Close-Up: Live Issue - Do directors need to be salesmen?

Should commercials directors place a bigger emphasis on selling the product?

Last week, I decided to go it alone. I would like to set out my stall and explain why.

People often ask me what my best commercial is. The Guardian "points of view"? Heineken "water in Majorca"? Or Fiat "handbuilt by robots"? Having personally directed more than 650 ads, I have to admit that I'm particularly proud of some of the ones that the industry has never applauded. The ones that really did what was expected of them. Flog the product.

I am one of a rare breed of director, who, for 28 years, has run his own successful company. I'm a director/businessman. Shame on me - aren't artists meant to live in a garret? Not some pile in the country.

Selling has always been in my blood. Every Saturday as a young boy, I used to help my dad on the market stall outside his grocery shop in the East End.

Communicating the message loud and clear has been my mantra ever since. But to understand that message properly, you have to get under the skin of a client's business. If I can understand some of his problems, maybe I can help to solve them. This was straightforward in the years that I worked as a copywriter at CDP, where clients were readily available, but not so easy when I became a director.

Directors are perceived as temperamental arty types that are best kept clear of clients. For the most part, they only meet at pre-prods and on the shoot, where communication only takes place via the account team or agency producer.

In all the years I've been directing, there has been only one real exception to this rule.

Thanks to Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, my relationship with the Walkers client was encouraged.

I have shot around 64 commercials on the Walkers brand. Clients and creatives came and went, but I hung in there, feeling a strong sense of personal responsibility for the pulse and rhythm of the campaign. It's been me and Gary all the way.

The last commercial we made - "do us a flavour" - has attracted 1.2 million flavour suggestions, with people spending, on average, 12 minutes each on the Walkers site.

In the eight weeks since the commercial aired, sales have increased by 23 per cent. The client is feeling so good, they've upped adspend in the UK next year by 60 per cent.

In the last decade, the commercials industry has changed beyond all recognition, with more than 5,000 directors fighting over fewer and fewer scripts, so not many are going to stick their necks out and say what they honestly think.

These days, the agency chooses four directors to pitch for the job. Most directors then employ someone to write a treatment, and then it's left up to the client to make the final choice. I would like to see more face-to-face contact between clients and directors. Involve them in the process earlier, explain your problems, listen to what they have to say, encourage them to be honest with you - that way, you'll get a better feeling whether they're right for the job. After all, you wouldn't offer someone a job in your company without interviewing them first.

As this world recession bites, we will all have to pull together. Ad budgets will shrink, so it is now crucial that every pound clients spend brings two, three or ten back. Brave creative decisions will have to be made; choosing the right ones will pay dividends.

I have set out my stall to sell in a market that I fear will be much scarier than my dad's.

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DIRECTOR - Mark Denton, creative director, Coy!

"Yes, being a salesman is a useful asset. It's not a requirement, but why have one bullet in your gun when you can have a dozen?

"A client-friendly director, who is also a business-minded salesman and becomes part of the team, is useful in an over-supplied market. If you haven't got bucketloads of directing talent, having these extra abilities makes you stand out.

"But some directors should be kept away from clients if they haven't got the diplomatic skills.

"A new commercial to a director is like a new baby. But it seems like the first thing a client wants to do is cut off the arms and legs. There are certain directors who could get a bit emotional when they see their baby with a red nose."

DIRECTOR/CREATIVE - Paul Shearer, chief creative officer, Arnold

"It's a generational thing. As time goes on, you learn that the business side of things is just as important as the creativity side. It's all to do with trust. If clients have trust in you, they'll be happy to use you again. It's about being transparent, and realising you always need to have the client's best interests at heart.

"It's always been 90 per cent about sales and 10 per cent about advertising, and maybe the younger generation doesn't understand this.

"The more experienced directors have been successful through long relationships with clients, and by building trust between them. It's no coincidence that while Paul Weiland's work is creative, it also sells lots of bags of crisps."

DIRECTOR - Jim Gilchrist, director, Thomas Thomas Films

"Being a salesman is a weird analogy. Ultimately, everyone has the same goal: to sell a product. But directors are employed for their vision and creative input. If the strategy and ideas are strong enough, the sales side should happen anyway.

"Sometimes there is an element of sales in the sense of being able to communicate what is inside your head. But it is more of a creative process than a sales one.

"I always embrace the client. I think the further you push someone away, the more they want to control things. The vocab between clients and agencies might feel like a foreign language for some film-makers who aren't used to the agency structure."

CLIENT - Harry Cooklin, marketing manager, Honda

"I think it's a very important issue, particularly in these times of financial difficulty. From our point of view, as a brand, it's all about looking for the ability to leverage the creativity to help promote the product.

"Some directors are less interested in the brand's point of view and more interested in producing a work of art.

"This is where agencies and clients need to keep their eyes open, and understand that, as a brand, you still need to manage the situation.

"It's vitally important directors understand the client's objectives. Without in-depth understanding of the brand, production companies will always struggle."