Bob Kerstetter sent ripples through the production industry last year when he took home the Directors Guild of America's best commercial director award for a dreamy Musco Family Olive Company campaign. It was the first time a full-time agency creative had won the award, but Kerstetter, creative director and co-founder of Black Rocket Euro RSCG, was no stranger to directing.
"It's like you write a play and you want to find the actors to do it," says Kerstetter, who took the reins on about a dozen of the San Francisco agency's commercials. "Some creatives would rather just have someone else handle it all. The people who end up becoming directors want to be more involved."
Last month, Kerstetter, 42, parlayed the DGA award and his credits at Black Rocket—most recently 12 spots for Yahoo!—into a more official directing gig. With producer Stelio Kitrilakis, he launched hybrid agency Lushadelic, where he serves as a writer and director. "The impetus was just to make [work] more fun and more direct," he says.
As the ranks of commercial directors have swelled in recent years, so has the number of agency creatives moving behind the camera. The advantages are clear: A director gets to skip the client meetings and come in right when the fun starts, during production. But directors also face a lack of control over scripts they shoot, not to mention stiff competition.
Before taking the plunge, first consider the numbers. The field of directors has grown from tens to hundreds to thousands during the past 20 years. The Association of Independent Commercial Producers counts nearly 2,000 commercial directors among its members, and sources estimate the total in the U.S. may go as high as 3,000.
"The commercial world is saturated across the board," says Bonnie Goldfarb, executive producer at production company Harvest in Santa Monica, Calif. "A production team is as big as any indie film company going out to shoot because of the amount of money involved. It has become a big business."
Cautions David Perry, director of agency production at Saatchi & Saatchi: "It's a tough market to introduce yourself into unless you're really a star creative." And if you are, be prepared to take yourself down a notch. The storyboards you start out with won't be nearly as good as those you've created, notes Perry. "It's not just going to be a lateral shift—if you're working on Pepsi at an agency, you're not going to be working on Pepsi your first time around directing."
Former TBWA\Chiat\Day creative director Chuck Bennett waited two years to win an assignment from his former agency. "A certain period of time has to pass—basically you have to prove yourself," says Bennett, who did an Indian Motorcycles spot for TBWA\C\D last April. "They have their choice of working with the world's best directors."
Like many still making a name for themselves, Bennett, 48, has been willing to trade fees for fame. Rob Schwartz, ecd at TBWA\ C\D in Playa del Rey, Calif., says he hired Bennett not only because the agency was already comfortable with him, but because "he was willing to work with a great concept for not a lot of money." Happy with the Indian Motorcycles work, Schwartz sent a "world-class job" Bennett's way six months later, a Nissan ad for the Japanese market.
Bennett, currently filming three Illinois Lottery spots for DDB, was inspired to make the career switch after working on Taco Bell Chihuahua commercials with Kinka Usher and Rocky Morton. Watching their "unbounded creativity," he came to see directing as a deliverance from agency bureaucracy. "The higher up I went, I had less hands-on opportunity, and I'm a hands-on kind of person," he says. "Directing lets me put all my energy into being creative."
Bennett and Clay Williams, his partner at TBWA\C\D, left the agency together and signed with Crossroads. Although they have since amicably separated and now direct on their own, Bennett says having a teammate eased the transition. "It helped tremendously, because it was so familiar to go from being on the set with your partner as an agency creative and being on the set directing with your partner," Bennett says. "Good partners have an unspoken language. They're able to get a lot done."
Williams puts it more simply: "It's always good to have someone to hold hands with as you jump off the deep end."
Although he co-directed several commercials as an agency creative, Williams wasn't quite prepared for life on the other side. "I went into the business thinking the production side would be less fickle than the agency side," says Williams, who joined MJZ in mid-2002 after his split with Bennett. "The opposite is true. A lot of the process, like getting jobs, is completely out of your control. … I wouldn't go into the business wanting more stability rather than less."
Another thing to consider, notes Williams, is that a director's role is just "a little piece of the puzzle." "I miss coming up with the big idea and seeing it through from beginning to end," he says.
But Williams, 38, says directing is a longtime goal fulfilled. "I had the most fun during production," he says. "It was the time when everything was actually coming to life, the exciting part of the creative process." His recent credits include Ikea's "Moo Cow Milker" for Crispin Porter + Bogusky, in which an ugly ceramic tchotchke meets an untimely end, and Dinty Moore's "Rock Stars" out of BBDO Minneapolis, in which parents act like rockers.
