The Directing Dilemma

The closure of Large prompted more questions about the lack of opportunities for new directors in advertising. Is belt-tightening by clients the only reason that the big names continue to get all the work, Glen Mutel asks. When two of advertising's hottest directors, Danny Kleinman and Jeff Stark, decided to join forces last year, it looked like a winning combination.

Armed with big reputations, three experienced suits and a huge directorial roster to back them up, the pair's venture, Large, looked set to take the production industry by storm.

Unfortunately, as fans of Mick Jagger and David Bowie will admit, winning combinations don't always work out. Last month, the company announced it was to close its doors. Like Dancing in the Street, Large will be forever remembered as a collaboration that didn't live up to its billing.

Large was formed out of the merger of Kleinman's Spectre and Stark's eponymous production company. Its sizeable roster was supposed to deliver economies of scale, as Stark explained to Campaign earlier this month. "The original idea was to take pressure off Danny and myself and make a company that was less reliant on our turning over."

But one year on, the hugely sought-after Kleinman had received a disproportionately high number of Large's scripts. The economies of scale failed to materialise and it soon became clear that Large's business model was unworkable.

What the company's demise reveals about the industry is a matter for debate. It is undoubtedly sad that a vehicle designed to assist the emergence of young commercials directors has failed.

But why did a group of directors working under Kleinman's patronage fail to attract enough work to make their company sustainable? And what does this say about the prospects for new directors? Is Large's demise symptomatic of an industry that is over-reliant on a narrow selection of A-list directors?

"Yes," the RSA managing director, Kai-Lu Hsiung, who feels that today's creatives are familiar with the work of too few directors, says. "I'm sure agency producers are getting fed up with the fact that every young creative team with a script will give them the same ten names that they want to work with," she laments.

Hsiung feels the scarcity of exciting TV briefs has forced creative teams to be risk-averse when choosing a director for the few scripts they get.

"If a team has been working on a script for eight months, they really want to make damn sure it's the best thing they've ever done," she adds.

One can understand a creative department's reluctance to risk a script on an unproven director. But this attitude bodes ill for an industry that seems to be perpetually hunting for the next big thing. The question frustrated producers generally seem to be asking is, how can the industry ever hope to unearth the next Frank Budgen, Fredrik Bond or Kleinman when no-one is prepared to take a chance on less experienced talent?

"I've lost track of the number of people who've said we're looking for the next Kleinman," one frustrated commercials producer explains. "Well, he's almost certainly out there. He's got two or three years' of experience under his belt and he's looking to be backed by an ad agency that recognises that there's talent that needs to be supported. He's not fresh out of the box and he needs people to be prepared to look at directors with three years' experience rather than just people with ten years."

The chairman of the Advertising Producers Association, Stephen Davies, shares this concern. "Kleinman wasn't an overnight success," he explains.

"He directed promos for years. He honed his craft and became a fantastic commercials director. But it gets more and more difficult for people to get that experience and to become good."

Andy Gulliman has overseen several different types of commercials. At Bartle Bogle Hegarty, he worked on several of the agency's trademark big-budget epics. Now, as the head of TV for Saatchi & Saatchi, international brands and fast-turnaround retail clients are broadening his repertoire.

During his career, Gulliman has witnessed first hand the blinkered attitude of creative teams. "Scripts don't always warrant a big-name director. But creatives want to forward their careers and see an association with a big name as a way to do it," he says.

However, Gulliman isn't worried. He believes the situation is no different today than it was in previous decades. "I think it's exactly the same as it has always been. And there have been some fresh faces coming through.

But the big boys get the big scripts. You don't necessarily gamble an £800,000 production on a new guy, so the A-list is still the A-list. But the B-list is fluctuating - there's always new people popping on to it and people falling off it."

Of course, Gulliman is right to assert that new directors are still emerging.

Davies agrees, citing the success of the collective Blue Source, the former Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO creative Tom Carty, his colleague at Gorgeous Peter Thwaites, and Ringan Ledwidge from Small Family Business as evidence of a new generation of directorial talent.

However, many in the production industry feel that things are changing for the worse. People may have been lazily complaining about the lack of new directorial talent for decades, but this time around there is a sense of urgency about the lament.

