From creative to director

What makes creatives leave the comfort of their agencies to make a name for themselves as directors? Andy McLeod shares his journey from Fallon to commercials director and how his creative background helps him shoot better ads.

Do ex-creatives make good directors? I think so. I suppose I would say that, but allow me to flesh that thinking out a bit.

Ex-creatives know what creatives want: someone to pick up the baton of their dream and carry it the final hundred yards of what will have undoubtedly been a marathon. They know what the team has been through.

Of course, that doesn’t mean a director who hasn’t been a creative can’t empathise (my esteemed colleagues Ringan Ledwidge and Daniel Kleinman, who were brave enough to give me a break at Rattling Stick in the first place, are two good examples of directors who certainly have no problem seeing the creatives’ side of things, without having been one). It just means that a good director with a creative department upbringing might have a slight inside track compared with a good director from a different background.

When Richard Flintham and I first started our Fallon adventure, it was hard not to do everything ourselves. But we gradually learned how to hire great people and delegate to them. Employ good people and they will make what you do better.

So learning how to get the right people and how to give them enough freedom to be brilliant is a skill I learnt in an office, not on a set.

And if I’m good at what I do now, much of that is down to the crew I hire. I don’t know the inner workings of the latest Alexa camera, but I can certainly employ someone who does. Equally, I’ll undoubtedly have some theories of my own about how to get a dog to look like it’s talking, but I know a post guy who will bring my theories to life brilliantly, so I’ll hire him.

An agency background also gives you a healthy dose of pragmatism; I know what I’m supposed to be doing is selling stuff. I understand why a client is spending all that money on a commercial. I understand the need for each one of those 30 seconds to convert into sales. I get that it’s sometimes hard for a  brand manager to resist the urge to revert to a longer packshot, a safer casting choice, a less edgy delivery, a more branded colour palette. And I get how to guide them to a place where brave is safer, where vanilla is dangerous. Why, in a tricky time, there’s a need to embrace the economic value of creativity, of strong ideas well-executed.

Again, please don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying directors who don’t come from an agency background don’t get it. I’m just saying that those who do really do.

I started directing because, after 17 years joined at the hip to Flintham, it was time to try something different. We’d had a good innings, as they say. And Fallon London had grown from our baby to a big successful company. I was incredibly proud of what we’d done. Still am. But it felt like it was time to do something else.

I can’t say I’d exactly had a long-held dream of becoming a director. Not as such. I was too busy concentrating on being the best creative I could be, or the best creative director I could be. I wasn’t sitting around looking through a viewfinder.

But, having said that, I’d always been very interested in the directing process. It was something I’d been watching intently from the other monitor for a long time. Something I found enticing: the alchemy of turning a dozen sentences on a Word document into eye-catching, visually impactful moving images.

The choice to direct was about being back at the coalface of creativity. I love ideas. I reckon I was pretty good at them as a creative. And yet, as a creative director, as a boss, you are helplessly increasingly removed from that coalface. It seems the better you get at it, the less you get to do it.

I could see that, as a director, I would get to use all my knowledge from the agency side to help great ideas make it through the minefield-strewn journey from page to screen.

And maybe get to add some salient points, some twists and turns, some bits of my own.

I had spent a career getting off on ideas and being excited when directors could add layers to scripts and nuance and, dammit, have great ideas of their own that made mine even better than I was convinced they were already. This is what I’d seen directors do to my work.

The jobs of "creative" and "director" are incredibly similar and yet so different. You operate in a parallel universe, revolving around a thought – the same thought, but seen from different angles.

Both roles are concerned with an idea on a page that needs to be transposed to the screen, be that television, cinema, online or wherever.

Both are all about making that idea the best it can be. Adding bits, taking other bits out. Honing it until you’ve got (everyone hopes) a perfectly formed unassailable ball of highly polished loveliness.

Ex-creatives who have turned directors understand what the creatives have been through and what they want to achieve with the script, from their side as well as from the other side. They know that the new 90-foot monster crane might make for a more dramatic shot, but how that shot might not tell the story as well as a simpler shot. And that telling the story is, ultimately, what matters most. They know that, as a director, you are the final guardian of an eight-month-old idea.

So while these days I am looking through that viewfinder, my focus is firmly on the big idea, on telling the story the best I can, on taking that story from page to screen in the best possible way.

If I’m super frank, I would say I was a great creative, a good creative director and now I’m a "getting there" director. But, the way I see it, I was a creative for longer than I was a creative director. And I was a creative director for longer than I’ve been directing. So give me a few more years and maybe I’ll be there.

And that’s fine, because I’m in it for the long haul.

Certainly, it has its downsides: the insecurity of self-employment. The exposed, out-there-on-your-own nature of the job (thank heavens for the calming powers of my producer, Kirsty Dye). The sleepless nights pre-shoot. The (Jesus, still?) reluctance to accept the power of creative advertising by many marketing managers.

But what hasn’t got downsides?

Someone more eloquent than me once said that moving from being a creative to being a director just means you swap certain frustrations for other frustrations.

Sometimes this revered journal gives work I’ve directed Pick of the Week. Sometimes this revered journal gives work I’ve directed Turkey of the Week. But that’s how it goes: swings and roundabouts, rough with the smooth. I’ll keep pitching for the jobs I like for whatever reason I like them. Because every job’s a learning curve. And I wouldn’t swap it for the world.

Andy McLeod is a director at Rattling Stick