How To Do the Possibly Impossible: Break Into Commercial Directing

Wes Anderson American Express
Veteran commercial producer and indie filmmaker Jen McGowan shares practical tips for breaking into the ad biz.

Professional commercial directors can make about $30K per shoot day, which—let’s face it—is no small chunk of change for your average indie filmmaker. In order to create the financial freedom to build feature film careers, many indie makers aspire to get involved in some aspect of commercial production.

Kelly & Cal director Jen McGowan has been behind the scenes on ad shoots for almost 20 years, during which she has shot in four countries, with everyone and everything from chimpanzees to the New York City Ballet to P. Diddy. However, though some bigger name directors like Wes Anderson and Michel Gondry have tried their hand at commercial directing, the industry is not easy to get a foothold in (especially for women, as Mashable reported). In fact, in her entire career, McGowan has worked with only three female directors and one director of color.

With the stakes high, but the odds stacked against newcomers, No Film School asked McGowan for her insider perspective on how the industry worksand how you can get a leg up.

NFS: What does it mean to be a commercial producer? What do you do?

McGowan: I work as a freelance producer and production manager. What that means is, I get paid on a day rate to hire everybody to show up, put everything together, hand it in to the production company, and walk away. That's it. In the commercial world, my role is just the creation of the shoot. We don't really deal with post. We don't deal with special effects. We don't deal with music. It's the production of the shoot.

NFS: How do the directors get hired?

McGowan: The brand hires the agency, the agency goes out to production companies with their boards, and the production companies present directors who are on their rosters. The agencies select directors to present to the brand, the brand chooses a director, the director gets hired. The director usually has a producer that they work with on a regular basis. Then, they execute the shoot.

“It's very frustrating for young directors. They're like, ‘I don't want to be put in a box.’ I'm like, ‘No, you don't understand. You need to put yourself in a box.’”

NFS: How does someone get represented by a production company?

McGowan: You have to have a series of spots on a reel. The thing about the commercial world is it's super specific and literal.  For example, I saw this post on one of the commercial listservs that belong to: "I need a director that has Rube Goldberg experience." You know those Rube Goldberg machines? That specific.

But there are areas to break in if you’re willing to be specific. For example, I'll tell you where there is an opportunity for directors to work: tabletop directing. Think close-ups of water pouring out of a bottle cutting to into a glass, an ECU of a set of a woman’s manicured nails. Highly art-directed food, toys, or other products  Basically a bunch of close-up shots.

NFS: Wow, so it doesn't matter if the director has any sort of creative vision as long as they shoot the very specific thing that the company wants to sell?

McGowan: I am not kidding you. It’s just a different world than features. In the Rube Goldberg case, they wanted someone that had that on their reel so that they could do another thing exactly the same [way]. It's very frustrating for young directors. They're like, "I don't want to be put in a box." I'm like, "No, you don't understand. You need to put yourself in a box."

NFS: What do you mean by that?

McGowan: You want to be put in a box. If you don't decide to put yourself in a box, you're not going to work, because people aren't going to understand what the fuck you do. You need to say, "I do dog food commercials. That's what I do. I'm an expert in dog food commercials." Or, "I do car commercials." There are people who do exclusively car commercials for 40 years.

There are only a few guys in the world who do car commercials. And that is why it’s so hard to break in, because there are only a few guys who do it, period. And when those guys die, their assistants do it.

NFS: Can a reel contain spec commercials and still be effective?

McGowan: Absolutely. But if you are doing a spec with a known brand, you'd better be speaking the language of that brand.

Take Dove. It is a known brand. You understand the feeling of Dove. You understand what they're communicating. You don't do a Dove commercial and use punk rock music and cast all boys. You need to think properly for the brand. By the way, like all things in life, there are exceptions, but this is the general rule in this world.

It’s kind of like surfing: you want to be just in front of the wave, but if you're too far in front of the wave, you're going to get crushed. Nobody understands it if your idea is five years [too early]. They want you to only be half a year ahead.

“The best thing somebody could do if they want to work in commercials is to create a reel of three to four commercials that speaks clearly to their brand.”

NFS: But you do hear about indie directors making commercials, especially documentary people.

McGowan: Documentaries are slightly different because they are a genre in and of themselves, like cars are a genre. Music is a genre. Babies are a genre. Tabletop is a genre. You want to be able to brand yourself as precisely as possible, so the best thing somebody could do if they want to work in commercials is to create a reel of three to four commercials that speaks clearly to their brand, of what kind of commercial director they are. And it needs to be high-quality. This is something that filmmakers really don't understand. Unless they're doing comedy, they have to have high production values, particularly in commercials. And if they’re doing comedy, it better be funny.

