or more company inspired initiatives such as Mint Source, an in-house monthly showreel of up and coming directing talent, compiled by Head of TV Frances Royal and the enigmatic Toby Clifton.

Other places to spot new talent are short film festivals, shots, promos on MTV and of course the Daddy of them all, the Saatchi & Saatchi Cannes New Directors Showcase.

The question is do you take a gamble on possibly your only script of the year with a new unproven director? Or stick with the tried and tested established director? Maybe the treatment will help decide. 
The treatment
Does the treatment show the director understands the idea? Again, this sounds obvious but sometimes you can just tell that the way they bypass your main gag they just haven’t ‘got it’. Has the treatment taken your idea on? Or is it merely your script rewritten in poncey language with a funky front page? The brilliant 'Truth in Advertising' Director's Pitch sketch comes to mind here.

How hungry are they?  Legend has it when Tarsem treated for the Levis ‘Swimmer’ spot for Larry & Rooney at BBH, he came in with a wad of paper 3 inches thick. Literally filled to bursting with ideas and visuals and reference. More a short novel than your regular couple of pages of treatment. He’d only previously done a couple of promos but he got the job. And the rest is history (how it never won a fucking pencil we’ll never know).

The director in the flesh
The reel is great. The treatment is genius. What could go wrong? You meet. Oh fuck bollocks shit. He turns out to be an awkward French twat who speaks no English, defers every question to his producer and wears sunglasses indoors.

When it’s 3am on the last day of the shoot, pissing down, everyone’s pissed off, but you’re not convinced you’ve got the best take, will he do another? You’re going to have to work with this guy for weeks. Team players are always welcome. 

And what about Hollywood directors. Who wouldn’t want a name from Tinseltown directing their TV spot.  But do they really give a fuck? Or are they filling in between movies? Do they have the discipline to tell a story in 30 secs, not 3 hours? Frances Ford Coppola treated on an Illy Cafe script. It's a long story I've been told by the creatives, as was his treatment. 3 minutes was the shortest he said he could do it. Worse still, he bypassed the creative team completely thereafter and sent his treatment directly to the client. Nice.

Working with a Hollywood director could be a great brag to your mates. But you have to ask if Christopher Nolan genuinely wants to make your yogurt spot the most famous work of the year? 

There have been successes. Michael Mann's Lucky Star for Mercedes was amazing. Wes Anderson for Amex snaffled a pencil and David Lynch's spot for PS2 was suitably weird. But for every one of those there’s a Spike Lee shitfest that’s sunk without trace.

Directors who were ex-creatives is another interesting scenario / potential for a punch up. It’s a really good way to get another creative mind on the job. Often rewriting your script to great effect. Messrs Palmer, Squibb and others are very good at this and have the awards to show for it. 

However it can also bring up a whole new bunch of issues, with too many Creative Directors stirring the creative pot. Trying to jump in between Bruce Crouch and Chris Palmer is not something I'd like to do again in a hurry. 

And finally how about those hookers, yachts and other dubious reasons to work with someone? I worked next to a team who continually based their choice of director on the locations said director was putting forward. The further away the location, the more air miles they'd get, the more likely the director was to get the gig. And the shitter the work got. Nice tan boys, shame about the ad. 

After weighing up the pros, the cons, the reel, the treatment, the reputation, the hunger, the answer lies with you. And your gut. Possibly still the most reliable thing to base your choice on. 

Good luck.


  1. Great post, particularly the insight about taking a gamble on a rookie director when it might be your only script of the year that gets made.

  2. Good post.

    Tarsem's treatment was a game-changer. A three hour pitch that included an extra-ordinary (and - at the time - unseen) level of detail. As the creatives said at the time - if the director includes a swatch of the material he wanted the lead girl's frock to be made of, 'how can we NOT give the guy the job'.

    Makes me chuckle though, when I hear creatives say 'he did a lousy meeting - but a fantastic treatment'. Enter the shadowy world of the Treatment Writer....!

  3. This post came just at the right time. Still going with the yacht though..