Can creatives direct?

Television advertising is enjoying a creative revival at the moment. But despite all of the praise bestowed upon Fallon’s Juan Cabral (one of the creative minds responsible for the revival), his latest work has left critics scratching their heads.

'Trucks'...Cabral's ad for Cadbury Dairy Milk has not received the same acclaim as 'gorilla'
'Trucks'...Cabral's ad for Cadbury Dairy Milk has not received the same acclaim as 'gorilla'
For just as Cadbury’s “gorilla” left many struggling to pinpoint why it worked so well as a TV ad, “trucks” has left many wondering why it doesn’t.

Many questions have been raised. Was the airport set-up too complicated? Is any sequel to such an astonishing first ad always destined for a blunt reception? Or was a second attempt to write and direct the same script always likely to fall short of greatness?

In directing circles, that last point is hotly debated. Some believe “trucks” was a strong idea let down by its realisation.

“It looked bloody good, but did it have the subtle touches of climax and build of an experienced director?” one director and former creative asks. “Compare it to the car chase in The Bourne Identity, then decide.”

Nonetheless, the fact that the ad, which will still be one of 2008’s best, was written and directed by Cabral makes him a rare breed of creative.

Indeed, many wonder if he will emulate his previous boss Andy McLeod, the co-founder of Fallon London, now at Rattling Stick.

McLeod has joined an esteemed ad alumni that turn their hand to directing and, through a mix of talent and fortune, eventually make a successful career of it.

Despite the many that try each year, only a select few break through.

These have gone on to become big names in the commercials directing world.

They include Frank Budgen, who worked as a copywriter and a creative director while directing his own ads at Boase Massimi Pollitt before co-founding Gorgeous in 1997; Tom Carty, who had a 15-year spell with Walter Campbell, first at Dorland, then at TBWA and Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO (where the pair created Guinness “surfer”); and Vince Squibb, who remained at Lowe Howard-Spink for 20 years before joining the same roster in 2006.

They are part of a wider list that, outside of Gorgeous, includes Tony Kaye, Tony Barry and Mark Denton.

Time after time, their services are called upon by agencies keen to bring a script to life. But what is it about them and particularly their experience as a creative that makes them right for the job?

Leaving aesthetics to one side, the answer has something to do with their understanding of advertising’s practical mechanics, its purpose and its grittier politics.

"Some of these can come as a shock to directors without previous advertising agency experience.

Combining explosive creativity with a piece of work that is rooted in the client’s business objectives is difficult for many non-advertising directors to square.

Trevor Beattie, the creative partner of Beattie McGuinness Bungay, explains: “They understand the need to sell, as opposed to the thrill of making art for art’s sake.

"Their presiding references lie in the process of creativity for advertising, not the style of the Coen brothers or film noir of the 40s and 50s.”

With film still faring as the ultimate ambition of many a creative mind, it follows that some directors view advertising as a cash cow and a way of fuelling their Hollywood aspirations.

But perhaps they shouldn’t flatter themselves too quickly.

As James Studholme, the managing director of Blink, points out, advertising demands its own set of aesthetic and practical observations that the untrained eye can miss: “The best ads are those where the idea and execution are perfectly balanced and neither are lost site of.”

He cites The Guardian’s “points of view”, the 1986 ad directed by Paul Weiland, as the perfect example.

“Good directors that have worked in advertising will get a script with the faintest germ of an idea and do everything within their power to bring that out.

"Others are not always trained to see that and can find themselves distracted by the look and feel of the final execution,” Studholme says.

The ability to bring the creative idea out of the script makes such directors invaluable. Many become extensions to the advertising process, moving the script into the next phase of creative development.

Little wonder Weiland describes the directorial process like “delivering someone’s baby”.

“You inherit a
script, bring it to life and, once you’ve done that, you’re expected to hand it back to the agency and client,” he says.

But it’s not just about the approach to work. Knowledge of the advertising process makes the tough task of public relations and diplomacy just a little easier.

It is a job that involves retaining ultimate overall control and responsibility, but also constantly being answerable to clients, creative teams, agency TV producers and even account men holding the purse strings.

The ability to manoeuvre around these factors to win support, and retain ultimate control, is a diplomatic skill that comes from years of training.

And when things really don’t go your way, previous experience can soften the blow. “Creatives, like clients, are entitled to a view,” Mike Wells, the managing director of HLA, says.

“Directors who have worked in advertising tend to realise that you are going to lose certain battles along the way. Overall, they tend to emerge less bruised by the vicissitudes.”

The political curve balls of directing and the need to retain the highest aesthetic standards are just the beginning.

Graham Fink, the executive creative director of M&C Saatchi, remembers his spell directing at Paul Weiland Films: “Some creatives would be very open to your ideas.

Then there were others that were territorial and didn’t want anything to be changed, or ideas that had been so over-researched that you were unable to move them on.”

Fink believes that the talented directors are able to ingratiate themselves and earn universal trust quickly: “They naturally overcome the challenges and are able to collaborate, so that everyone is pushing the project on to a better piece of work.”

But that can only be better if directors are given the leeway to shape (and even rewrite) the work. “If you call Chris Palmer, you have to be open to his ideas and be prepared for him to tinker with your script.

If you’ve written a funny joke, Jeff Stark will make it funnier,” Fink says.

But regardless of the freedom (or rigidity) with which a script passes through the production process, digital is changing the rules.

The shrinkage of production budgets, combined with the growth of virals, digital and experiential media, is forcing creatives to think more about the finished work than ever before.

"Little wonder Cabral is part of a 21st-century generation of über-creatives that can go further than scamps, markers and broadbrush ideas to creatively steer a piece from concept to realisation.

Denton, the director of Coy! Communications, attributes this to how technology has evolved in recent years. “Film-making and directing used to be a skill shrouded in mystique,” he says.

“Now, you’re seeing a new generation of creatives that have grown up with a video camera in their hands.

"Many, too, are waking up to the fact that if you don’t pull your socks up and take an interest, you risk having your £100k commercial bettered by a 12-year-old uploading their work on YouTube.”

So, the renaissance creative race is on. But Rooney Carruthers, the creative partner of VCCP, urges caution.

He warns that this is not open season for any bored creative looking to try new things: “Most successful directors of this sort were the absolute crème of creative talent at their agencies.

They would be the ones visualising the ad from start to finish, winning awards and often inputting as much into the final edit as the director. Often more.”

It is a point vindicated by Weiland, who recalls working with Alan Parker as a copywriter at Collett Dickenson Pearce in the 70s: “I’d constantly be suggesting ideas to Alan, who would usually dismiss them as rubbish.

"But after some pleading, most of them would end up in the ad. That’s when I knew I had directing potential.”

And those that are successful? They will have a creative mind that can see the finished work at its earliest stages.

They’ll be the shrewdest politicians: smart enough to delineate advertising and art, lucky enough for some early success and talented enough to stand apart from the millions of movie-makers that have crawled out of the technological revolution. By these measures, Cabral’s future is made.