The Perlorian Brothers, Jared Hess, Martin Granger, Happy, Blue Source, Mark Gilbert, David Gordon Green, Nicolai Fuglsig, The Glue Society and Stylewar. If these names generate some tongue-wagging, it's because they are the handful of commercial directors, among the estimated 6,500 in the industry, who are today's most wanted.
They are the recently emerged directorial talents who have been dubbed hot, shooting stars of sorts, seeming to come out of nowhere and burning bright. Take the red-hot Perlorian Brothers, for example. Who had ever heard of these guys before they won a gold Lion at Cannes in 2004 for the Unilever VIM spot "Prisoner Visitor" out of Toronto's ZIG?
Then there's new "it" boy Hess. Agency creatives and producers were all over him after he became a Sundance darling in 2004 with his geek-centric directorial debut Napoleon Dynamite. Within a matter of months, the 26-year-old from Preston, Idaho, who had never directed a commercial, went on to shoot spots for major brands such as Nike.com out of Wieden + Kennedy, Land Rover through Young & Rubicam Brands, and, more recently, those new Quaker Oats commercials via Element 79 Partners, featuring the big-headed plastic Quaker Oats dude.
Conversely, Granger, 42, was an experienced commercial director before he was finally anointed a hot property in the U.S. after directing those dryly funny "Lunch Break" Burger King spots out of Crispin Porter + Bogusky. In fact, hardly a newcomer to the ad business, Granger was a star on the Canadian scene for at least six years—his credits included a 2003 Cannes gold Lion award-winning campaign for Bud Light—prior to becoming an "overnight sensation" stateside.
Yet will The Perlorian Brothers, Hess, Granger and today's other hot directors still be at the top of agency wish lists in, say, six months—let alone in one, two or three years from now? What is the average shelf life of a hot commercial director? How much time does that talent have to turn the hype into the foundation of a long-lasting career? The talent pool is thick with competition. According to statistics compiled by The Source Maythenyi, a Boca Raton, Fla.-based data company that tracks commercials, of the 6,500 TV commercial directors in the U.S., only about 1,000 are working directors.
It's one thing to get hot, but staying hot—let alone building a long-lasting career—is more challenging these days compared to, say, just 10 years ago because, for starters, there is more competition than ever. Directors are coming at the business from all angles—former agency creatives make the leap to the other side, talented film school grads enter the talent pool, and even precocious kids take advantage of the cheaper production costs available with digital video to make spec reels good enough to help them break into the business. Meanwhile, established directors are going to greater lengths to get the jobs that used to go to the new talents—even offering to take pay cuts if that's what it takes.
The general consensus among those in the agency and production business is that a director has the potential to remain at the top for two to three years these days. No matter how carefully a director crafts a career, it's tough to extend such a streak beyond that time frame, given the simple fact that any agency producer worth her salt is always going to be on the lookout for the next hip thing.
"It's in our DNA to find hot new directors because new talent can bring a new aesthetic to a project," notes Crispin Porter + Bogusky head of production David Rolfe, whose agency helped launch Granger in the U.S., as well as Stylewar when it hired the Swedish directing collective to helm a 2003 IKEA campaign that included the visual-effects spectacle "Pony."
Chuck McBride, creative director/North America of TBWA\Chiat\Day in San Francisco, is more generous than other creative directors when assessing the shelf life of a director in vogue, maintaining that once a director starts to sizzle, he can enjoy five years on top, getting the cream of the crop of agency boards. "Maybe even seven," McBride muses, noting the case of Kinka Usher.
The director makes for an interesting case study: Usher, who directs out of House of Usher in Santa Monica, Calif., enjoyed a super streak that ran from the mid-'90s well into the current decade, according to McBride's estimation, leading the efforts on landmark spots for the California Milk Processor Board's "Got milk?" campaign, those iconic Taco Bell ads featuring the famed Chihuahua and, in more recent years, for clients such as Apple, ESPN and Sierra Mist.
And while Usher is certainly regarded as top-tier talent these days, he isn't what you'd call hot anymore. "There came a point, unfortunately for me, where I became associated with a specific kind of work—mostly big- budget, Pepsi/Mountain Dew work," Usher says, "and I would be discounted by young creatives. You get yourself into that tricky position where you aspire and get to a certain place, and then ... the younger kids are going, 'We don't want that.'"
Even the once-trendy Traktor is perceived to have cooled off. The contention is that the offbeat, Euro-style humor that made Traktor famous in the late '90s ultimately got tired. "That whole genre of very stark, European, somewhat-green-looking film they were known for was initially breakthrough, but it became tired very quickly," says one agency insider. However, Traktor has wisely expanded into more cinematic, epic fare. Their latest campaign for Liberty Mutual out of Kirshenbaum Bond + Partners in New York, including "Troy," which spoofs the tale of the Trojan horse, shows an evolution in look and style.
