How a commercials director was nourished by the fruits of a TV career.
Advertising likes directors to fit into neat boxes. Some specialise in food, others in animals, comedy performance, sports, or slick shots of cars cruising through picturesque valleys. A brief look at Phil Lind’s reel on the Mad Cow site makes it very clear that he’s avoided this fate. His work ranges from the profound and naturalistic to the jokey and scripted. And he attributes this diversity to the background that shaped him. Through sheer luck, he’s taken a route to directing ads that’s allowed him to reliably and steadily gain experience – a long meander through the machinery of a TV channel.
Growing up in Newcastle-upon-Tyne Phil had no idea what he wanted to do. After a foundation course and a degree he ended up qualifying as an interior designer, but soon realised the reality wasn’t for him. “I found myself sitting at a drawing board all day long, doing really mundane specification,” he says. “It was boring.”
His escape route from this tedium presented itself by chance, with a girl that he’d been at college with. “She was a bit untouchable,” he thought, one of those impossibly unattainable women. Phil bumped into her one day and took a punt on asking her out. To his delight she agreed. She told him she was working at Heaven (the Charing Cross superclub) on Saturday night so he could pick her up when she finishes. He assumed she must be a barmaid there.
He arrived, asked security to radio for her and was guided upstairs through the club. Loud Eurodance was blaring out (it was the early 90s). His date was no barmaid. She was working on a SNAP! music video as a production manager. He can’t remember if it was for The Power or Rhythm is a Dancer. Fair enough, they’re both huge dancefloor fillers. “They had five massive camera units live,” he says. “Everyone had headsets on and there were giant cameras and big lenses. It was like peeping behind the curtain. I’d never seen anything like it in my life. I was gobsmacked.”
Phil’s parents weren’t thrilled when he decided he instantly needed to jack his stable interior design job in to become a runner. Promoting nightclubs in the in the evening to support his new habit, he got himself on as many sets as he could in the day, running for free. The relationship with the production manager didn’t last, but Phil was firmly in love with film.
“It became very apparent very quickly that I could be a runner for the rest of my life,” says Phil. “While people were helpful and wanted you to move up, you had to be self-motivated.” He’d wanted to direct music videos since that moment in Heaven so he and his friend Justin found a track they liked and marched into a record company’s offices to ask if they could make a video for it. Astonishingly, they emerged with £2,000 without many questions asked.
The video did well for them. The track was Revival, by Martine Girault, which stayed in the dance charts for years. Phil and Justin got signed to Propaganda Films, sharing a roster with the likes of David Fincher and Mark Romanek. They were set, they thought. “It felt like it was going to be OK,” he says.
As it turns out, the first video was the easiest for a long time. “We were small fish in a pig pond,” says Phil. He was broke before long. But he had director friends, so he started producing music videos for them. He was surprisingly good at it. Having been in their position, he understood what directors needed. Soon, he started getting more work as a producer than as a director. “I felt like it was going a bit off course,” he says, “but I needed the money.”
Inevitably, this work led to ads. He started working on them as a production manager. “Suddenly this was commercials, with money sloshing around everywhere,” he grins, only half joking (this was the 90s, remember). Although he was working on the production side, Phil saw this as an opportunity to watch the best directors at work. With his sights still set on directing, it was like going back to school.
He soon came to learn the language of commercials, and having seen many of the best at work he had an idea of how to direct one. Channel 4 approached him asking if he’d produce some bumpers for Volkswagen. “In those days no one really understood what a sponsored programme was,” he says. “The broadcasters didn’t really know how to handle it.” Without as much agency involvement as an ad, there was a lot of freedom, too.
The Channel 4 environment was perfect. He realised they were shooting stuff two or three times a week, so when they offered him a job as Creative Services Manager he took it – anything for a chance to get stuck in on set and become a director again.
The job wasn’t directing though. Phil was managing all the directors and producers, similar to a head of production, but he soon found himself helping out with scripts for the TV promos they were churning out, gravitating back toward the creative and away from the managerial. Eventually his superiors sat him down. They’d noticed where his interests lay. Rather than chastise him, they made him a Creative Director for Channel 4 and found a new Creative Services Manager.
“That’s when it really started taking off again,” he says. “I was shooting more than most people. Once or twice a month sometimes.” Making promos sharpened his directing skills, working with the cast of Shameless, This is England and the celebrity chefs on a smorgasbord of snappy promotional films.
In many ways, it was the perfect training environment for someone who wanted to direct commercials. “The promo environment is about as close as you can get to a TV commercial,” says Phil. “They exist in the same airtime, so they’re bedfellows. And while everyone was aware that commercials, per second, had far more money spent on them, you still had to write a script and shoot it within a certain duration, you had voiceovers and you got to work with really good actors like David Threlfall [Frank Gallagher in Shameless].”
This is where Phil broadened his range. “One day it’s sport, the next day it’s drama and the next day is a documentary,” he says. “You end up being good at everything a little bit and then you have to focus. It gave me a chance to try out everything.”
After 11 years in the Channel 4 mill, a phone call came from elsewhere in TV land: “How’d you fancy rebranding the Nazi Party?” ITV knew they had an image problem and they wanted Phil to be Executive Creative Director for a complete rebrand. He couldn’t resist such a huge opportunity. He formed a pop-up team to oversee the project and took over a whole floor of the post house Envy to work it through.
“I was super excited,” he says. “When you looked at ITV’s properties it was such a mess. I honestly thought it doesn’t matter what I do; it’s going to be better than the crap they’ve got at the moment.”
He wrote a proposal for how each channel would change, worked with designer Matt Rudd to settle on the all-important logo and worked on making the transitions into commercials as smooth as possible. Then coming up with a style guide for idents. It was broad brush-stroke stuff, not the minutiae of directing a single promo or commercial.
Since then he’s had the chance to focus on specifics. After ITV he was asked to be Creative Director on the Unquiet series for The Times and The Sunday Times – a branded content project taking stories from the newspapers’ archives and making mini documentaries. Working with Dave Monk at Grey, they ended up making 14 perfectly-formed pieces of branded content after about 18 months.
Phil directed four of these, including one called Bearing Witness, stressing the importance of professional, objective war reporters. He interviewed Anthony Loyd and Jack Hill, who had just returned from being kidnapped in Syria. “They’d literally, just come back,” Phil says. “Anthony still had terrible knee problems from being shot and you could still see where Jack had been beaten. To be given access to them was amazing.” That’s about as far from recreating a scene from Gladiator with Gordon Ramsay as you can get. The other ten films gave Phil yet another chance to watch and learn from other directors such as Liz Unna and Will Clark.
Now he’s repped by Mad Cow and hanging his Creative Director hat in the corner, leaving that to the ad agencies. And having been on set for almost every kind of commercial shoot, his eclectic reel continues to expand. His work on the latest Dairylea ad was a triumphant return to the director’s chair, shooting near Cape Town for the sun, but blocking it out for most of the day for that grim Game-of-Thrones look. “It was refreshing to have a casting and actors,” he says. “For about two years every job was real people.” Whether it’s comedic performances, naturalistic documentaries or serious drama, becoming Mr TV has given Phil enough experience to draw on for a long and varied directing career. Advertising doesn’t have a big enough pigeonhole for him.