11 Commercial Directors Who Are Elevating the Craft of Storytelling

Adweek's Creative 100 honors today's talent behind the camera

Director Maggie Carey has created everything from ads for Progressive to episodes of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.
Courtesy of ABC

The funny thing about commercial directors is that the moment you learn who they are, you start noticing just how often you’ve seen their work.

Take, for example, Kim Gehrig, who’s having one hell of a run in 2018 and 2019. In the past year alone, she’s helmed Gillette’s polarizing “We Believe” spot about toxic masculinity, Nike’s “Dream Crazier” starring Serena Williams and the visually stunning “Viva La Vulva” for Essity family of brands.

As you’ll see below with this year’s commercial director honorees in Adweek’s Creative 100, she’s not the only one knocking out a surprising number of beloved, awarded and debated pieces of film. So learn their names, and then be on the lookout.

Jason Harper

Photo: Carlos Valdes-Lora

Represented by: Hound Content
Based in: Brooklyn
Hometown: Berlin

Recent work: The Bevel “Mirrors” series, which features bathroom-mirror confessionals from men of color. “I take a lot of pride in the Bevel Mirrors films. Young men that look like me rarely have a dignified space to speak for themselves. It was rewarding to give their voices a spotlight and then to find the poetry editorially in each unscripted conversation.” And Welcoming America, for which he directed two films, one about a Mexican-American DACA artist and another about a grassroots anti-hate group in a Somali neighborhood in Minnesota. “The films wrestle with the complexities of American identity and immigration.”

On industry awards: “As long as industry awards like Cannes Lions keep their ear to the ground for emerging artists and don’t become an echo chamber for established voices, I think they’ll benefit the creative industry.”

Advice for aspiring directors/filmmakers: “Make personal work. Everything else follows.”
Amy Corr

Kim Gehrig

Photo: Ross McLennan

Represented by: Somesuch
Based in: London and Los Angeles
Hometown: Sydney

Recent work: “Dream Crazier” for Nike and Wieden + Kennedy Portland. “It really connected with me as a female director. It felt almost autobiographical.”

Also: “Viva La Vulva” for Libresse and AMV BBDO. “This project was genuinely brave—the concept, the execution and all the people who worked on it. Everyone worked incredibly hard, but it came together in a very smooth and collaborative way, and that was a real joy.”

On awards: “Awards inspire us all to make great work and highlight other great work that we may not know about. They help push the creative forwards.”

Advice for aspiring filmmakers: “Don’t try to mimic anyone else’s work. Your own voice will be way more interesting.”

Personal mantra: “Bite off more than you can chew, and then chew like crazy.”
David Griner

Lance Acord

Photo: Rima Acord

Represented by: Park Pictures
Based in: Los Angeles and Bolinas, Calif.
Hometown: Fairfax, Calif.

Recent work: “Dream Crazy” for Nike, featuring Colin Kaepernick. “Brands like Nike have shown again and again their power to influence political/social discourse. It was great to have the opportunity alongside Chivo Lubezki and Christian Weber to direct a project where moral and ethical considerations outweighed more straightforward corporate interests. Nike sells plenty of sneakers day in and day out; no one forced them to wade into those waters.”

Advice for aspiring directors/filmmakers: “Make stuff. Filmmaking is different than other art forms in that sometimes the sheer complexity and need for collaboration makes it hard to practice, experiment and make mistakes. Seize every opportunity.”

Personal mantra: “Make inspired choices, and accept a degree of indecision as a natural part of the creative process.”
Doug Zanger

T.J. Martin and Dan Lindsay

Photo: T.J. Martin

Represented by: Furlined
Based in: Los Angeles
Hometowns: Rockford, Ill. (Lindsay); Seattle (Martin)

Recent work: “The Truth Is Worth It” for The New York Times and Droga5. “The most rewarding part was the collaboration,” Lindsay says. “That allowed us to create a process that was a bit unorthodox, something much more fluid than any other commercial we have done.”

On awards: “If your intention is to win awards,” Martin says, “then you are most likely not doing good work, and you’re certainly not creating art.”

Advice to aspiring filmmakers: “Take time to live a life outside of your work or discipline,” Lindsay says, “so you actually have something interesting to say about the world around you.”

Source of creative inspiration: “I just designed my friend’s album cover,” Martin says. “It does nothing for me career-wise, but it gives my brain some breathing room and an opportunity to flex different creative muscles.”
T.L. Stanley

John Hillcoat

Photo: Gonzalo Marroquin — Getty Images for Montefiore Corazon

Represented by: Serial Pictures
Based in: Los Angeles
Hometown: Communities across Australia, England and the U.S.

Recent work: “Corazón,”  a nearly hour-long film created by Montefiore Health System and agency JohnXHannes to encourage organ donation. “I’m especially proud of Corazón. The fact that we could make a long-form advertising piece that is also a serious drama that tells a human story and touches on themes like immigration, social justice and healthcare was really exciting. But, most importantly, we made something that actually moves people to go as far as actually becoming organ donors. From a very limited release, we managed to effectively save 30,000 lives by people signing up to become donors after they saw the film.”

The value of awards:Of course it’s always nice for people to be acknowledged for the work they do, but I’m not that focused on it. For me, it’s always about the work, the people I’m working with and maintaining quality in what we’re doing. Awards are the last thing I can ever focus on.”