Look critically at the quality of your work. I don't mean in terms of creativity. I would never judge anyone else's creativity. But in terms of quality, ask yourself, “Does this actually look like anything on television, or in a theater? Is this something better than to just show my friends and my family?” Because if it's not, don't show it to people!

“Don't direct commercials because you want to be directing features. If you want to direct features, direct features.”

NFS: Aside from just money, what are the pros of trying to break into commercial directing?

McGowan: Well, it is a shit ton of money, and that's legitimate. Also, you get to work with some of the top crews in the business. You get to work with some of the best tools and toys. You get to work in the best locations. You get to spend hours on a single shot. I would say the average budget of a 30-second commercialand this is just the shooting budget, mind you, which doesn't include post or talentis usually about $300,000.

NFS: So it's like a whole indie film micro-budget just for the camera department for one spot.

McGowan: Yeah, that's fun to work like that. It's great to work with a big crew, a professional crew that knows what the fuck they're doing. It's amazing.

It’s funny because I had an interview on the film side of things a couple months ago. An executive said to me, "Oh, you must be used to working with smaller crews." I thought, "What?" Why would he say that? I thought that was so weird. And then I realized, it was because he saw me as an indie filmmaker and doesn't know that I work in commercials, too, because I keep those worlds very separate. But I am much more comfortable on crews of 60 or 70 than I am on these little cut-down indie film crews. The smaller crews stress me out.

NFS: When thinking about what production companies to approach after you’ve made your reel, is the AdAge Production Company A-list a good place to start?

McGowan: Oh my god, yeah. Those are the top companies. But there are tons others too. Just do your research.

NFS: How would you go about getting your reel in front of them?

McGowan: You just need to reach out and cold call, but you need to test out your pitch and your reel on the companies you’re less interested in first. If you have your list of 10 people that you want to go to, put them in order of importance and work your way up. Because if you get three no's in a row, don't waste your A people. Start again.

One more thing: I would really urge people to understand that commercial directing is an industry. It is a career in and of itself. Sometimes what happens, especially with young filmmakers, is they say, "I'm going to do X to get to Z." In Los Angeles, where there is a monstrous industry, you need to do the thing you want to be doing. If you want to direct commercials, fabulous, direct commercials. But don't direct commercials because you want to be directing features. If you want to direct features, direct features. Done. Or you're going to do that for 20 years and realize, "Holy shit, my path was actually a complete diversion."     

You Might Also Like

Your Comment


There is far more ad work out there than it may seem. Marketers and ad agencies still make big budget spots but the vast majority of the work is being done at what you might call "ad indie" budgets. You can start there. You won't make $30k/day right away. In fact, it's a small pool that do. It's like anything else, you work up to that. See: V Renée's July 2 article on cinematographer rates:

It's kind of weird how commercial directors get paid. The day rate applies only for the days the camera is rolling. You might do a month or two of prep work for a one-day shoot or for a five-day shoot, but you'll get paid five times as much for the five-day shoot.

The Association of Independent Commercial Producers keeps a list of their membership online. Peep it here:

July 15, 2016 at 11:57AM

Nathan Laver
Commercial Director

Helpful additions. Thanks, Nathan!

July 15, 2016 at 1:45PM

Liz Nord
Documentary Filmmaker/Multi-platform Producer

*you might do a month or two of prep work*

in my 16 years of advertising work I can tell you that I have done exactly one commercial that had a director involved for a month and that was because it was all cg. and that director got paid.

as a director you are most likely to be on a few calls, submit a treatment, then assemble your crew with the production house and do pre-pro for 2-7 days. I know directors who "oh sorry, airport delays" were only able to dial in for final PPM meetings.

February 24, 2020 at 8:43PM


Absolutely fantastic article and very insightful.
Thank you NFS for your efforts and willingness to publish stuff like this.
You guys rock.

July 24, 2016 at 6:21PM, Edited July 24, 6:21PM

Jared Adamo
Creative Director / Producer

Love Jen McGowan's take. I actually preach "putting yourself in a box" at my Commercial Directing Bootcamp. It's where you learn the biz & process of what a professional director of commercials does. Note that when you go off to do your feature, you're basically exiting the ad world. When you return, you start over.

July 26, 2016 at 11:37PM

Jordan Brady

Great article, and a lot of good info thats usually hard to find. I've been directing (and repped) for about 5 years now, working as a filmmaker for about 15. I however have never believed in the "box" mentality. A lot of older people will tell you that you have to do this, that you have to choose a color to paint with, because you'll never be able to market yourself, and really I dont think that is true any longer. In fact, I think it's dangerous. In a world where EVERYONE is making media, to do only one thing is to limit your possibilities, also, it's hard to bring a unique dynamic to a project if you only do one thing. If you wrote the book on car commercials, and the only thing you write and read is car commercials, how can you expect to be novel.

