June 18, 2018

How I Went From Directing My First Spec Ad to Primetime TV Spot in Eight Months

Toby Wosskow
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.

Toby Wosskow
Toby Wosskow on the set of his BMW spec ad.

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!

Your Comment

13 Comments

Awesome! Very inspiring, great work.

June 18, 2018 at 3:23PM, Edited June 18, 3:23PM

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Nick
Director/Editor/Compositer
335

I was wondering what your budget was for that BMW spec ad.
I was curious because I was thinking about doing a spec ad and was wondering how much money did it cost to do something of that scale.

June 18, 2018 at 7:33PM

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We spent under $5k. Find a strategic partner who can bring the resources you need. We needed a location, cars, pro drivers, etc., so we found a racetrack to partner with, and found a way to make it mutually beneficial for them to come onboard and help us. Good luck with your spec!

June 19, 2018 at 12:42PM, Edited June 19, 12:42PM

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Toby Wosskow
Writer + Director
25

Great work and some good advice here too, thanks!

June 18, 2018 at 11:20PM

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Oliver Milne
Director/Cinematographer
122

Great work. Lots of heart. Solid advice too.

June 19, 2018 at 8:09AM, Edited June 19, 8:10AM

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Sean Breathnach
Writer\Director\Editor
171

Hi Toby, and thank you for sharing your story! The inspiration couldn't have come at a better time for me as I'm finding myself pigeon-holed into more and more editing jobs for a steady paycheck even though I'm primarily a shooter. This is was a great reminder to stay the course and turn down jobs that lead me astray. Wish you the best in your newly found career and thanks again! Also, I'm a huge BMW fan and I made a spec spot as well years ago, so this article hit even closer to home. Loved your spec spot.

June 19, 2018 at 5:31PM, Edited June 19, 5:31PM

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Steve-O
Director of Photography
205

This is such a wonderful story of talent, hustle and great taste. Thank you for sharing this and continued success with your work.

June 21, 2018 at 1:04PM

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Jordan Brady
Filmmaker
89

Toby, wow. What a great article. Thank you soooo much.
Now, conceptually it all makes sense. But the success or failure lies in the details. What did your emails, phone calls, in general your communication look like? Any principals, does & don'ts you can share? What words, language did you use? Is phone better than email? In person meetings? Maybe that is worth another article?

June 21, 2018 at 3:31PM

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May I ask how you go about script writing? The BMW spot had such a powerful storyline along with the refugee spot, how do you come up with that script?
Did you write it or work with a writer?
Are they also doing this as spec work?
On future projects now that you're hired by companies since you're now "part of the family" - do you also write their work or bring your writer with you?

June 21, 2018 at 4:10PM, Edited June 21, 4:10PM

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Travis Johansen - Minneapolis
Director of Photography & Producer
88

Hi Toby, interesting what gear did you use for BMW film?

June 21, 2018 at 4:17PM

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Good Work.

June 22, 2018 at 12:05AM, Edited June 22, 12:05AM

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Tanner Moss
Director of Photography / Film- Maker
8

This is a great article! Thanks for posting.

June 22, 2018 at 3:17AM, Edited June 22, 3:17AM

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K W
461

This is fuel for the hungry ... fantastic and thanks for sharing.

July 6, 2018 at 7:56PM, Edited July 6, 7:56PM

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Roberto Serrini
Director • Editor
426