You'd be forgiven for thinking that all new commercials directors
must serve an apprenticeship in an advertising creative department.
Frank Budgen and Chris Palmer - two of the biggest idols for today's
up-and-coming directors - certainly started that way; and so did the
legendary Alan Parker and Paul Weiland.
Likewise Steve Reeves and Paul Gay, both part of a newer generation of
crossover successes. The list of creatives prepared to boldly go where
so many men have gone before - Steve Hudson, Rooney Carruthers, Tom
Carty, Vince Squibb, Kevin Thomas - seems to grow every week.
But what about Jonathan Glazer, Vaughan Arnell, Traktor or Daniel
These influential, lauded and loaded commercials directors all learned
their craft outside agency confines, from theatre (Glazer) to runner on
pop promos (Arnell) to art school (Traktor) to illustration
David Garfath, a former camera operator and director of the Tesco
"Dotty" campaign, as well as such gems as COI Communications' Army
recruitment and Nissan's "car thief", says: "Everyone brings their own
strength with them, but nobody can bring everything. Ex-agency people
need a good crew around them."
Garfath worked on feature films including The Empire Strikes Back,
Superman II and III and Time Bandits before directing commercials. After
encouragement from Terry Gilliam (the director of Time Bandits) and
Weiland, Garfath made the leap.
As a cameraman, he knew all about working with actors and the technical
side of film-making. Garfath says: "It amazes me that more people don't
spend time in the cutting room, watching the editing process and getting
to understand how things go together - what works and what doesn't. You
need to know the rules before you can break them."
On the other hand, Garfath admits: "I was terrified by pre-production.
It took a while to understand the politics of how an agency works and to
understand that I was doing it for a committee. There are many more
people to please than there are for a film."
John Lloyd, who has directed most of Abbey National's campaign with Alan
Davies through Spectre, and is perhaps best known for his Barclaycard
series featuring Rowan Atkinson, encountered similar problems when he
moved from being a TV producer to commercials director.
Lloyd, who is also one of the originators of Blackadder and Not the Nine
O'Clock News, says: "Steve Henry gave me a script for Danepak. I
re-wrote it because that's what I used to do as a producer. Steve went
white. I had no idea of the hell that the creatives had gone through to
get to that script."
The skills of the TV producer can, however, be even more valuable to a
commercial shoot than mere client/ agency diplomacy. "I already had a
good idea of the jokes I like and the feeling I want," Lloyd says. "Plus
I understand time and money and I never run over or change my mind. I'm
organised on set and I don't waste film."
Editing is another skill that is highly prized and respected in a
commercials director. Jim Weedon, who has recently started directing
commercials through RSA Films, brings with him the advantage of a
formidable reputation earned in the editing suite.
Weedon's editing skills are on display in Ridley Scott's "future
thoughts" spot for Orange and the Gladiator-style BT ads through St
Luke's. He has also worked with Oliver Stone on a French Orange ad and
his own commercials directing credits already include The Guardian for
BMP DDB and Nike for Wieden & Kennedy.
"I can see very quickly what shots I need from a script," Weedon
"Editing is the best route to becoming a film-maker; it teaches you
about sound, special effects and how to shoot."
"During my time in the cutting room, I have also seen all the politics
of advertising and performed all the re-cuts," he adds.
But Weedon - who is following a route established by legendary feature
film directors such as Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola - admits
that editing hasn't taught him everything he needs to know. "I'm trying
to get looser," he says, acknowledging that a director needs to stray
from the storyboard once in a while.
Peter Thwaites, who learned his craft as a lighting cameraman and
director of photography, has also found that the move to directing
(through Gorgeous) presents a steep learning curve.
"Casting and performance and dealing with the agency are new to me," he
says, "but they fell into place quite well. What I've really learnt is
that as a director you have to justify every single action you take.
Everyone wants a reason at every moment of the journey. A good
commercial is no happy accident."
On the plus side, a good lighting cameraman, especially one such as
Thwaites who has worked regularly with the likes of Budgen and Palmer,
has developed a whole host of skills that provide the sort of creative
edge that agencies are looking for.
