Pity the poor creative director trying to keep track of the
production industry in London. With 1,223 directors and 216 production
companies all touting for work and all claiming to be the next big
thing, a truly informed decision about who should shoot your next
commercial is nigh-on impossible.
OK, so it’s not all bad. It’s a buyer’s market and many producers will
do virtually anything to secure a job for their director. Even the most
lowly creative team can expect to be wooed with expensive lunches and
trips to Cannes in the hope that they will recommend a certain
Having so many directors around seems like good news for
But the downside is that it makes it impossible for agencies -
particularly small ones - to keep in touch with developments. The
temptation, then, is to stick with what you know, working with producers
and production companies you have worked with before and feel
comfortable with. When pressed many creative directors admit to having
their favourites, to always using the same few production companies or,
worse, to making somewhat random choices.
The trouble is, such a hit-or-miss approach risks a lot of good
directors languishing in obscurity while others rake in the work without
so much as trying.
So how do agencies go about choosing the best man (and it invariably is
a man) for the job, and should there be a more formal system in
Dave Droga, the executive creative director at Saatchi & Saatchi, says
London is spoiled for choice, with many of the best directors in the
world based here. London has a fantastic reputation and foreign
directors who have made it in their home countries often choose to work
out of London. But despite this huge pool of talent, creative teams will
almost invariably nominate a famous name - a Frank Budgen or a Paul
Weiland - as their director of choice.
’You know that when you go for someone like that, every other creative
director in town is faxing them too,’ Droga says. ’We ask creative teams
to give three suggestions - two can be obvious choices, but they must
also throw in a wild card. They may be dismissed early on, but at least
we’re looking at new talent. If it’s a massive job. Of course the
temptation is to go for an established director, but it is important not
to be blinkered.’
Clearly, for a huge campaign you need a director with considerable
experience of shooting commercials. But there are other opportunities
for would-be Tony Kayes and many commercials directors begin their
careers with charity films and test commercials. Rob Sanders, for
example, largely made it at HLA on the strength of test work that he did
for Holsten Pils through GGT.
Many agencies are more willing to use a new director if they have the
security of working with a production company they know. ’It’s all about
chemistry and who you can work with,’ says one, adding that making the
way in which agencies choose directors too formal would detract from the
Rebecca Atkinson is the head of TV at Bartle Bogle Hegarty, which has a
reputation for developing new talent. She says BBH has a more formal
system than most: ’The process starts once the script is approved, and
sometimes before. The team, the creative director and the producer will
start thinking about who would be good. Some scripts are written with a
specific director in mind, but other-wise we draw up a shortlist and
have a formal meeting to discuss the budget, the timing and the
treatment of the script. The shortlist will then be approved by the
creative director and the producer and the team will then set up
meetings with the shortlisted directors before making a final
Choosing the director is one area clients are still willing to let their
agencies get on with. Some will insist the agency gets several quotes
from production companies, but most are happy to trust the agency and it
is a very rare client who will ask for a specific director.
There are clients who make it easier for agencies to take a risk on a
new director - some even encourage it. BBH recently chose Quentin
Dupieux - virtually unknown in the world of commercials before Flat Eric
- to direct its highly successful Levi’s Sta-Prest campaign.
But clients such as Levi’s are few and far between. As the balance of
power between clients and agencies has shifted in favour of the client,
so agencies have become increasingly keen to go down the
tried-and-tested route. The 30-second TV commercial is under pressure
from everything from the internet to below the line and creative
directors and heads of TV seem tempted to play it safe.
’When I was a producer I hardly ever worked with the same director
twice,’ Jonathan Davis, the former head of TV at Leo Burnett, says. ’But
these days it’s more difficult for agencies - you’re really up against
it in terms of time and money and clients can get nervous about a total
The dilemma for production companies is that they have to sign up new
talent - commercials production is an industry that thrives on discovery
and companies’ reputations depend on their ability to introduce new
talent. But developing directors is costly in terms of time and money.
