THE ADS I WISH I’D MADE: Do commercials directors favour work that is similar to their own output - or something that is totally different? Jim Davies finds out

It takes a lot to make a commercials director’s jaw drop. Steely-eyed perfectionists by nature, they’re not impressed too easily. After all, it’s their business to know best; they make critical aesthetic decisions with the kind of casual insouciance the rest of us reserve for eating hot dinners.

It takes a lot to make a commercials director’s jaw drop.

Steely-eyed perfectionists by nature, they’re not impressed too easily.

After all, it’s their business to know best; they make critical

aesthetic decisions with the kind of casual insouciance the rest of us

reserve for eating hot dinners.

So how do they judge the qualities of a commercial? Virtuoso camerawork?

Atmospheric lighting? Spectacular special effects? You might well assume

they’d be impressed by the craft and filmic aspects of a commercial,

doffing their caps to the finely honed skill and vision of their peers.

Not a bit of it.

When Campaign asked ten top-flight directors to choose their all-time

favourite commercials, technique came way down the list. A good idea,

clear storytelling and humour were deemed the most precious attributes

in a commercial, while actors’ performance and apposite music weren’t

too far behind.

There was no clear winner, although two very different commercials were

name-checked twice - Graham Rose’s exercise in comic timing,

’photobooth’ for Hamlet cigars from 1987, and Michel Gondry’s dark,

stark, stylish ’drugstore’ spot which gave Bartle Bogle Hegarty’s

long-running Levi’s campaign a welcome shot in the arm in 1995.

Alongside these two directors, the inevitable Tony Kaye received two

separate nominations for VW’s ’God bless the child’ for BMP DDB, and

Dunlop’s first and most powerful ’tested for the unexpected’ ad through

Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO.

It was interesting to see directors either conforming to type or totally

confounding expectations. Who’d have imagined the master of comic

dialogue, Paul Weiland, plumping for Gondry’s atmospheric but completely

non-verbal film, or Mehdi Norowzian, best-known for his dazzling effects

work, seduced by the classic simplicity of ’photobooth’?

Other choices had more logic about them - the quirky humour of Lego’s

delicious stop-frame animation ’kipper’ ad was made for Godman’s Mark

Denton, while Tarsem was generous enough to acknowledge a job well done

by one of his main rivals.

Others, perhaps, had more to do with established relationships and

first-hand appreciation. Academy’s Jonathan Glazer picked an ad

conceived by Abbott Mead’s Tom Carty and Walter Campbell - he’d recently

finished working with them on Guinness. Tony Kaye gave Theo Delaney his

first break in commercials direction. Daniel Kleinman is a Spectre

stablemate of John Lloyd, who directed most of the Rowan Atkinson

Barclaycard commercials.

Lloyd has been described as ’the don of British comedy’, so perhaps

Kleinman was just doing his best to avoid a close encounter with a

horse’s head.


Colin Gregg, Eclipse

When I’m at film festivals and people ask me what my favourite film is,

I usually say whatever I think they want to hear. The point is, I’m not

influenced by one particular thing in terms of what I do or what I


I appreciate all sorts of things. But there are one or two commercials

that I feel have really moved the craft on; the kind of things I would

have liked to have done myself. The Hamlet ’photobooth’ commercial, for

instance. It has ironic humour, wonderful simplicity, a great

performance and is script driven. I imagine it was really fun to do and

there was a good rapport between the creatives and the director. It’s

the sort of ad that would have paved the way for Tango. When I’m judging

a commercial, I always tend to go back to the script and this is a great

one. Nothing profound, just a great idea.

Mehdi Norowzian, Joy Films

There are many qualities in the (Hamlet ’photobooth’) commercial that

have made it one of my all-time favourites. To begin with, it’s the

idea; the incident, the humour drawn from a small and mundane scene in

life is not slapstick or overstated, simply an uncomplicated scenario

perfectly observed. The casting, that of the hero and his blushless

family, remains authentic and delightful. It is a great script, deftly

handled and perfectly performed - and, of course, it’s very funny.


Ivan Zacharias, Blink

It would be very difficult for me to say what my favourite commercial of

all time is. It’s not like features or even pop promos. Ads have such a

short format, and such a short shelf life - they are so ephemeral, but

there’s always something new to admire. It’s a lot easier for me to

reveal my favourite ad from the past few months. It’s Traktor’s

commercial for Miller Lite, with the small, bearded half-man,

half-animal. He gets terrible shakes in his hands every time he touches

a bottle of Miller. So his doctors (who might have similar hidden

problems) get the idea to put drumsticks into the bottles and create a

potentially amazing drummer. This film is very well cast, shot and

edited - which means well directed. I like fresh and clever bits of

nonsense like this. I think it’s healthy for our tired and lazy



Theo Delaney, Tomboy Films

Expectations for this project must have been higher than the Empire

State building. Consider the line-up: BMW, perennial super-client. BMP,

consummate TV agency. Malcolm Green and Gary Betts, supreme TV team.