Meanwhile, Usher is trying to make a comeback through a going-back-to-his-roots revival of sorts. Essentially, his current strategy is to forgo big-budget projects for smaller spots with "killer" concepts, he says. Happy to take advantage of Usher's talents and willingness to work for a reduced rate to get boards that will fulfill his desire for challenging creative, McBride hired him this spring to direct the Adidas spot "Night Practice," a quietly powerful spot that has kids taking on their soccer idols.
The Adidas spot has freshened his image. Jeff Goodby, creative director of Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, remembers seeing "Night Practice," being impressed and asking a colleague who had directed it, assuming it was some new kid on the block. "And it turned out to be Kinka, which was great," Goodby says.
While Usher is a former leading director who established a career and is in the midst of successfully negotiating what could be called a mid-career transition, newly minted hot directors exist in a more precarious place. One can go from the top of his game to out of work in a matter of months. The reasons behind a precipitous fall from grace are varied and range from poor judgment in selecting work—such as jumping at everything that comes one's way—to developing a big ego.
Yes, believe it or not (big wink), some directors develop big egos and bad attitudes once they achieve "hot" status. "I've seen directors who are so-called hot emerge very quickly, be the flavor of the month and, dare I say, it's gone to their head a little bit," says Diane Jackson, head of production at BBDO Chicago. "If my creatives are coming to me with someone I know has got a bad rap ... I'll call my counterparts around the country and say, 'How was it for you? What was the journey like?' And if it was a nightmare, you call the [director's] executive producer and say, 'Look I'm interested, but I hear they are a pain in the ass.' Then you have to judge, are they going to give you something in the can at the end of the day that is worth a rough journey?"
Not every top director turns into an egomaniacal jerk. Jackson points out that The Perlorian Brothers proved to be great collaborators on an Orbit White campaign they shot for BBDO Chicago last year, and Rolfe singled out Granger as a director who is "as sweet as an angel, yet he has strong opinions at the same time, and he knows what he likes."
Of course, there was a time—particularly back in the '80s and as recently as the mid-'90s—when agencies would put up with all sorts of crap from a director they really wanted to work with. "There was bowing down in the room to the director, and directors could say, 'Hey, shut up.' And people would shut up," Brian Carmody, executive producer of Smuggler, which handles Happy and Stylewar, recalls. "Those days are gone. You need to be as collaborative as you possibly can be." That's in large part because agencies have a wealth of talent to choose from. Plus, tighter budgets and time constrictions leave little time for dealing with a big-headed director.
Now, while maintaining a good attitude is strongly suggested, perhaps the most important thing a director can do to avoid being relegated to the flavor of the month is to be selective about the work he takes, ensuring that he isn't pigeonholed into a narrow slot or written off as a one-note wonder. "I think in the beginning of a career, that is especially important," says Robert Fernandez, executive producer of Moxie Pictures, home to both Hess and Granger. "We turn down a lot of stuff."
For example, those who inundated Hess with geek-themed boards after seeing Napoleon Dynamite may have noticed that he said, uh, no thanks. "We've passed on them all because we don't want to get pigeonholed into the geek thing," Fernandez says.
It has to be hard to turn down jobs and easy money. Not that many years ago, a director could churn out work and simply not put it on the reel, but these days there are too many outlets—including the Internet—for one's work to pop up, so it is pretty much impossible to sweep substandard work under the carpet. "Nowadays, you click on [the Internet], and everything you've ever done comes up," Granger concurs. "The agencies go, 'Hey, we're thinking of hiring Marty Granger. Let's look up his work. That was good. That was good. Holy shit! He did that toilet paper ad with the dancing goats and the kittens riding them! That's shit! Why would he take that? Maybe he isn't very good.' So I don't think you can hide from the spots you do and say, 'Oh, screw it, I'll pay the mortgage with this one.' "
Take a close look at the directors who have managed to carve out lasting careers—Noam Murro, Frank Budgen and Mike Mills among them—and one thing you will notice is they aren't known for one particular technique or look, but for their storytelling. "If a director is focusing on technique only, you really do kind of get the feeling of, 'Oh, you're the parachute pants of this year,'" says Dennis Ryan, Element 79 Partners chief creative officer.
Too many agency creatives and producers fall into the pack mentality, wanting to work with the popular new director because, well, everyone else is. That explains why so many commercials look and feel so alike. McBride, for one, is tired of this. He says, "I don't know how many times I've used a director, and the next week they're talking to Goodby, Fallon and all the others, and everybody's calling me saying, 'What was it like to work with him?'"
McBride's response? "Shut up, and go find your own director."