Some feel that the problem emanates from the relationships advertisers have with their agencies. Thanks to the oversupply of creative shops, clients are more likely to be promiscuous. More than ever before, agencies must avoid errors and this breeds a caution among creative teams that is fatal for young directors.

Madeleine Sanderson, the managing director at the production company Partizan, says: "When there's less money around, people are scared of losing their clients. That's when they don't want to take any risks and they go with the known quantity."

"It's not just that creatives are frightened," one irate producer explains.

"It's also that they're surrounded by jittery account people, demanding and ultimately not that passionately involved clients, procurement officers and cost controllers.

"Rather than regard a television commercial as a creative opportunity, they regard it as a creative liability which should be approached with trepidation rather than joy.

"So you try to get a Kleinman or a Budgen to do your commercial, because you know you'll be in the safest possible hands. You're looking for them to add a bit of sheen or sparkle to an ad which will have been battered in research and which will have struggled for nine months to be realised."

Others believe that creatives are stretched and just don't have the time to acquaint themselves with new directors. This was one of the factors that motivated BBH to set up Mint Source - a quarterly reel showcasing work from the best new directors.

"We all get fed up with the same names being rolled out," the BBH head of television, Frances Royle, explains. "But Mint Source enables us to get new people in front of creatives and helps us convince clients to take that risk."

The competition for young directors is certainly fierce. According to the APA, there are currently 1,200 commercials directors operating in London and as many as 1,500 working nationwide.

You can understand why some feel it is prudent to align themselves with elder statesmen such as Kleinman.

And, as discouraging as Large's failure is, some companies have made the two-tier business model work, albeit on a smaller, more manageable scale.

Having been soured to the concept of large production units by his experience with the ill-fated Harry Nash, Ringan Ledwidge set up with two directors last year to form the production company Small Family Business.

Ledwidge is currently working on his first feature film and recently directed a Lynx spot for BBH and a COI Communications road safety commercial through Leo Burnett. But he has not eclipsed his junior partners, despite his reputation - Luke Forsythe has produced TV spots for Auto Trader, WD40 and Sure, while Jim Gilchrist, who has been a director for only three months, has Hitatchi idents and spots for The Sunday Telegraph and Nike to his name.

This positive experience has led Ledwidge to conclude that Large's main problem was that it was just too large. "I think it can be very hard to keep lots of directors satisfied and to put in the effort required to keep those people happy," he says.

By restricting his roster to three, Ledwidge claims he is able to give his less-experienced colleagues the support they need. He says he is prepared to recommend them to creative teams, but is strongly opposed to giving anyone the "hard sell".

However, he adds: "The best thing I did when I started directing was to go out and see loads and loads of creatives, and to do it myself, not through a rep.

"So I said to Jim Gilchrist, who is our junior director: 'Look, here's a list of names. Go and see them. Tell them I sent you. Don't walk out of the door until they've given you the names of two other creatives you can go and see.'"

Of course, not every director can go into business with Ledwidge. But they can seek solace in the fact that there are more opportunities for commercials directors than ever before.

The market may be massively over- supplied, but, thanks to the explosion of multichannel television in Britain, more commercials are being filmed.

Last year, more than 40,000 finished television spots were submitted to the BACC.

In 1996, when the BACC began keeping computer records, this figure was only 19,970.

Admittedly, not all of these new ads represent mouth-watering creative opportunities for directors - the current fascination for cheaply stitched-together ringtone commercials is unlikely to get any decent director excited.

But not all of the scripts on offer are duds either. The number of entries to the British Television Advertising Awards has risen steadily over the past two decades, from 717 entries in 1989, to 795 in 1994 and 878 this year.

Directors can also find opportunities by working on promos, internet virals or branded content for television or even 3G operators.

"You can be a lot freer with virals," Ledwidge explains. "You can be more edgy and controversial. You only need to do one thing that gets noticed and that can be enough to set you on your way."

Unfortunately, the production sector is notorious for turning down work.

"Top firms of accountants and lawyers work for everybody," Davies says. "But in this industry, you're establishing yourself as creative and cutting edge. If you do some work because you want to pay the mortgage, it might damage your image and your long-term prospects."

But if directors fail to see these non-traditional briefs as opportunities to hone their craft, the industry will be awash with underused, frustrated directors. As the number of scripts with big budgets and big ideas dwindles and the number of directors increases, younger talent will have to improvise and find new ways to prove their credentials.