Doing Double Duty

It’s one thing to walk onto the set of a commercial shoot as a creative. It’s another thing entirely to walk onto the set as “the director”: the pressure is on, the stakes are high and the buck stops with you. Still, there are undaunted creatives—mainly creative directors—who willingly take on the added responsibility of directing the work that they have shepherded through the creative process.

It seems like it would make sense. Who better than a creative to bring to life an idea he or she has slaved over and sold to a client? Then again, an objective outsider could take the concept to another level.

Now, creatives who have left agencies to become full-time directors—there are plenty of those. But creatives directing their own work is a rare phenomenon. Sure, names like Chuck McBride of TBWA\Chiat\Day and Jeff Goodby of Goodby Silverstein & Partners occasionally end up on the director’s chair, but out of the thousands of commercials produced each year, only a small fraction are directed by creatives. In fact, the agency and production executives interviewed for this article had trouble naming more than a handful.

Yet veteran commercial director Joe Pytka, his longtime executive producer, Tara Fitzpatrick, and Headquarters co-founder Tom Mooney (who shuttered his company late last year) launched a new production venture called The Mother Ship this month to help those creatives who want to take their work from concept to completion. “There’s a hurtful thing happening in the business when very good creative people leave for whatever reason to become directors,” says Pytka. “I thought it would be interesting to have these people stay in the business and direct their own work when they see fit to do so.”

Creatives who do choose to direct their own work make the decision to do so with great caution, directing only occasionally and only after much consideration. In fact, Gerry Graf, ecd of TBWA\C\D, New York, says it is almost always inappropriate for a creative to direct. Most creatives, he says, simply aren’t qualified. “The thinking is, ‘Well, I’ve sat in a chair at a lot of film shoots, so I should be able to direct.’ Like you learn from osmosis or something. Just because you can write or art direct doesn’t mean you can direct. It is a different skill set,” Graf maintains, noting that when a creative directs—and he includes his own directorial efforts in this estimation—the results are oftentimes “just OK at best.”

Graf argues the only time a creative should consider directing is when the concept is basic and there isn’t enough money to hire a director. That’s when Graf gets behind the camera. While at BBDO, he directed a series of FedEx Orange Bowl promos featuring Steve Carrell because the budget was low. “Steve and Joe Narciso [the other actor] had the talent to carry the spots,” Graf says, noting they were dialogue-driven ads with few camera moves. “All I did was turn on the camera.”

New York-based Taxi chief creative officer Paul Lavoie is more encouraging of creatives directing, although he, too, cautions that the quality of the work can suffer. “Somebody can always do it better than you can,” says Lavoie, who has won awards for his commercials for clients including Cineplex, Molson (which he co-directed with Taxi cd Zak Mroueh) and Covenant House. He won a Bronze Lion at Cannes in 2000 for the Covenant House spot called “Bus Shelter.” Lavoie stepped into the role of director on the spot “because we had no money,” he says. “I think the whole cost of that one was about 2,000 bucks.”

Like Graf and Lavoie, Jeff Goodby has chosen to direct due to budgetary constraints. “Over the years, a lot of things I’ve directed were dictated by my artificially reasonable day rate,” says Goodby, cd of Goodby, Silverstein & Partners. “I’ve often directed things the client couldn’t really afford to do.”

Goodby has also directed spots in situations where the client was uncomfortable with a concept, and it wouldn’t have been sold without the assurance that he would personally guide it through production. Among those spots are a 2005 California Milk Processor Board commercial called “Milk to the Rescue,” which showed men fetching milk for the women in their lives, hoping the calcium would alleviate PMS symptoms, and Budweiser’s 2004 “Born a Donkey,” which centered on a donkey who dreams of being a Budweiser Clydesdale.

“We have allowed agency creative directors to direct … if we feel they can bring a sensibility that may not be captured by a commercial director,” says Jim Schumacker, vp, creative development at Anheuser-Busch. “Typically, that will only happen if the cd is very close to the storyline and, mutually, we feel he or she can add a benefit on the set.”

Creatives must ultimately serve the idea, not their own agenda—”ego kills in this business,” Lavoie remarks. Most of the time that means resisting the temptation. Jim Baldwin, cd of The Richards Group in Dallas, who has directed various spots over the years, says he would never dare take on a project that calls for the likes of “a David Fincher or a Ridley Scott.”

“Of course, I’d like to direct something of great scope if it made sense, but there are a lot of people who are a lot better at doing that stuff and have a lot more experience,” he says.

A busy creative like Baldwin only has so much time to prep a job. Ideally, a creative would be able to clear the decks and work only on preproduction, but the reality of a typical creative’s schedule does not allow for that. So with prep time and his abilities in mind, Baldwin, like many of his colleagues, has tackled spots with simple concepts and practical executions. For example, one of Baldwin’s early directing jobs, a 1996 “Kids & Puppies” Motel 6 spot, features a black screen with the Motel 6 reservation number on it interrupted by a few seconds of humorously gratuitous shots of cute kids and puppies. (The spot won a Bronze Lion at Cannes as well as a Silver Clio.)

Erich Joiner is a director with his own production company, Tool of North America, which is headquartered in Santa Monica, Calif., and represents many directors who were formerly agency creatives. For nearly a dozen years at Goodby, where he was acd, Joiner directed his own spots for clients such as Sega and MTV. Joiner points to Bob Kerstetter’s work for Musco Olives as an example of a creative with a true gift for directing leading to an amazing success.

Now a full-time director with Chelsea Pictures, Kerstetter was a cd at San Francisco’s Black Rocket in 2001, when his spots won him a Directors Guild of America award for best commercial director. Those spots, “Worker,” “Orphanage” and “Birds,” focused on outcasts who wore black olives on their fingers.

Of course, it could have gone the other way. “This is a gamble that Bob was taking here. If it had landed butter-side down as they say, [Black Rocket] could have lost that client,” Joiner says. “If they had hired a director, they could say, ‘Hey, we hired the best person we could,’ and distance themselves from the situation.”

No one Adweek spoke to could pinpoint a true disaster. (Lavoie recalls that a hiccuping monkey nearly ruined his first directorial effort, but a back-up monkey saved the day.) “I just think in most cases, it’s not quite what it could have been,” says David Perry, head of broadcast at Saatchi & Saatchi, New York, reflecting on his more than 30 years at numerous agencies. “It’s a missed opportunity as opposed to having completely blown it.”

Perhaps part of the reason there are so few creatives directing their own work is because once they get a few spots to their credit, they leave to be full-time directors. “Anyone in an agency who wants to direct a spot is thinking of leaving and becoming a director,” says Graf. Others like Goodby aren’t so concerned about potentially losing staffers bitten by the directing bug. “I want people to feel fulfilled here,” he says. “If directing is an imperative for them, we will try to find a way for them to learn.”

That said, it has to best serve the idea. While Goodby says he has staffers who could excel at dialogue and humor right off the bat, he isn’t so sure most are capable of directing projects that involve lush visuals and more complicated photography. “For the most part, creative people don’t know how to do this without the opportunity to make some mistakes,” Goodby says. “It becomes a question of whether I’d like them to make those mistakes while on our staff or the staff of some production company out there.”