Is advertising at a turning point for female directors?
A view from Liz Unna

Is advertising at a turning point for female directors?

As a female commercials director in a male-dominated field, Liz Unna wonders if the advertising industry has finally reached a turning point like Hollywood.

Greta Gerwig, who wrote and directed the brilliant Ladybird, said in a recent New York Times interview that Hollywood is at a major turning point for women. The so-called Weinstein effect has galvanised the movement, and tectonic shifts are happening under our feet, rippling out and touching all aspects of culture. The mistreatment of women, sexual harassment and abuse, discrimination in terms of pay and career paths – these are the key issues at the forefront of the movement.

As a female commercials director in a very male-dominated field, I wonder if the advertising industry is at the same turning point?

I’d like to think so. The signs are all there and it’s an exciting time. Free the Bid is a good initiative, as long as it’s a temporary measure. Some of my friends say they don’t want to be the token female and get a job just because they’re women. My view is why the hell not? Men have been getting them just because they’re men, so why can’t women for a while, to even out the playing field? All the women I know will give a billion per cent of their energy on a project, so it’s not like they’re getting a hand-out. 

I can’t be scientific about it, but it feels like there are more women across the board. I recently did a job where everyone in the room, at every meeting, was a woman. Client, agency, production – all women. And it was a smooth and easy process. Not to say it would have necessarily been different if men had been involved, but it was just pleasant and unexpected to not be the only woman in the room. 

Also we’ve seen some incredible work this past year, work which depicted more carefully drawn, interesting women, not the usual plastic shopaholic/bimbo/perfect haired home-maker women we normally see. We saw ACTUAL period blood, not the ridiculous blue liquid

My gripe with that Bodyform spot was why didn’t they get a female director on board? Female directors always get sent scripts for "women’s stuff" – periods, hair, kids etc. EXCEPT when it’s a groundbreaking, interesting script. I wonder if this is because agency and clients feel the need to minimise risk on these jobs. Is there a feeling of safety and security with a known male director at the helm?

I also loved Sleek’s "My face, my rules" ballsy (or should it be lack of balls-y?) spot. AND that it was directed by super talented Nadia Marquard Otzen. I liked Olly Blackburn’s recent BT "First steps" ad, where the mother leaves for work and the father stays at home to look after the baby. All of these examples work to break down stereotypes and offer up a different construction of gender. 

And that is all good.

But there is a cynical voice in me that questions how it will play out. How do we harness this movement and effect real change? Surely those in power do not want to relinquish their power? How will we have 50/50 by 2020? How will we encourage more young women to direct?

Apparently 93% of commercials are directed by men. I’d love a breakdown of budget too – how many of that 7% actually had decent budgets? I’d wager a guess and say a big fat zero. Why are women not trusted to direct big budget commercials? The conundrum is of course that if you don’t have any big numbers on your reel, the gatekeepers think you can’t handle them, so the cycle is hard to break. 

But every young male director has to break that barrier too; it seems the leap of faith is easier when it’s a man at the helm? That’s the kind of embedded thinking that is hard to unpick and deconstruct, but it’s at the heart of it all. 

Of course it’s not about budget really. It shouldn’t be about gender either. It should purely be about talent. Man is so deeply entrenched (white man with beard to be specific) that not as many women go into directing early on, and when they do it’s harder to get a look-in on jobs. You’re only as good as your last job. 

But one thing I love about this country is that, despite its class system, it operates on a meritocracy in terms of the creative industries, that talent manages to bubble up and find its outlet, no matter what one’s class or ethnicity. It nurtures the most exciting creative talent of any country in music, fashion and the arts. It’s time for the field of directing to catch up – imagine the viewpoints and voices we have been missing out on. 

There is no easy solution, but I know that we all have to keep going, keep questioning the work we are doing, keep questioning our assumptions about gender. And keep thinking about how to make the work better, more challenging. It’s exciting to be part of this movement. Let’s not waste this opportunity.

Liz Unna is a film and advertising director at Independent Films. 

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