Action Fever

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A few months back, Chuck Bennett and Clay Williams were in an extremely enviable position. Ensconced as creative directors at one of the hottest agencies in the business, TBWA/Chiat/Day, they reported to the living legend known as Lee Clow. Bennett and Williams had created what was arguably the most popular ad campaign of recent years, featuring the Taco Bell Chihuahua, and had also done outstanding work for clients like Kinko's and Energizer. They'd been showered with industry honors and they were able to call the shots on much of their work, and they even directed some of their own spots. They were paid very well; they won't say how well, but a reasonable guess would put their salaries at more than $300,000 each.

So why would they suddenly leave all that behind to start a business with no clients, no permanent office and no telephones (at press time they were using shared space and could only be reached on their cell phones)? And why dive headfirst into a new profession in which the likelihood of replicating their big-time agency success is, according to one source, "about equal to winning the lottery"?

It's directing their own spots that did them in. The directing bug bit Bennett and Williams, and it bit them bad, as it has so many other agency creatives in the past few years. Gradually, as the partners had the opportunity to shoot their own work at Chiat, "we reached the point where we realized, `This is the good part of making ads, the part we like,' " says Bennett. "And then we got to the point where we looked at each other and said, `Shit, we can do this!' " At press time, the L.A.-based directing team was working out a repping deal with Crossroads Films, but it remains to be seen if they really can do this.

Glut nouveau

Nevertheless, plenty of others have been visited by a similar epiphany, and it has prompted a growing number of copywriters and art directors to abandon plum jobs in prestigious creative departments in order to stake a claim in the overcrowded commercials production market. "There's a glut of former agency guys directing right now," chuckles director Frank Todaro, a former agency guy himself.

The trend is not new, of course - a number of great commercials directors through the years started out at agencies, including Joe Sedelmaier, Bob Giraldi, Rick Levine and the onetime team of Gary Johns and Jeff Gorman. But the phenomenon appears to be ballooning. Some of the recent defectors-turned-directors, in addition to Bennett, Williams and Todaro, include: Hank Perlman, Bryan Buckley and Young Kim (all working at the production house Hungry Man); Rick LeMoine, Steve Miller, and Barton Landsman (who, along with Todaro, work at @radical.media); Scott Burns, Erich Joiner, Chris Hooper and Tom Routson (all with Tool of North America); Noam Murro, Geoff McGann and others. Most of these nouveau directors left behind great creative opportunities at leading agencies like Goodby Silverstein, Wieden & Kennedy, and Cliff Freeman & Partners. In fact, well-known CD Stacy Wall, who was heading the New York office of W&K, just announced that he's joining Hungry Man.

"Not a week goes by that some agency creative person doesn't talk to me about this," says Jeff Goodby of Goodby Silverstein. "It seems to be something everyone wants to do now." The question is, why? "When people working at agencies get a taste of directing, it's intoxicating," says Ken Mandelbaum, creative director at BBDO West, who was himself seduced by the camera a few years ago, but eventually returned to the agency fold. "The process moves quickly, it's exciting. And in the commercial world, there is complete fealty to the director. All these talented people are standing around saying, `What do you want me to do now?' "

But there seems to be more fueling the trend than just the desire to be in charge. Williams and Bennett echo other agency defectors when they explain that directing offers an escape hatch from creative stagnancy and agency bureaucracy. "We found that the higher we moved up in an agency," Williams says, "the further we got from what we like doing - the actual creative work. You end up hanging out more with account people and dealing with clients."

Williams says he and Bennett grew tired of focus groups and meetings, and they knew that as they continued the natural ascent into upper management at the agency, they would have to spend even more time on such tasks. "Even if you're positioned to be the top guy at the agency, you have to ask yourself if that's what you want - to be sitting in meetings with nervous clients," Bennett says. OK, then why not start their own smaller ad agency? "That's even worse," Bennett says, "because when you're running your own small agency you have to oversee everything right down to what kind of coffee you're going to buy."

Bennett and Williams believe that if agency creatives want to stay focused on doing hands-on work as they get older, directing may be one of the few ways to achieve that. And others who've made the leap share that view. Barton Landsman, who left BBDO three years ago and now directs full-time: "I felt I needed to look beyond agency life once my career got to a certain point. I didn't want the management responsibility, the dealing with clients. I just wanted to keep doing good work, and directing was a way to do that."

Risky business

"It occurs to you, `God, I just quit a really good job,' " says Bennett. "But honestly, there's just as much risk in staying put at an agency - you don't see a lot of people over 45 at most agencies. As far as the money goes, we're going into this with the hope of making more money than before, and having more control over our destinies."

That's not entirely unrealistic. In-demand directors can pull in more than $1 million a year. And with so many days off, going to work will seem like a pleasant change of pace. The cost of entry is low. Goodby (who says he once "seriously considered" leaving the agency side to direct) believes those are two reasons why many creatives seeking independence are now apt to become directors, rather than open new shops. "With writers and art directors getting paid so much these days, it's hard to soak up the hit of starting an agency," he says. "But directing skirts that to some extent. You don't have to pull together the overhead. And you can get work quickly if you're with a good production company. So there's a little more security in the short term."