March 18, 2019 at 11:28AM

Roberto Serrini
Director • Editor

Hi, I'm a creative director. I've worked for pretty much all the major ad agencies in the US, EU and China. And the notion that you have to be "in a box" is just plain wrong to me. Yes, you can be in a box. You can be the tabletop guy or the beauty person or whatever. There are those jobs. But often what happens is that I have written a script and sold it through and my in-house producer now slams a long list of directors websites onto my table and I am searching for the right folks to talk to and invite for treatments. Meanwhile I have my own favorite directors. It can be that I found one music video you did and googled your name to see if you did other stuff of similar quality.

I am reluctant to take a chance on someone unproven. It's just so much more work for me and I am most likely working on multiple campaigns simultaneously. But if you have five good pieces, if there is a common thread that I can sell you through on, your chance is every bit as good as that of David Fincher or Tarsem. Breaking in is no harder or easier than breaking into other genres. You want to get paid? Cool, you need to have a good reel and be able to deliver.

And by the way: the biggest thing holding inexperienced directors back is their treatments. It is incredibly easy to sniff out who has been around the block and who hasn't.

February 24, 2020 at 8:40PM


Jen got most of it right, but she forgot one critical part. This is a part as a producer, she wouldn't see because it happens before she is hired by the director. The ad agencies usually select 3-4 directors to bid on the project. Then each director has to write a treatment and a full on visual presentation of how they would execute the spot. These treatment are elaborate and not cheap to execute. Because it's so competitive and as she says, a shit ton of money is at stake, these treatments get pretty outrageous and can cost thousands of dollars. The fact is, if you can't put together a good treatment, you just won't get the job. that simple. So, you can have the best reel in the group, but if you don't have a vision, or are unable to sell your vision on demand, you just won'r work! Period. Commercial directors have to give good phone and have to be able to nail the treatment. Re: spec spots......Jen is right... If you dare to go shoot a spec piece for say... Nike, do yourself a favor, watch a bunch of Nike ads and make sure yours can live in that group. Your ultimate audience for that spec piece will be the people who created the real Nike ads. Writing and selling ads is a difficult craft. Nothing annoys an agency creative more than seeing a spec ad that no client would ever buy or no network would ever run. And the truth is: shooting a spec ad isn't a true test of your abilities. Having a client, 4 creatives, two producers (yes, two! one agency and one production house) a team of suits, and sometimes lawyers breathing down your neck on set is the real test. All their jobs are on the line and they all have an opinion and usually a mountain of research that pretty much tries to crush all creativity. Try directing your spot on time , on budget with that circus behind you! When the ad agency sees your reel, they consider all of that before they even send you the storyboard. Spec spots are a tricky balancing act. While you want to show off, try to do so within the strategies of the brand. My advice: Don't shoot a spec spot for a giant brand. Do something smart for a smaller lesser known brand. the scrutiny will be less. I've been directing commercials for 30+ plus years and I can tell you the success of spec spots is very hit or miss. I started as an agency creative and switched over to directing. While on the agency side i saw hundreds of spec spots on director's reals....and I would say very few were so impressive that i took note. Remember, when you present a reel of spec spots, nobody says "oh but look, he's only a beginner, let's give him a break". Putting that reel out there says you are ready to compete with the big boys.There is a reason 30K day rates exist. A good director earns it!

February 25, 2020 at 5:20AM

Steve chase

It feels quite privileged to say "if you want to direct features, direct features." I get the sentiment, but it shouldn't discourage people who have to take advantage of all the other avenues available in the commercial space in order to make a living first. The director of "The Vast of Night" is a great example of this (and there are so many others). Also a bit ironic in that she worked as a commercial producer for many years before she made a career as a feature director.

December 9, 2020 at 10:23AM, Edited December 9, 10:23AM


The advertising business is very specific, yes, that's why one has to choose the brand categories they really want to work in. Although that's common sense, I read that in an article just before this. For instance, focus on specific target markets you are great at or have a passion for: Food and Beverage, Alcohol and Tobacco, Consumer Products, Lottery, Automobile or Transportation, Travel, Hospitality, Energy, Prophylactics or Sex and Reverse Sex Techniques, Mouth or Oral Hygiene, and so on. Which are all worthwhile avenues to work on. Thank you. I enjoyed this article too.

January 11, 2021 at 1:18PM

Tommy Luca
Chairman and CEO / DreamFactory Studios