Production companies have their work cut out trying to sell directors to ad agencies. Belinda Archer examines the pros and cons of pitching

Production companies have their work cut out trying to sell directors to

ad agencies. Belinda Archer examines the pros and cons of pitching

Quizzing production companies about how they secure jobs for their

directors elicits a variety of colourful responses. ‘Bribery and

corruption,’ mutters one. ‘Fat lunches,’ ventures another. ‘Legwork,’

sighs a third, somewhat wearily.

It seems to be the multi-million dollar question. The job of either

launching a new career, relaunching an established talent who is

perceived to be past it, or even ensuring a continuing demand for a

director who is all the rage at the time, is by no means an exact

science. Different producers have different methods, but mostly it seems

to come down to hard grind, a significant investment in terms of time

and money, knowing the right people and having some clout in the


James Studholme, managing director of Blink, sums up the plight of the

producer: ‘People have tried all sorts of short-cuts and stunts, but

we’re basically selling to sellers, so they are not fooled by anything


Although their methodology may vary, most producers agree that it is

easier to break a new director than it is to re-establish an existing

talent. Agencies always drool at the prospect of discovering the next

big name, so their doors are ajar to producers’ approaches.

Nevertheless, the task still involves pounding the streets, knocking on

doors and endless phone calls.

The managing director of Rogue Films, Mark Andrew, who broke in numerous

directors while at Propaganda and Federation, emphasises the importance

of pitching the company and the director correctly from the outset:

‘There are many ways of getting jobs for directors. There is no formula

- producers all have their own style and they have to engineer their

pitch to the person they are dealing with. But it is very important to

have a company with a profile. That way, just as clients choose

agencies, so agencies choose directors.’

Positioning a production company correctly is an expensive business, but

it is what eases the whole process of selling new talent. Once you have

discovered a Tony, a Frank or an Anthea, agencies will gladly accept

your calls and invite you in.

Helen Langridge, executive producer at Helen Langridge Associates,

argues that producers need to have a strategy for selling their

directors: ‘You have to look at it as a product and think about what it

is that you are selling, and an agency will pick up on that. What they

want is something that is new and original.’

Studholme agrees: ‘Generally, people are looking for a point of

difference. This might be a financial opportunity, and not necessarily

creative talent. For example, you might be offering the opportunity to

shoot a commercial in Bucharest where people only cost 10p. It also

helps if the director has got a weird name or comes from somewhere


Putting together a reel is the next step. Production companies invest

thousands of pounds in getting the work on tape to peddle to agencies.

This can take the form of test commercials, short films, or anything

that demonstrates the director’s talents, whether it is creating

stunning visuals, eking out strong performances from actors or producing

snappy dialogue. Some production companies favour showcasing a breadth

of skill, others like to promote a special look - it is all to do with

deciding what it is they want to plug.

Either way, getting the right sort of material on to a director’s reel

is of paramount importance. It can quite often involve production

companies turning down assignments for a new talent if they are not

right for them, or directors being prepared to be systematically

rejected until someone takes that necessary leap of faith.

John Hackney, managing director of Rose Hackney Barber, claims that

Daniel Barber was offered a flood of work immediately after the company

took him on, but that he did not shoot anything for eight months. ‘He

had 21 scripts turned down because they were very much at the cutting-

edge, risque and pioneering and the clients were nervous because these

obviously have a high failure rate,’ he says.

Several production houses claim charity films and test commercials can

be very helpful in launching a director’s career. Rob Sanders, for

example, largely made it at HLA on the strength of the test work he did

for Holsten Pils, through GGT.

‘You have to remember that their first commercial marks them for the

future. Doing a shampoo ad for Procter and Gamble may not be right for

them - it is, after all, rather hard to show any point of difference

with a shampoo commercial. But tests are a good idea, so long as it is a

strong project,’ Langridge says.

Tests have the added advantage of demonstrating a company’s financial

commitment to a director. Langridge continues: ‘Agencies want to see

that you have put money behind a director.’

Producers must then carefully decide who they want to see their

director, and target accordingly. Langridge claims that there are

probably no more than 25 people in the business to whom it is worth

introducing a new name. ‘Lots of people are interested, but not everyone

is prepared to push the boat out and take the risk,’ she says.

Producers try a variety of ways to get to see agencies in order to

spread the word about their budding Frank Budgens. Some cold call, some

prefer to simply mailout their reels, while others book appointments and

sit down with the agency to talk them through the tapes. Some production

companies actually wheel in the director if they are particularly

articulate and bold enough to communicate their vision to an often

stubbornly unimpressed audience.

Frances Silor, a partner at Tomboy Films, claims that launching a new

name is not just about showing a snazzy reel and demonstrating to a head

of TV or a creative director that the director is talented. It may also

involve offering reassurances that they are nice to work with and

capable of handling the budget. Silor says: ‘You have to let agencies

know that the director isn’t stroppy or precious, that they are open to

ideas from other people and that everyone will be able to speak freely.

You also have to convince them that they will be responsible with the


The cost of breaking a director can be hefty. The combined expense of

putting together reels, which can involve around pounds 30,000-40,000,

doing non-profit-making test films and financing a good positioning for

the production company in the first place can be huge.

Most in the industry agree that it takes a minimum of six months to

launch a new name - and up to a year to establish them.

Langridge explains: ‘If, after one year, you are not getting anywhere,

you know things are wrong. If they are not going well after two years,

then pull out.’

