Close-Up: Live issue - Is directing ads a wise career move?

Is leaving the life of a successful creative for that of a director too big a gamble, Kate Nicholson asks.

The news last week that Andy McLeod, the joint-executive creative director and founding partner of Fallon, is leaving the agency to pursue a career as a commercials director was met with less surprise than you might have expected.

In January, McLeod will join Rattling Stick, the production company formed this year by Danny Kleinman and Ringan Ledwidge.

The path from creative to director is a well-trodden one; Frank Budgen, Chris Palmer and Dougal Wilson are three A-list directors who began their careers in agencies. But with a staggering 1,566 commercial directors working in the UK, the market is incredibly over-supplied. Why turn your back on a successful agency career for a life as unpredictable as directing?

McLeod explains: "Yes, the industry is over-supplied, but it's too easy to use this as a reason not to go into directing. I believe I have something to offer, that I can turn scripts into great film, to really make a script sing out of a TV screen. I've spent 17 years in advertising and eight years building Fallon London with my partners. Now I fancy a new challenge."

Stephen Gash, the producer at QI Commercials, reinforces this: "Whether going into directing is a good career move is all down to the personal ambitions of the individual involved. But, once you've got a taste for directing, it's very hard to put it back in the cupboard."

In spite of the much-heralded death of the TV ad, 46,212 finished TV spots were submitted to the Broadcast Advertising Clearance Centre last year. In 1996, when the BACC began keeping computer records, this figure was only 19,970.

There's clearly work out there, although not all of these new ads represent mouth-watering creative opportunities for directors.

Jani Guest, a producer and managing director at Independent Films, says: "The competition is fierce. Fewer good jobs are on offer, and challenged schedules and budgets are increasingly the rule." Heavyweight directors, she says, aren't venturing off to tread other paths such as feature films, and agencies are often hesitant to steer away from proven commodities. "Any work that does trickle down to a director starting out is rarely inspired creatively and is always financially challenged," she says.

For many, the reality is an industry over-reliant on a small group of big names, making it very tough for new talent to get a look in. For those that crack it, the rewards can be high. Top directors make up to £15,000 a day on shoots, and can command as much as 40 per cent of the mark-up the production company makes on the ad.

Stephen Davies, the chief executive at the Advertising Producers Association, argues it's not all glamour, though: "Some directors are very well paid. But for six to eight weeks' work, they are only paid for two days of shooting. Some people look at the industry as they would football. They see the Premiership players, but forget there are also a lot of players in the third division who work very hard, but don't earn the money."

McLeod's years of ad experience will stand him in good stead, while the fact that he's a copywriter, not an art director, may be a blessing, not a hindrance. James Studholme, the managing director of Blink, explains: "Being able to write to brief and conceptualise as well as direct is going to become more and more valuable as the digital or content part of advertising diversifies."

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PRODUCER - James Studholme, managing director, Blink

"While the market is saturated, there is demand for new blood. Because budgets are tightening, agencies are always asking for 'new' directors. A euphemism for 'cheap' directors.

"New directors tend to be hungrier and work longer on a project for less. Their production companies are more inclined to take a hit to get them going.

"A huge number of ex-creatives have made great commercials directors. But, and it's a big but, becoming a director must not be a default decision. Any director must have a distinctive film voice and a point of difference in the way he sees the world. Just being a great former ad guy is not enough in itself, but it's a head start."

DIRECTOR - Jim Gilchrist, director, Thomas Thomas Films

"There is no doubt that the directing market is an over-subscribed industry, but if directing is something you really want to do, you have to do it. Whether or not it is a wise career move? For me, it didn't really come into it, and I am sure it doesn't for a lot of people.

"In terms of what it takes to be a successful director? The list is vast and eclectic and I am still trying to learn myself. I would say you have to be driven and love, live and breathe film-making. A bit of luck also comes in handy. Ultimately though, you will always be judged on your creative output, so you have got to have talent."

HEAD OF TV - Petrina Kilby, head of television, McCann Erickson

"Andy McLeod's is a bold move, because failure in any way will be public. The market is overcrowded and you need your mates in the industry to get your break. You're very reliant on your contacts.

"Production companies now have so many directors on their books because our industry has spread so widely, on an international level. The scripts come to A-list directors and then hopefully filter down.

"Because of the increase in digital work, the quality of the material that's produced may become more imaginative and interesting. There will also be more low-budget work, which will give directors further down the scale more of a look in."

DIRECTOR - Ringan Ledwidge, director, Rattling Stick

"The market is saturated. I think five directors per production company is enough. There's not enough work to keep more than this happy.

"The days of making a huge profit from directing ads are over. It's becoming increasingly hard to make money as a director.

"What you need is talent, something that separates the wheat from the chaff. You need visual flair and an understanding of advertising. As a director, you are going to be judged and you set the tone with your first idea."


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