It is a good time to be a talented commercials director in London,
especially a talented European one. Like football’s Premier League,
where Gianfranco Zola and Dennis Bergkamp are playing for UK clubs,
there is a growing army of big-name directors who spend their working
lives shuttling between London and homes in Norway, France or
Czechoslovakia or wherever.
The success of directors such as Harald Zwart (Ford), Laszlo Kadar
(Nokia), Jan Kounen (Adidas), Ivan Zacharias (Whiskas), Eric Coignoux
(Electrolux) and Michel Gondry (Polaroid, Levi’s, Smirnoff, you name it)
is testament to a new climate in London’s TV departments.
It was not always thus. ’There has been a sea change in how agencies
select directors over the past seven years,’ Tiggy Gatfield, the former
head of TV at TBWA Holmes Knight Ritchie who launched Wowhaus into the
London market in 1995, says.
Gatfield recalls her time as head of TV: ’We used British directors
almost exclusively. There was such a wealth of talent on our doorstep
that it never occurred to us that to look beyond our shores.’
And there was a suspicion of foreign directors too. ’As the first wave
of foreign director reels started coming in, there was always the
feeling that the script would never be understood by them - and anyway,
you would not dream of asking the production company to fly someone in
if you weren’t sure they would get the job,’ she recalls.
But that was then, now the mood is different. ’Not only is the concept
of a foreign director acceptable, in many cases it is desirable - not
because they are better, but because they are different,’ Gatfield
So what’s changed to bring directors who often choose not to live in
London to the attention of Soho’s top shops?
First, creative teams used to look solely within advertising for
Now, anything goes. A new openness - fostered in part by Saatchi &
Saatchi’s annual New Directors’ Showcase, launched in 1990 by Paul Arden
- means creative teams now consider signing up directors from film
school, promos, drama and abroad.
Second, thanks to MTV, digital and satellite TV and the Internet
agencies are looking globally for inspiration. And with more
international campaigns called for, it is sometimes a positive benefit
to sign up a director with a different cultural perspective.
Third, the recession ended the emphasis on high production values.
Million-pound-plus commercials were seen by marketing directors as
sending a message of unjustifiable excess to the boardroom. Tighter
budgets meant that commercials needed a different look, achieved without
compromising creative standards - and people looked for alternative
Gatfield outlines the appeal of Laszlo Kadar, who left the National Film
school of Hungary with a gold distinction as a director of photography:
’He lights all his work, without doubt his reel has a non-British
But it isn’t just a fresh look that agencies get, it’s a different
sensibility - especially humour where Swedish and Hungarian directors
They have a dryness and absurdity that the British appreciate.’
Others believe nationality has less to do with the choice of a director
than raw talent. Take Ivan Zacharias, director of the Whiskas ’insights’
ad through Blink, who divides his time between his native Prague and
Would ’insights’ have been so fresh if Zacharias had grown up with
’eight out of ten cats prefer it’ in his head?
Yes, says James Studholme, Blink’s founder. ’Ivan is just about the most
talented person I’ve met, he’d succeed anywhere. Certain people become
what I would call ’world directors’, they are sufficiently hot to
warrant the bother of getting hold of them.’
Karen Cunningham, joint founder of Pink, which represents Harald Zwart,
agrees with Studholme: ’Harald’s nationality is not the main reason he
has enjoyed success in London,’ she says. ’It just sets him apart
Even the hottest European directors still pale against top UK stars such
as Paul Weiland, Frank Budgen and Chris Palmer, but it gives a
production company added cachet to have a foreign director on its reel.
The only downside, perhaps, are the invoices from the travel agent.