Resurrecting the career of a director who is perceived to be past their

sell-by date is a lot trickier. Agencies are interested in a new name,

but when companies are trying to re-establish an existing talent the

usual response they get is: ‘We’ve heard of him. Haven’t you got anyone


Andrew comments: ‘The thing you are up against in this business is that,

as a director, you are only as good as the last job you did. That is the

greatest strain. If you produce a dog, they will always judge you by


Studholme adds: ‘It is very hard and unfair for people who have had an

opportunity. There are a lot of good directors languishing in obscurity

because there is an over-supply of new talent, and so many slavering

neophytes and teenage Tarantinos coming along all the time.’

To break through such prejudice requires hard work and largely means a

director having to rely on their reputation. Silor comments: ‘The only

way to do it is to go through the people that you or the director have

worked with before. You have to be prepared to say you will work

cheaply, or for nothing, just to get new work on the reel. If you are

well-known and respected as a producer, then you can convince people.’

Equally tricky is the business of ensuring the work keeps rolling in for

the new directors, even when they are flavour of the month. The problem

is that the more fashionable a director is one minute, the more

unfashionable they could be the next. Studholme explains: ‘It is more

difficult to keep someone up there than to make them, because you are up

against the British disease where everyone wants to say ‘he’s lost it -

he was great last year but not any more’.’

Silor believes that it helps if the director does not develop a

particular style or look because that will only be good for a certain

amount of time and then it will inevitably go out of fashion. ‘You have

to know when to change your look, and you have to remain humble. You

must not just do the big, fantastic jobs - you’ve got to do the tiny

award-winners that are based on a great idea. You must not make people

think that you are too grand,’ she says.

Whether companies are selling new talent, old talent or off-the-boil

talent, battening down a job once you have succeeded in getting an

agency interested in a director is the next big step. Once a production

company has shown the reel, it then has to go away, do a treatment,

price it, compete with three to five other directors for the job, and

then wait weeks for a decision. And then they may only hear a fortnight

before a shoot is scheduled to take place that their director has landed

the job.

Nevertheless, production companies should spare a thought for agencies.

Being on the receiving end of a sustained, often frenzied hard-sell can

be wearing. The average creative sees around five to ten reels in a

regular week, which can increase to 40 or 50 when they are looking to

award a job. That is on top of seeing producers, being phoned by

producers and meeting new directors.

Many agencies have numerous lurid tales of the lengths that production

houses go to to sell their wares. One head of television at a major

agency says there is nearly always someone in his office at 8.30 in the

morning, without an appointment and armed with a showreel and a big

grin. Others moan about over-zealous producers talking incessantly

through a reel, plugging their director as the 14th ‘new Tarsem’ that

week and recounting a strange-but-interesting tale about his Albanian


However, as the creative duo, Jo Tanner and Viv Walsh, at Saatchi and

Saatchi emphasise, creatives don’t want a hard-sell: ‘We’re not

interested in anything that is beyond what is on the screen. The

preamble and the background stuff is fine, but it makes no difference.

The reel is the thing.’

As with all selling, if the product does not deliver, the salesman - or

the producer - may as well just pack up and go home.



1. We don’t like the producer to come in with the reel. If a producer

comes in, it takes 45 minutes, whereas if we watch the reel on our own,

it only takes ten minutes.

2. It’s good if a reel demonstrates the breadth of their work. The idea

of pigeon-holing a director - for example, saying they do food - is


3. We like to see anything that is not an ad. If the reel has ads on it,

then all you are doing is picking the talent of another agency. We like

little TV programmes or short films. We always feel it is better if the

directors do what they enjoy doing on a reel. We like them to showcase

their ‘real’ work rather than ads, which are often just done for the


4. If producers come in with the reel, it’s best if they don’t say

anything and just answer questions. We’re not interested in a chat and

the background.

5. It’s better if they don’t post a reel. If it is just posted, we don’t

look at it.

6. It can be helpful if a producer hears we are doing a certain

commercial and pitches a director specifically for that job. It’s best

if they don’t let on and just promote the director at the right time, so

that a reel turns up on your desk just at the right moment.

7. We like it if the director comes along. Directors are more honest and

don’t bullshit like producers do.

8. We don’t like it when people ring up and don’t know the kind of work

we do or what awards we’ve won.

9. It doesn’t really help if a production company sends in a reel for a

particular job. That works against them. We decide, not them.

10. It’s very annoying if you ask a production company for Joe Bloggs

and they say he’s busy on another film but how about using Charlie



1. Creatives should say something when you are showing a reel. It’s

torture if they just sit there in silence.

2. We don’t like being stood-up - it happens a lot. It’s very annoying

when you cross town, battle through traffic and cancel meetings to get

to the agency on time, only to be met by a non-plussed secretary who

says: ‘But Tom’s in Greece on a shoot.’

3. I wish they would let us know whether we have been awarded a job, or

not, sooner. Quite often, we wait for two months for the go-ahead on a

pounds 200,000 commercial and - if we get it - the shoot turns out to be

two weeks later - it’s a logistical nightmare.

4. We would like agencies to be more frank. If we haven’t won a job for

a director, we would like to know why - in detail.

5. It’s very wearing - the first year with any director means a

considerable investment in terms of time, energy and money. It would be

nice if agencies were a bit more sympathetic and less arrogant.

6. The older, more established creatives tend to be more approachable

and constructive with their comments, whereas the younger ones seem to

try to want to prove themselves by being rude to us and condemning our

director’s work.

7. Many agencies don’t have the facilities to view the reel in a quiet

environment. Sometimes, I have had to do a presentation standing in a

crowded recreational area, or in a cupboard.

8. Many of the younger creatives see the production company as a source

of funds for having a good time on the shoot. They seem to think that

the producer and director will be willing to foot the bill at groovy

nightclubs and flashy restaurants. The logic appears to be that the

production company should be eternally grateful for getting the work.