But in the long term, Goodby says, "there might be a lot less security in becoming a director. It's an unforgiving business - you can be the flavor of the week and then suddenly you're not. Hotness doesn't last." Mandelbaum concurs: "I can see why creatives might think there's a better long-term future for them in directing," he says, "but the reality is something different." He believes the business tends to produce shooting stars that fade quickly. "If you look at the careers of commercials directors, how many besides Joe Pytka have had any longevity?"

A cast of thousands

Mandelbaum found that when he sold his agency in the mid-'90s and started directing, it was difficult to get jobs - and he thinks the situation is even more intensely competitive now. "Only a tiny percentage of the directors out there right now are shooting more than 20 days a year," he says. No one, including those who are bullish on the crossover trend, disputes that there is an oversupply of directors. Frank Scherma, one of the partners at @radical.media, observes: "The market has gone from several hundred to several thousand commercials directors, just in the time I've been in the business." The Source Maythenyi, an advertising/production database service, recently estimated that there are some 4,000 specialized commercials directors, and that doesn't include all the various poachers and dabblers - including a growing number of feature film directors (even A-listers like Oliver Stone), who have taken to shooting spots on the side. "There's a total saturation happening with directors," says Bryan Buckley. "Anyone who thinks they can come in now and be successful overnight is crazy."

But on the plus side, directors with an agency background do seem to be in vogue. The resounding success in the past few years of ESPN's advertising - much of it shot by agency vets like Buckley, Todaro, Perlman, LeMoine, Miller and Landsman - has helped. And Buckley has also gone on to do outstanding work for Budweiser and Monster.com, earning him top honors recently from the Directors Guild of America. In addition to being a feather in Buckley's cap, this may also represent a turning point in the way agency-bred directors are perceived, says Perlman. "I think up until now there's been a bias against agency people, in terms of not being taken seriously as filmmakers," he notes. Buckley says that attitude persisted even after some of the early success he and Todaro had with ESPN work. "People continued to say that Frank and I just got lucky," he says, "or they'd make comments like, `Those guys were just doing hand-held videos.' "

Buckley's success notwithstanding, questions about the film chops of these directors will undoubtedly persist. Most of them did not attend film school and picked up their technique by studying top directors like Pytka and Kinka Usher on the sets of commercial shoots. On the other hand, having agency experience gives them "a leg up on other directors in terms of understanding clients and products," says Scherma. It's practically a given that directors who come from agencies know what sells, both with the audience and with the client - and that can enable them to contribute much more to the process of making ads. "We're able to wear two hats," says Scott Burns. "Up until shooting, we're like another person on the creative team - we can help with the concept, the writing, whatever."

That opens up some intriguing business possibilities: Might some of the new crossover directors be able to leverage their creative experience to offer "one-stop shopping" to clients? Bennett and Williams are positioning themselves that way. "We want to be a creative resource, not just directors," says Williams. "That's a new way of looking at what a director can do. For overburdened agencies and clients, we can start with the brief and develop ideas - and then if they want, take that all the way to directing." Tool of North America has a similar approach in mind, according to Burns.

Tim Case, who heads the rep firm Creative Management Partners, applauds that strategy. "It would be a mistake for these guys to just trade in copywriting for directing," he says. "They should try to do both, to become a creative company instead of just another production company." And Goodby thinks the approach might make sense in today's dot-com driven, "get-it-done-now" marketplace, with some clients looking to streamline the creative process. But Miller isn't so sure: "The opportunity to both create ideas and also direct them may be there when you're just getting started and dealing with small jobs," he says. "But if you want to become an important director, you have to make a decision - you're either going to keep doing your own ads, or you're going to direct someone else's. I don't think you can do both."

The art of selflessness

Indeed, yielding creative authority to someone else may be the hardest challenge (aside from basic survival) facing the new crop of directors. Some have a tough time directing scripts that they believe they could've written better themselves. That experience apparently soured Mark Fenske of the Bomb Factory on directing. "He found himself getting storyboards from people he never would've hired, and it was difficult to then work for those people," says Case. Fenske himself puts it this way: "For me, being a director wasn't as fulfilling as being the writer in an agency creative team. Coming up with the idea, writing the script, editing, sound, music, postproduction - those are parts of the process where I can create something. Me being the guy who runs the camera crew and then goes home is not the best thing that could happen to your commercial. So I don't direct anymore, unless it's my own stuff. I admire people who can be selfless enough to direct other people's work, but I'm not one of them."

In some cases, the crossover directors can help tweak and improve the idea, but "you do have to be careful about telling an agency creative team how to do their job," acknowledges Todaro. "I never try to ram something down their throats; I'll just say, `How about this line?' "

Landsman admits that he sometimes gets restless waiting for someone else to come up with ideas for him to work on. "I miss sitting down with an art director and coming up with my own ideas," he says. Meanwhile, Burns acknowledges that directing involves more grunt work than most neophytes realize: "People think of it as sitting in a highback chair all the time," he says. "But mostly, you're sitting in a van looking at locations, or in a dark editing room." Bennett and Williams agree, but they say they'll take that over client meetings and focus groups any day. "By the time you get to the directing stage," says Bennett, "the meetings and the focus groups are pretty much over, and it's time to just get it done. And that's the way we like it."

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