HOW AGENCIES CHOOSE DIRECTORS: Does a creative chief looking for the right director listen to a long list of pitches from a carefully chosen batch of production companies? Get real, says Claire Cozens Hiring a director is more akin to dating than pitching

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.

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


Formal system

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.

Personal contact

’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 -

personal contacts.’

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.’