How to give female directors a fair shot

“When I went to film school, 50% of my classmates were women”—Nicole Dorsey, film and commercial director.

At this year’s Super Bowl, two notable commercials tackled female empowerment—a far cry from the beer-and-bikinis ads of yesteryear.

In a spot for social networking app Bumble, tennis star Serena Williams encouraged women to “make the first move” and find power in all phases of life. Toyota ran an ad starring Toni Harris—who is set to become one of the first women in history to play college football—with a message about shattering assumptions.

Behind the camera, however, female empowerment was largely absent from the script. Of the more than 40 ads that ran during the Super Bowl, women directed just four (including the Serena Williams spot). The glaring gender gap in the ad industry’s marquee event is no anomaly.

An abundance of talent, a shortage of opportunity

“Commercial directing is still very much a man’s game,” according to Nicole Dorsey, a Toronto-and L.A.-based film and commercial director. “When I went to film school, 50% of my classmates were women. So it’s not like there is a shortage of talent and ability. There’s just a shortage of opportunity—meaning actually getting the job.”

While concrete numbers are difficult to come by, the percentage of commercials directed by women likely mirrors what’s happening in film. In 2018, women accounted for just eight per cent of directors on the top 250 grossing films, according to a study by San Diego State University’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film.

In 2016, Mashable calculated that on Ad Age’s Production Company A-List, only 9.7% of rostered directors were women. That year, filmmaker Alma Har’el launched “Free the Bid” to push for equal opportunities in the global ad industry. The non-profit initiative asks agencies and brands to pledge that they will include a female director on any triple-bid commercial project.

Women are directing lots of other projects, such as branded content and music videos, but for some reason they’re still being left out when it comes to commercial directing said Free the Bid’s executive director, Emma Reeves. The triple-bid system being used for many projects today, she said, is “the most calcified, decades-old, jobs for the boys [process]—that’s what we have to crack.”

One of the reasons female directors aren’t getting more work is the lack of gender equality in creative ranks at ad agencies. “The key decision–makers may be functioning according to what I call a ‘mirrortocracy,’ which is hiring people who look like them,” said Reeves. “There are systemic biases, but we are definitely seeing improvement… And as agencies diversify, there are going to be more women and more diverse creatives listening to different perspectives.”

Free the Bid’s website features a constantly updated database of hundreds of female directors from all over the world. To date, more than 50 global ad agencies have taken the pledge, including Publicis Groupe, McCann and DDB. BBDO and CP+B reported a 400% increase in jobs directed by women, according to Free the Bid.

On the marketer side, Visa, P&G, Coca-Cola and HP are among the 16 brands that have signed on so far. “By identifying more talented women directors in more countries around the world, we will help level the playing field and create momentum for achieving equality in the director chair,” said P&G’s chief brand officer Marc Pritchard when the CPG giant announced it was signing on last June. “An equal creative pipeline is needed to ensure accurate and positive portrayals of women and girls in creative output and advertising that reflects our diverse world.”

The road to equality still has speed bumps

While everyone interviewed for this article agreed that the ad industry is working harder at bringing more female directors into pitches, there are still some speed-bumps on the road to equality. One concern many female directors have is that agencies are simply checking the box, and they have no chance at actually getting hired when they’re put on a triple bid.

“When we’re asked now for a female director, is it because it’s Free the Bid?” said Eva Preger, managing director and executive producer at Toronto-based production company Soft Citizen. “Is it because of their talent? How does a woman feel knowing they’re on the bid list because they have a vagina? Do you move forward with that or do you not? Does [the director] really have a chance at getting it?”

It’s a difficult problem to overcome, she says. “If I had the solution I would be sharing it left right and centre.” However, she believes real change is in the hands of agencies. “That’s the one thing I don’t have control over,” she said. “I can find the talent, I can set up those meetings, I can support them, but they are the ones that are going to have to get behind it, sell it to their clients and go for it.”

And that means actually getting behind it—not just paying lip service. Sid Lee took the Free the Bid pledge last July. In discussions with the agency’s creative directors and producers, Claudia Roy, the agency’s head of global production, content and experiential, has stressed that they need to be open to hiring a woman if they invite her to pitch.

“What we’ve agreed on is that if we invite three directors, they each have a 33% chance [of getting hired]. And if we don’t find the right expertise within the woman’s pool, then we don’t invite a woman. If we think that person could have a true chance, then yes.”

But that also means the creative team has to be more open-minded about considering potential, and less focused on prior work. To that end, Roy challenges the creatives at Sid Lee to have vision, be open and look for true potential, as they may not see exactly what they’re looking for on female directors’ reels.

A vicious circle

That’s a significant Catch-22. Because women haven’t been given as much opportunity, they might not have the reel the two men they’re pitching against have, said Chilo Fletcher, partner and executive producer at Toronto-based production company Someplace Nice.

“It’s a bit of a vicious circle,” she said. “A director with a less developed reel has to really impress creatively to beat a reel or relationship the agency can more easily sell through.”

According to Dorsey, some agencies and clients still view hiring women as taking a chance. “It takes a strong creative director to say [to clients], ‘I’ve been in this game for a long time, I know talented directors when I see them, and you have to trust me that I’m selecting the right director for you,’” she said. “I’ve done big brand spots. I did a Bank of America spot and I know the creatives had that mentality. They were confident and I think that made a difference.”

Agencies and marketers also need to avoid the trap of hiring women strictly for female-focused categories, such as feminine hygiene. “When you consider that women dictate how household income is spent, why isn’t there more of a female voice?” said Fletcher. “Business is determined by the culture that exists and provokes it. Hence, how can it make business sense for one gender to narrate the majority of messaging?”

It’s not that women are better at directing ads for women, said Reeves. “But it is undeniable that if you as a brand are appealing to an audience which is predominantly female—as in they are the key decision makers in the household—at least you should be considering the voice of a woman.”

The same rules don’t often apply to men, added Reeves. “If a woman doesn’t have a car spot on her reel, she is told she can’t do a car spot, which is obviously a Catch-22. Anyone can see that,” she says. “And yet, if you see a car spot on a young male director’s reel, then the question is, was he born with that? Did he come out of the womb with that car spot? No. At some point, somebody gave him his first car spot… It’s nonsense.”

As for her hopes for the movement, Reeves is convinced real change is coming. “We have a lot of agencies that are making a huge effort and we have more and more brands globally making firm commitments,” she says. “But it will take time.”

While change may come slowly and there may be challenges, there’s no going back now. “I’m extremely optimistic that everybody will discover new talent; it’s already starting,” said Sid Lee’s Roy. “So I think we’re walking in the right direction.”

-Rebecca Harris