(Does all this sound familiar?) And a great idea. Who else could they

possibly hire but Tony Kaye? After seven years in the wilderness, Tony

was suddenly reinventing the commercial with stunning work for

InterCity, Solid Fuel and Abbey National. ’God bless the child’ was the

best example of the new way. The Kaye way. Film-making convention went

out of a very high window. The terminology - schedule, budget,

permissions, shooting ratio - became irrelevant. In this film, the

results speak for themselves: beauty, truth, emotion and endless

watchability, perfectly set off by the equally incomparable Billie

Holiday. And a whole new generation of directors inspired.


Daniel Barber, Rose Hackney Barber

To pick just one commercial as my favourite ever is a bit of a tricky

one. Two or three spring to mind immediately and they are all by the

same director. Carling Black Label’s ’dambusters’, the BMW 5 Series’

’birth of a notion’ and, my favourite, the Sony ’lifespan’ commercial of

1984. It is so simple, a wonderful idea, with no dialogue, no voiceover

and viewers only ever saw the back of the TV. It’s an absolute classic

and I love it. When I grow up I want to be as clever as Roger



Paul Weiland, Paul Weiland Film Co

My eyes wanted to marry this commercial (Levi’s ’drugstore’) and have

its children. A subjective camera goes in search of a young girl’s

innocence. For me, it had everything. A brilliant idea, wonderful

(Winston Link) atmosphere, original sound and gentle humour. The

director’s camera sprinkling magic dust wherever it pointed. I also

learned something new. Levi’s have rubber pockets. If I could change

anything, it would be the director’s name for my own.

Tarsem, @radical media

(My favourite ad) is Levi’s ’drugstore’ by Michel Gondry. It has so much

style and is based on such a strong idea. Everything about it - the

look, the feel, the tonality - is complementary. But probably the most

powerful thing of all is the music; it’s so wrong that it’s right. House

music put together with Grapes of Wrath-style visuals! You seldom see

people taking that level of risk in a commercial, it’s such a dangerous

thing to do and can so easily backfire. Also, there’s a flickery quality

to the film which seems to breathe with the boom, boom, boom of the

house music. The casting’s great; if it hadn’t been it could so easily

have ended up looking cheap and tacky ... can you imagine if the

Italians had done it?


Jonathan Glazer, Academy

There’s this great saying,’Talent is hitting the bull’s-eye when others

can’t. Genius is hitting the bull’s-eye when others don’t even know

there’s a dartboard there.’ The first Dunlop ad, (’tested for the

unexpected’) is, I’m sure, the best demonstration of that saying in the

history of advertising. I can think of far better examples in film, art

and music that demonstrate it - but not in advertising. I don’t even

wish I’d made it because it’s too easy to say that I would have made it

just as well. Hindsight is a perfect science. I don’t know Tony Kaye.

I’ve never even met or talked to the bloke. But between him and Tom and

Walt at Abbott Mead, they pretty much rewrote the rules. The best thing

about it all is that the clients and their account men must have been

shitting themselves.


Daniel Kleinman, Spectre

I’ve always really admired the Barclaycard ad where Rowan Atkinson

thinks he’s uncovered a mole. It’s a beautifully created ad in all

departments. The story flows effortlessly, the product is not in your

face but you are aware of it, the writing and performances are

excellent. Comedy is hard to do, but producing comedy that you still

find funny after many repeated viewings is cryptic. I still laugh when

Rowan Atkinson says ’Mr Moley’. Even after all this time, the comic

timing is impeccable, for example, the beat before Rowan tries to

pretend it was all an exercise. There are no great special effects or

fireworks, in fact you are not aware of the director which, of course,

means he was masterfully in control of it all. I would have liked to

have done it because an ad like this is a recognisable classic and when

Rowan Atkinson bites his knuckles in panic at the end, everyone laughs

and thinks you’re very clever. It’s great to produce a big spectacle,

but it’s also very satisfying to craft a gem of a performance piece.


Mark Denton, Godman

As any agency creative with a few miles on the clock knows, a sure-fire

way of gauging the popularity of your ad is to see it run in front of a

cinema audience. The average punter is more interested in his popcorn

than the ads, so if you can get a titter or a gasp from him, you’re

doing all right. Now imagine a cinema packed with cynical advertising

types. The Lego ’kipper’ commercial brought the house down at the Odeon

Leicester Square screening of the 1981 British Television Advertising

Awards. As a ’baby’ art director, I promised myself I’d do something as

good one day. More than 100 commercials later and I still haven’t come



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