The combined expense of putting together reels, doing test films and
selling the director to agencies runs to tens of thousands of pounds.
And with diminishing fees and reduced margins, production companies that
are too willing to sign up unknowns could fall by the wayside.
When even Helen Langridge, who runs HLA, one of the busiest and most
successful production companies in London, sounds disillusioned with the
way the industry is going, you know there must be something wrong.
’The problem is basically stubbornness,’ she says. ’I know the directors
and what they’re capable of better than anyone else, but often people
don’t want to listen - they want a star like Tom Vaughan or Rob Sanders
even if they’re not really right for the job. It’s bloody hard for me at
the moment, so God knows what it’s like for other people.’
Langridge was one of the first producers to start actively selling
directors in London. ’When I first started going around with reels there
was a real feeling that this was not the done thing,’ she says. ’But now
people are really bombarded with reels. I feel very sorry for agency
creatives now and it makes it a lot more difficult to sell.’
Langridge says she now has a book of agency contacts of which she keeps
in regular contact with around 40. ’I don’t do the cold-calling
I know who will take the time to hear about a new director. Often,
senior people are more willing to listen - Tim Mellors recently sat
through a 20-minute short film, something he almost certainly didn’t
have time to do,’ she says.
One relatively new development is the introduction of reps at UK
production companies. An American import, their job is to sell directors
- traditionally the role of the director’s producer. They were
introduced by a few London production companies in the early 90s because
producers had little downtime to trawl agencies for work and were not
sales people by trade.
But the arrival of reps in the UK has not met with an entirely
enthusiastic response from the agency fraternity, which feels that the
producer - who works closely with the director on shoots - is better
placed to provide information about the director’s abilities and
experience. Also, whereas reps make sense in the US - where the sheer
size of the country makes it impossible for producers to travel around
to sell directors and a rep is needed in each region - the London
commercials market is a much closer knit community.
’Repping is very much the US way - I prefer the personal contact with
the producer or the director,’ Davis says. ’I also object to subsidising
the rep through the production company’s fees.
Heads of production companies will come and see me to tell me about a
director because I know them and that’s what the industry is about -
Atkinson adds: ’I like to have someone there to explain the background
as I watch the reel but there are pluses and minuses. Reps can’t know as
much as the producer does because they are not actually there on the
Most agree that the production industry will change rapidly in the next
few years but few people are prepared to speculate about how. For one
source, the relationship between agencies and production companies today
is similar to that of clients and agencies 20 years ago, when it was all
about who you knew, and the same few agencies were getting the lion’s
share of the work.
James Studholme, the managing director of Blink Productions, believes
there are two options for production companies: ’You either say let’s
throw as many strands of spaghetti at the wall as we can and hope some
stick or you take on a few people you really believe in and try to get
them established. We’ve always been of the latter persuasion.’
He adds: ’It’s very hard for directors to break in at the moment. But
what the future holds is a big mystery. People are so under the cosh at
the moment that they haven’t really started to think about what will
happen, but there will be big changes over the next few years.’
Some people believe the expansion of the market will change the informal
nature of the production industry - just as clients take a more
structured approach to choosing an agency, often involving consultants,
so the process of choosing a director will become more formal.
Others, though, believe personal contact can only become more
’There is no real alternative,’ one source says. ’I think if anything it
will become more important for agencies to know who they are working
with as they come under pressure from clients.’
Not good news for budding commercials directors. But the outlook is not
entirely bleak. Mark Wnek, executive creative director of Euro RSCG Wnek
Gosper, believes a brilliant director will always get work, citing the
example of Fredrik Bond, a Swedish director who joined the production
company Harry Nash a year ago as a relative newcomer. He is already
getting work for prestigious clients such as Adidas and Guinness.
’No-one should underestimate the hunger of agencies and clients to get
new directors - everyone wants to be at the cutting edge,’ Wnek says,
adding: ’At the end of the day it’s showbusiness and if you’re any good,
you’ll get the work.’