Have Girl-Powered Ads Empowered Female Directors?

Commercials Are Celebrating Women, but Few Are Directed by Women

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Sport England's viral video
Sport England's viral video

"This Girl Can," an ad from Sport England, attempts to encourage women to get fit by depicting them exercising in a totally honest way. Far removed from the glossy spots of Nike or Under Armour, it opens with a close-up of a swimmer's jiggling backside and goes on to feature other "real" females -- red-faced and sweaty, cellulite and body fat wobbling proudly. The ad has earned more than 7 million views on YouTube since launching in January and generated massive creative buzz.

Kim Gehrig
Kim Gehrig

But its director, Kim Gehrig, has an admission to make: "This project was the first time in which I actually admitted to being a female director."

Australian-born Ms. Gehrig, a former creative at Mother who is signed to U.K. production company Somesuch, believes that her unisex first name has helped her get a foot in the door with agencies who assumed she was a man. She's not alone; another female director named Kim, Backyard's Kim Nguyen, says this has been suggested to her, too.

"I didn't want to get pigeonholed as a female director who only did tampon and makeup ads," said Ms. Gehrig. "But with 'This Girl Can,' I felt that it was important that there was a female voice for the piece."

It's one of several recent ads with a strongly "female" voice that has proved widely popular on social media; others include the groundbreaking "Like a Girl," from Procter & Gamble's Always brand, which was also directed by a woman, Lauren Greenfield.

Known for her documentary work on films such as "The Queen of Versailles," Ms. Greenfield, represented by Chelsea Pictures, was nominated for a Directors Guild of America award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Commercials for "Like a Girl" -- but says she was shocked to find herself the first solo woman to receive a nomination.

She believes "Like a Girl" -- which started out online, drew 75 million views worldwide and eventually became a Super Bowl ad -- proved that women's voices can make a real impact. "I think brands are starting to recognize that women can really drive these huge numbers," she said. "If success means hiring a woman, it will happen."

Yet female directors are still uncommon in the commercial production world. Reasons cited include a lack of role models, a macho culture among "old-school" production crews and a flawed perception that women are only capable of working on certain kinds of advertising.

"I still walk into meetings where people are shocked I am a woman," said Ms. Gehrig. "Agencies are fine but crews can be really intimidating. There is a very blokey culture around the technical side of filmmaking, although that is now changing with younger directors of photography."

A perception that women "can't do comedy" is also a barrier for female directors, although that cliché is being demolished by the likes of movies such as "Bridesmaids," TV shows such as "Girls," and comedians such as Tina Fey and Amy Poehler.

"There is only a handful of female directors that do comedy," said Amy Nicholson, an agency creative and documentary maker who recently signed with Supply and Demand for commercial representation. "Although 'Saturday Night Live' has shattered that whole thing about women not being funny, directing is a little different -- someone has to trust you to get that performance out of that incredibly funny person. But it would be great if there was to be some dovetailing of those two worlds."

There are also practical considerations for female directors that men haven't traditionally had to deal with. "You have to give the client the impression that there is nothing else going on in your life, and that is hard when you have kids," said Ms. Gehrig, who has a young daughter. "I hid my pregnancy, and couldn't shoot after seven months because of insurance."

Lack of role models is widely cited as a reason women don't become directors. "On 99% of sets, people have come up and said to me that they haven't worked with a female director before," said Backyard's Ms. Nguyen, who has filmed for the likes of MTV and ESPN.

"The tipping point will be when more women are doing it," said Rattling Stick's Sara Dunlop, whose résumé includes spots for KFC, Vodafone and the Royal Navy. "When you are a girl and interested in film, you don't think of directors as being women, so maybe you gravitate toward other roles."

That tipping point could be coming fast. According to Ms. Greenfield, Sundance is now "almost half women" and a brunch held there for women in film was packed.

Park Pictures' Alison Maclean, who recently directed a Clinton Foundation campaign for International Women's Day in which prominent women were heard but not seen, said that while women still need to be "tenacious and bloody-minded" to make their names via the traditional route, "we will see women come up through other channels -- for instance via YouTube and social media."

Sometimes having a feminine touch can be an advantage. Ms. Gehrig believes the (non-actor) women cast in the Sport England ad wouldn't have necessarily trusted a male director to film them, for example, in such glorious close-ups. "There is a unique point of view that a female director can offer," she said.

Yet Ms. Gehrig is wary of what some are calling "fem-vertising."

"That frankly makes me feel quite sick," she said. "I don't want brands just to be jumping on this bandwagon."

And even in a world where female directors are in demand, it's still important for women not to be pigeonholed, warned Ms. Dunlop. "I work really hard to get a cross-section of work that doesn't just have female leads. It's important to get work that transcends your gender," she said. To make her point, she cited a famous quote from movie director Stephen Daldry: "You don't need to be a dog to direct 'Lassie.'"

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