A graduate of the National Film & Television School, Thwaites' path to
commercials directing, while uncommon, still has a certain logic to
Most commercials directors - even those who haven't been nurturing
fantasies of commanding a shoot since before they could walk - can trace
a rational path that has led them to their metier.
Graphic design proved a good starting point for the likes of Godman's
Howard Greenhalgh and RSA's Nick Livesey and Laurence Dunmore.
Dunmore, who had his own graphic design business for 11 years, made the
unusual leap from designing album covers to directing pop promos.
Nevertheless, after his first ad, seven years ago, Dunmore swore he'd
never do another: "My creativity was to come up with ideas. I was used
to being paid to be conceptual."
But Dunmore overcame this initial antipathy. After all, his original
career had already taught him how to sell ideas and work creatively to
the constraints of a client's brief. "There is a parallel between the
design and advertising worlds," Dunmore asserts.
He went on to make some of the most ambitious ads of recent years. He
directed Bartle Bogle Hegarty's "tightrope walker" for Johnny Walker and
Martina Hingis directing traffic for Adidas through 180. He has also
embarked on a feature film project with John Malkovich after directing
the actor in a Eurostar spot for TBWA/London.
Other commercials directors have taken logical, but slightly less
well-trodden, routes to the small screen. Partizan's Geoffrey de Crecy
went from animating backgrounds for computer games to directing Guinness
commercials for Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO.
Rocky Morton, also Partizan, first found fame as the creator of the 80s
TV phenomenon Max Headroom. At Harry Nash, Ringan Ledwidge worked as a
stills photographer and Fredrik Bond found plenty of outlets for his
creativity - photographer, offline editor, music video director - before
achieving commercials success.
Arran de Moubray started out as an architect. After years of study, he
decided he couldn't bear the thought of spending months designing
garages, so he travelled around India and then got a temporary job at
D&AD. He was so enamoured by the world of advertising creative that he
took a job as an assistant to the director, Patricia Murphy.
De Moubray has just signed up with @radical.media, and has already
directed a COI car safety spot (warning against using a mobile phone
when driving) for AMV, as well as work for Nike and Sony
He sees his unconventional background as an asset: "It gives me a
different approach, and agency people really like it. They're fascinated
and they like the fact that I'm not from film school. It's always a
The biggest shock for de Moubray was the speed. "In architecture, you
have weeks of showing and refining your drawings before anything
happens. In ads, it's all over after two weeks."
Perhaps it's his natural optimism, but de Moubray doesn't see any
barriers to success for an architect in the commercials world. The fact
remains, however, that some routes are easier than others .
Pressured agency creatives may fancy themselves as cutting edge, but
they inevitably gravitate towards the familiar. Paul Weiland Films' crop
of new talent comes straight from film school, but it is usually the
ex-creatives and the music video directors who have a head start.
Jo Godman, the founder and managing director of Godman, says: "Music
videos are short and done to a brief, so the similarities make everyone
feel comfortable. But they also have more creative freedom and they give
you a fantastic look at the capabilities of a director. For people with
television and film backgrounds, the convincing is a little harder."
Garth Jennings, the director of Mother's ITV Digital campaign and a
Radio 1 spot for Fallon, didn't even have to try. Agencies were so
impressed by his pop promo for Blur's Coffee & TV - which clearly
demonstrated his storytelling abilities - that the scripts came flooding
For ex-creatives, the familiarity also makes life easier. "The
advertising route has had so many fantastic successes that agency
personnel and production companies feel very confident with it," Godman
This doesn't mean that the transition is any less nerve-wracking for the
individual director. Carruthers, despite nearly 20 years of experience
in creative departments, is making a tentative start in commercials
"If someone gives me a job I'll give 100 per cent," Carruthers says.
"I've always been a colourful, visual person and I've always loved being
out there on a shoot. If I haven't learnt from all the directors I've
worked with ..."
In the end, though, whatever your background, there's only one route in
to the kind of success in commercials direction achieved by Glazer or
Budgen. And that's talent.