Advice for aspiring directors and filmmakers: “We are at an all-time high in terms of the amount of stuff we’re constantly being bombarded with–it’s the attention economy. Amongst all that noise, it’s crucially important to hang on to and maintain quality. I feel like quantity at the moment has beaten quality, and it’s got to be the other way around.”

Personal mantra: “Don’t let the fuckers get you down.”
Doug Zanger

Jess Coulter

Photo: Sela Shiloni

Represented by: O Positive Films
Based in: Los Angeles
Hometown: Portland, Ore.

Recent work: “Morningmorphosis” for Ikea and Ogilvy. “We were given freedom to cast thoughtfully and then play around with different lines and performances. It’s rewarding when I know the team is walking into their edit with an abundance of legitimately funny options. I also got to work with DP Maryse Alberti. She’s a pro and a joy to learn from.”

Advice to aspiring directors and filmmakers: “It’s OK to say the words, ‘I want to be a director.’ If people don’t hear you say it, how will they be able to give you advice, to mentor, to help and to have an eye out for opportunities? And if you don’t hear yourself say it, how will you know how much you want it?”

Favorite source of creative inspiration: “I’ve been a sketch comedian, hip hop dancer, food writer, burlesque world champion, improviser, screenwriter, lactation educator, Krav Maga member, NFL cheerleader, mock-fashion Instagrammer and jingle singer. Each little life I’ve lived has added to my creative arsenal.”

Personal mantra: “Think it, do it.”
T.L. Stanley

Maggie Carey

Photo: Michele Abbot

Represented by: Caviar
Based in: Los Angeles and Bolinas, Calif.
Hometown: Fairfax, Calif.

Recent work: “Guys Night Out” for Progressive and TV episodes for Silicon Valley, Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.

Favorite TV moment: “I was so lucky to direct an episode of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Ellie Kemper is whip-smart and hilarious. The entire ensemble is a comedy dream team–and the writing is top-notch. But the most fun is shooting scenes with these endearing characters right on the sidewalks of New York. I was also fortunate to direct an episode of Single Parents, a gem of a comedy with a talented cast. I had a hysterical script where the kids do this bizarre adaptation of Grease. The comedic chemistry between the actors on that show is other-worldly. I can’t wait to see what they do next season.”

Advice for aspiring directors and filmmakers: “I trained in sketch and improv at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater in New York, and their ‘Don’t Think’ philosophy is the best advice I’ve ever ignored.”

Recharging on the pitch: “I’m a former Division One athlete and play in a weekly pick-up soccer game. Now that I’m washed up and out of shape, I really have to concentrate on not passing out. It’s a great way to keep your mind off work.”
Doug Zanger

Martin De Thurah

Photo courtesy of Academy Films

Represented by: Epoch Films/Academy Films
Based in: Copenhagen, Denmark
Hometown: Copenhagen

Recent work: “Mama Said Knock You Out,” a Droga5 spot featuring Serena Williams for Chase, captured the athlete’s resilient return (don’t call it a comeback) to tennis after a difficult childbirth and a litany of critics doubting her ability to regain the top spot.

Also: “Space Station,” for Macy’s and BBDO New York, captured an astronaut mother’s Christmas away from her family.

De Thurah was voted Commercials Director of the Year by the Directors Guild of America in 2014 and 2018, with a nomination in the category for 2019.
—Amy Corr

Seb Edwards

Photo courtesy of Academy Films

Represented by: Academy Films and Park Pictures
Based in: London
Hometown: London

Recent work: “The Boy and the Piano” for John Lewis & Partners and adam&eveDDB. Here’s how the client described Edwards’ selection for the high-profile project: “Chosen for his strong cinematic storytelling, Seb is known for unraveling complicated tales in a very simple and beautiful way. His directorial style lends itself perfectly to our advert which captures the life of an icon within just a few minutes.”

Edwards’ older catalog includes two epic Lacoste ads: “The Big Leap” in 2014 and “Timeless” in 2017.
Amy Corr

Dex Deboree

Photo: Matt Sayless

Represented by: Falkon, an agency he recently founded
Based in: Los Angeles
Hometowns: Santa Monica, Calif., and East Harding, England

Recent work: The documentary Unbanned: The Legend of AJ1, about the cultural impact of Air Jordan sneakers. “It was one of those rare projects that has all of these profound meanings, synergies and alchemies born out of it, but going in it was all hunch and instinct.”

Also: “Own the Game” for Nike Basketball and the Jordan Brand. “It was the two brands’ first joint advertising effort in almost two decades, starring both LeBron James and Michael Jordan. I got the brief from the brands about three weeks out from when we needed to launch the campaign. There was no time to further flesh out the strategy, create the concept, shoot, finish and deliver, all while featuring the top stars in basketball from both brands. I had to wrangle audience insights and shape that into a concept that fit the breadth of a campaign worthy of NBA’s All-Star Weekend, within a very small, fixed box of possibilities. And as any true creative will tell you, that’s when you’re tested and challenged to break that box open.”

Advice for aspiring directors/filmmakers: “Trust your instincts. Spend time on yourself as much as your craft. When you know who you are, what you stand for, what you believe in and what you really think and feel, then your feelings can guide you very clearly, and anything that gets in the way of them at their true and most authentic core is a distraction or misdirection.”
Doug Zanger

View the full Creative 100 gallery for 2019 to discover more about this year’s honorees.

This story first appeared in the June 10, 2019, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.