How To Become A Commercial Director in 2019

By , Published on Aug. 25, 2019

Tons of people ask us about what commercial directors do or how to become one, so we decided to write up a few answers to common questions based on our experiences in the industry. We'd love to answer even more questions, so leave comments below and we'll be sure to read them and try to answers more and keep this post updated frequently.

What is a commercial director?
Talbot Twin directors, photo by Tal Vardi Photography

What is a commercial director?

A commercial director is a person in charge of realizing the creative vision of a brand. Much like the common understanding of what a film director does, commercial directors have the added responsibility of managing the creative expectations of clients, advertising agencies, and other brand stakeholders.

Often, commercials are much shorter than other types of films, but they can be just as cinematic, and deliver story in a lot of the same ways. Commercial directors take up the task of inheriting non-traditional advertising film scripts (usually created to sell through messaging and not necessarily written in script format) and transforming them into shootable stories told in 30, 60 or 90 seconds. They often work closely with the advertising agency to balance entertainment with messaging.

Are commercial directors and music video directors the same?

Depending on where you look, commercial directors and music video directors often come up in the industry the same way. A lot of hard work goes into starting a career in directing - from spec commercials to music videos for local bands. Most directors who are just starting out tend to invest their time for free to build their portfolio before looking for professional work in their city.

In North America, there is some crossover between music videos and commercial directors. Some of the more famous examples are David Fincher and Michael Bay. But today, the industries are a bit more divided: advertising agencies tend to favour directors with lots of commercial work in their books, and music video commissioners tend to favour directors with lots of music videos in their books.

In Europe, there is much more crossover, with many music video directors actually being sought out to direct commercials for national and multinational brands. They've become the it-kids, as their popular styles are emerging in pop culture, and advertising creatives look to pop culture to influence their work.

What do commercial directors do?
Cinematographer Bryn McCashin and director Jordan Findlay, photo by Kristoff Duxbury.

What do commercial directors do?

Perhaps most unlike film directors, the bidding process for commercials is quite unique. Directors are selected from a large pool by the client and advertising agency, and then given the opportunity to pitch their vision for the commercial. That vision is often accompanied by a phone call and a director's treatment. Once the pitch is complete, the director may be chosen as the winner of the bid. There is also a lot of new talk in the industry to help make the pitching process more transparent and equitable for everyone, and to minimize free work.

Since commercial timelines tend to be rather short, about 1-2 months in duration unlike films which can take 1-2 years, there's often an accelerated schedule for pre-production, storyboarding, camera tests, casting, location scouting and so on.

Unlike most film directors, commercial directors are seldom involved in the post-production of commercials. They may weigh in on editorial; however often this is left in the hands of the advertising agency to handle as they oversee in much more granularity the look/feel of the commercial brand.

Commercial directors and Commercial cinematographers often aren't even involved in colour grading or sound mixing either. Although there is a resurgence lately for directors who become involved in post production due to the ubiquity of technology, software, and the relationships they form with colorists, editors, sound designers and music composers.

How to become a commercial director?

Commercial directors don't become commercial directors overnight. They either work on building their portfolio of spec projects on their own, or meet with local producers who help get them started. Many production companies seek out directors to add to their commercial rosters, or often times, companies work with emerging directors to build up a strong portfolio.

The best way to become a commercial director is to keep meeting people: producers, production companies, other directors, and get feedback on your work so you can keep improving. Work on your treatment writing, your image references, and how you convey your ideas on paper as well as the way you speak about your ideas.

You've got to essentially become a salesperson for your own work.

Can commercial directors also become film directors?
Cinematographer Jon Thomas, photo by Tal Vardi Photography

Can commercial directors also become film directors?

Yes! Even though the industries are a bit different, commercial directors often have aspirations of making movies as well. There are many directors who do both, and they often use some of the money they make with commercials to fund their own short films, passion projects, or to give them time to work on their screenplays. Many of our own directors work on films during their personal development time.

There is no secret that having a commercial directing background is a big help for pitching your script ideas for funding, investors, producers, and A-list talent who might be in your next big film. The same tactics for selling your ideas to an advertising agency and to a brand work well here - and practicing your ability to communicate ideas on paper and verbally will only make your sales pitch for a feature film that much more enjoyable.

What do production companies look for in a commercial director?
Director Sophie Jarvis, photo by Tal Vardi Photography

What do production companies look for in a commercial director?

Production companies like BOLDLY often look for commercial directors who can communicate, collaborate, and carve out a unique style.

Communicating clearly, whether it's on the phone, in person, on paper, in a treatment, or on set is the most important factor when we look for commercial directors. You need to be able to use works like "if", "but", "and then", "except" and not overuse phrases like "you know?", "sort of", "kinda", "like", and fluffy non-definitive words that don't mean anything tangible. Be decisive with your words and avoid saying too much just to fill gaps in the air. Then, when you are writing your treatments, make sure that your words actually say something and don't overcomplicate the message.

Collaborating is another key pillar of being a commercial director - it's not always about being an auteur, it's about hearing from all the stakeholders: the clients, the creatives, the production team, and making informed choices or suggestions that are supported by the realities of the project. Communicating and collaborating go hand in hand when you're working together to solve problems with creative choices, logistics on set, and final polishing in the edit room.

Carving out a style is probably the most difficult aspect of becoming a commercial director. Advertising agencies and clients want to see that you've done the exact same commercial they want at least three times. Having a portfolio of 3-5 projects that all fit within a similar style or genre will make you a great option because you can prove that your work is consistent. There would be nothing worse than a director who has 5 totally different styles and genres in their work and flipping a coin on set to see whether that car commercial is going to be comedic, dramatic, musical, highly stylized, or slow and subdued. The commercial industry doesn't work that way - so show us consistency and wrap it up with some style element unique to you - then you'll stand out in the crowded advertising landscape.

Thanks for reading!

If you like this post, please share with directors and film people you think might like it. If you have more questions that weren't answered above, leave us a message or a comment below and we'll try to answer for you.

If you're interested in learning more about our directors, have a look at our Commercial Director roster.

Sebastien Galina

Sebastien Galina

As a Partner and Executive Producer, Sebastien helps develop business and production processes, leads art direction, copywriting, and content. As a Post-Production Supervisor, Seb makes sure BOLDLY's tools, techniques, and post workflows stay efficient, powerful, creative and robust in the face of a changing commercial industry landscape.

Get in touch with Sebastien Today