Note to Hollywood: Ad Agencies Enlisting More Female Directors for Big-Budget TV Spots

Byron Bowers
Alma Har'el on the set of Coca-Cola's Super Bowl commercial 'The Wonder of Us.'

Spurred by a pledge campaign, more women are being picked for highly coveted (and paid) gigs.

An ongoing effort to get advertising agencies to book more female directors for big-budget TV spots is starting to pay off thanks to Free the Bid, a campaign started in September 2016 by director Alma Har'el, who is responsible for this year's Coca-Cola Super Bowl ad.

Major TV campaigns are triple bid, meaning that the ad agency presents three bids to the brand each of which has a director attached. Free the Bid asks agencies and brands to commit to pledge that one female director must be among the considered for every campaign.

"It's a pretty good deal. We make up half the population and we are only asking for one-third of a chance," jokes Har'el, who is also behind this year's Olympics ad for P&G.

When she started to take meetings with potential pledgers Har'el would often hear that the issue in advertising isn't a lack of opportunity for women but, rather, a lack of female talent. "People would tell me, 'What are we supposed to do? Just hire Kathryn Bigelow on every job?'" 

For ease of use, the Free the Bid website has a catalog of reels from 400 plus female directors, who span experience levels. It includes top Hollywood talent like Reed Morano, Ava DuVernay and Elizabeth Banks, as well as unsigned up-and-comers.

Susan Credle, chief creative officer at FCB Global, whose clients include Clorox and Levi's, says the proportion of FCB's ads directed by women has risen from 10 percent to 30 percent since the agency took the pledge last year to consider hiring female directors. Ad giant BBDO has doubled the number of female directors­ hired on commercials, while CP+B has seen a fourfold increase. 

"Advertising has always been a feeder to Hollywood," Har'el says, citing the early careers of critically and commercially successful male directors like Michel Gondry, Spike Jonze, Michael Bay, among others. She notes that commercial work for up-and-coming female directors­ boosts their careers in two ways: They gain filmmaking experience ("They get to argue with ad agencies and brands [in ways] that are similar to working with studios and financiers") and financial security ("Right now, [women] can't sustain their careers long enough to be competitive").

The campaign hopes to spur similar action for moviemaking. "A lot of great directors spend time coming through advertising as their university before going on to conquer the film world," says Credle, adding: "[Alma's] theory is that if more women get into advertising, we can change the game in film."

HP’s chief marketing officer and Free the Bid early adopter, Antonio Lucio, says that in the push towards parity behind the camera the onus lands on those who have authority over the purse strings. "In advertising, at the end of the day, he who controls the money is he who controls the agenda,” he says. “The same should hold true when it comes to the film industry.” Along with HP, Airbnb, Visa and Twitter are among the top brands that have joined the campaign. 

While Free the Bid has seen tangible gains in getting female talent behind the camera, there is still more ground to gain in advertising. Only 8 percent of this year's Super Bowl commercials had a female director. (Coincidentally, this is the same percentage of the Top 100 grossing movies of 2017 that featured female directing talent.)   

Har'el adds, "We are trying to give women the opportunity to get in the room, so they can get work. Paid work."

This story first appeared in the Feb. 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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