Another directing pair, Tom Kuntz and Mike Maguire, say they never planned to become directors. At New York shop Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners in the mid-'90s, Maguire, 33, was a copywriter and Kuntz, 30, an art director. Much of their work was never executed, and, frustrated, the pair took a freelance job writing sketches for MTV's Video Music Awards.
When a director was unable to finish one sketch, Kuntz and Maguire stepped in. "We got thrown into the fire," recalls Maguire. MTV eventually hired them to write for the VMAs and the MTV Movie Awards, and after a year they had more material for their reel. In 1999 they signed with Propaganda.
Directing has led to commercial success the pair never saw in their agency life. Two years ago the "Alan and Jerome" Fox Sports Net campaign they directed for Cliff Freeman and Partners—in which two white teens act like trash-talking NBA wannabes—won a slew of awards, including Best of Show at The One Show, Best of Show at the national Addys and a bronze Clio. Next up: Hollywood. The duo has just signed with Zucker-Netter Productions to direct a movie based on the satirical weekly The Onion.
It was their TV credentials, not their agency background, that got them directing work, says Maguire. Creatives should wring as much directing experience as they can out of an agency job, advises Williams. "Use your position where you are to get yourself started," he says. "Nobody is going to hire you based on what you say—they're going to hire you based on what they see."
For Hungry Man director Scott Vincent, getting directing experience as a cd at Fallon took lying to his client. In 1998, he persuaded agency colleagues to let him direct some Miller Lite ads. After that, no further opportunities came along. In 2000, Vincent helped pitch and win Archipelago (an account other creatives ran from, he says, because it's a financial company), and he asked the new-to-advertising client if he could direct the spots.
"They squinted and said, 'Is that how it usually works?' " recalls Vincent, 40. Though his "yes" response was not exactly true, the client was pleased enough: Vincent still directs the company's ads, recently completing a series of one-minute commercials that ran on MSNBC each morning.
Frank Todaro, now a veteran director at @radical.media, wrangled his first gig by getting Hertz Rent-A-Car to let him shoot a commercial on spec while he was a copywriter at Scali, McCabe, Sloves in the late 1980s. "Pure poverty let me try some stuff," he remembers. "I rounded up a couple of friends and shot it myself." Hertz bought the work and it went on to win awards.
Spec jobs can be a boon or a bust, Todaro notes. "Sometimes you end up doing a job for free because you like the job, you know the creatives or you just think it will be good for your reel," he says. "But after a while you have to say, 'Am I going to be able to pay my rent?' "
Todaro cautions creatives about the irregular income that aspiring directors can expect. "It's not like you get a weekly paycheck," he says. "If you do a job, you get paid for it—but the minute that job is over, you're unemployed."
Until you make any transition, says @radical.media co-proprietor Jon Kamen, work on relationships within your agency. "I think that's critical," he says. "You can't piss all over everybody and expect them to come back to you with storyboards."
Deciding which company to sign with can make all the difference. C.J. Waldman, a director at Harvest, recommends working with a lot of directors while still at an agency and using what you learn to decide where to go. "Having been a cd on Heineken, Sprite and Diet Coke, I got to work with the best guys," says Waldman, who left his creative director post at Lowe in mid-2001. "I signed with Harvest because I'd been working with Baker Smith and Bonnie Goldfarb. … I knew I wasn't taking a big chance because I was hoping to get the spill-off from Baker—he gets the best boards in the country."
Waldman, who directed side projects for three years while at Lowe under the alias J.C. Manwald, most recently directed a spot for Harley-Davidson's 100th anniversary via Carmichael Lynch in Minneapolis and an ad for longtime client New York Sports Club.
The bottom line for aspiring directors, says Waldman, is determination. "There's a ton of great directors out there already," he says. "You need to have the hunger and desire to direct. You can't wait for work to come to you—you have to figure out how you're going to do it."
Kerstetter has done it. Just days after forming Lushadelic, he's a bit nostalgic about agency life—"What you miss is the groups of people, the personalities," he says. "You miss hearing Mumford made out with that girl at a party"—but is certain he's on the right path.
"You've got to trust your gut," he says. "There's success even in failure."