How I Went From Directing My First Spec Ad to Primetime TV Spot in Eight Months
Here are some lessons learned in my journey to becoming a commercial director.
In 2016, I started to see my favorite directors make these 30 second to 5-minute pieces of branded content that were up there in quality with my favorite short films. They were telling powerful stories that incorporated a product or a brand message without shoving it down your throat. The commercial space seemed to be getting more genuine, cinematic, and cool. I wanted in.
I emailed every commercial production company in the country and barely got a single bite. Why would I? How would they be able to pitch me for commercial jobs if I had never done one before? But how could I get a commercial job if I didn’t have anyone representing me? It’s the seemingly impossible catch-22 every young director faces.
I took matters into my own hands, willing my commercial directing career into existence.
Over the next year, I took matters into my own hands, willing my commercial directing career into existence. I made a branded short film on spec with no budget, and got BMW to release it. With some buzz and credibility, I was able to pitch myself for paid work, which eventually led to a primetime TV spot for Nike. Since the Nike commercial, I have had the opportunity to direct commercials and branded content for many other world-class brands, including Oakley, Footlocker, Fujifilm, and the United Nations.
As a 24-year-old director, I’m still figuring out my career path and finding my voice as a filmmaker. However, I have been on a unique fast-track in commercials and have picked up some lessons learned that will hopefully be insightful for directors trying to break into the branded space like I was just over a year ago.
1. Make a spec with a high chance of success
When I decided to make a spec, the first thing I did was reach out to everyone I knew to determine what contacts I had at different companies with recognizable brand. It turned out I had a friend of a family friend who was high up in BMW marketing. Through persistent follow-up emails, I got confirmation that she would watch my spec, and if it turned out well, consider promoting it through BMW’s social media channels.
With that confirmation email in my back pocket, I wrote a BMW treatment that was in line with the type of scripted-but-honest, emotional storytelling I wanted to be doing for brands. I pitched the concept to a racetrack in Arizona who were excited by the potential BMW marketing support, and the idea of shooting a film for car-lovers. We teamed up, and they provided the lodging, race cars, drivers, locations, and almost everything you see on screen. I drove out there with a small crew and my long-time DP’s camera, and we were able to make the film with practically no budget.
I sent it to BMW's marketing and pitched a release strategy around the father-son angle of the film. They loved it and shared it across their official social media accounts on Father’s Day. It reached a lot of people around the world and was well received by fathers, car-enthusiasts, and people in the advertising industry.
If the brand supports your spec, your legitimacy as a commercial director is proven and the odds of it gaining attention are far greater. So, before shooting, do all of the work on the front end to find a brand that will at least consider releasing it. Then, write something for them with a release strategy in mind. It helps to tie your film into a theme based around an event date (i.e. Father’s Day).
2. Generate your own buzz and use it before it’s gone
Whether the brand releases your spec or not, there is no guarantee that you will generate any publicity. It takes countless hours of work, but making sure the right people see your spot is as important as making a great spot in the first place.
Send personalized emails to journalists who have written about similar subjects, and inquire if they would be interested in writing about your spec. Reach out to large social media channels and influencers that support similar content and see if they have interest in sharing the piece. This process is time-consuming, but is the only way to make sure you find an audience.
Once you get some buzz, you need to capitalize on it quickly before it disappears. During this small window, you should reach out to the production companies and ad agencies you are interested in working with. This list should be ready to go prior to releasing your spec.
The only way to be a director in any medium is to also be an entrepreneur.
3. Be an entrepreneur
Hopefully, you are now able to leverage your spec to get some paid commercial work. However, the chances are that you will still spend more time cold calling or emailing people, pitching ideas on spec, and working on career strategy than you will spend actually directing commercials.
From my experience, the only way to be a director in any medium is to also be an entrepreneur. You have to hustle, be tenacious, and take risks. Nobody is going to offer you a job. You have to will one into existence, and after you’ve created one job for yourself, you then have to create another, and another, until the jobs start to create themselves.
I was directing commercials through various production companies and ad agencies that I was developing relationships with. One of those companies was an ad agency named Laundry Service, who had seen my BMW film and gave me the opportunity to direct a series of 10+ Nike commercials. One of those spots, starring a cast of NBA players and social influencers was originally intended to launch Nike x Footlocker's @HouseOfHoops Instagram channel, but the client was so pleased with it that they decided to also broadcast it on primetime national TV during NBA All-Star Weekend 2018.
Getting a primetime national TV commercial opened a lot of doors. You can’t predict which spot will be the one that gets you to the next level, but if you persist, it will come.
4. Your career will be defined by the work you don’t do
Once you start to get opportunities, it will be tempting to do anything and everything that you can get your hands on. However, the best advice I received was from veteran commercials director Chris Sargent who told me, “your career will be made, not by the jobs you take, but by the ones you turn down.” He explained that I could be pigeonholed, thus I should determine what type of work I want to be doing and spend every ounce of energy trying to get the jobs that push me in that direction.
If I do a commercial that goes against my voice and the work I aspire to be doing, then that is the work I will become associated with and it will inevitably set me on the wrong track, which is hard to backtrack on. No matter how tempting the paycheck may be, the best thing I can do for my career is to graciously turn down that job and describe the type of work I actually want to be doing. The commercial world moves fast and that same company may have something come up next month that is a better fit for me.
So, early on, before you develop your spec, define the type of work you want to be doing. I like to blend cinematic, narrative techniques with a sense of documentary realism. All of my favorite commercials tell powerful, human stories with a strong message, garnering brand loyalty as opposed to simply showing off a product. I saw an abundance of opportunities for this type of work, so that’s what I did with my spec and now that is the work I’m focusing on.
5. Find Your family
Somewhere down the line, once you have enough strong projects under your belt, commercial production companies will be interested in signing you exclusively. This will be your new family and it is important that you find the right fit. Before committing to exclusivity, direct a job with them to make sure you get along on a personal and work level. Then, make sure they understand your vision for the future and are onboard to help you get there.
I have been incredibly fortunate to find a perfect fit in Los Angeles-based production company Stept Studios. With two projects under our belts and many exciting projects in the pipeline, we released our first one together in honor of Father’s Day this weekend. It comes exactly one year from when I released my film for BMW… but this time it’s not on spec!