In our new series on poachers-turned-gamekeepers, Nyall Cook reflects on his transition from agency creative to director.
I recently completed my first commercial job as a director. It was for Tefal. The film is nice. It’s sweet, charming and even a little funny. Well, I hope so. See that’s what I’ve found the most challenging aspect of directing… actually pulling off your vision. My name is Nyall Cook, ex-agency creative, wannabe director.
I’m by no means the first creative to leave behind the brainstorms, internal politics, and leftover meeting food of agency life to chase a dream. Far from it. But I am the only one I know, out of the ‘recession generation’ of pre-30 year old creatives. So for now I have no one to directly relate to about making the jump from Keynote King to a behind-the-camera maestro.
To be honest, I’ve always been slightly in awe of the directors I’ve worked with. I owe my entire ‘creative reel’ to them. They took my scripts and scamps, and turned them into something magical. You see, being a creative is an awesome job, but also a tough one. You need to be relentless yet diplomatic. Fighting for ideas; yet taking criticism on the chin. The amount of work that goes in before directors are called in is staggering. I’ve always wanted to make ads. I got into advertising to make ads. But little did I know all those years ago, on the placement round, that I’d be assigned to a back row seat.
So, in September last year, I left big agency life to pursue a new path. It’s been hard, and slow to start, but an incredibly rewarding journey. I consider myself very lucky to bag this first commercial job. Any ‘young’ director would.
Interestingly, I’m now actually a partner at a production company, Habana Creative, but that doesn’t necessarily guarantee commercial work. First off, I had to build a reel, and that isn’t fast or cheap. Secondly, I’ve never studied filmmaking, and had underestimated the immense technical understanding you need – I’d always had professionals to look after this for me - I had to learn a lot on the spot - thank you, personal projects.
So when the script came in, and the budget was pretty low, I took the opportunity. As helping directors with their treatments is part of my current role, I felt at home writing my own. I love writing treatments – I built a career writing creative presentations, and they’re not too dissimilar.
The tight budget actually became a bit of bonus for me, as it gave me lots of creative freedom to tell the story I wanted to tell. I feel setting the tone of your spot, and seeing it through to execution, is one of the most crucial aspects of a director’s responsibilities. And getting agencies and clients to agree to it, and share your vision, can be even harder.
My first experience of this came when I had to present my treatment to Tefal. As a creative I took pleasure in presenting director’s treatments – as the good ones improve and build upon your idea – so naturally I wanted to present my own to the clients. Luckily the agency agreed. I think my years of presenting concepts were a real benefit here as the whole thing went smoothly.
Onto production… One of the aspects of my new job that I love the most is how collaborative it is. As an agency creative it’s easy to sometimes feel like the world is against you. But with directing it seems people always want to help you out - your producer, your casting director, your DoP, all the way through to your talent on the day. Brilliant. I also love the attention to detail as a director; I’m really keen on art direction and styling (I actually styled the spot) and loved creating my own little world. I found it all incredibly creatively fulfilling.
Looking back on it now, I never fully appreciated the diverse skill sets a director needs. You have to be a good writer, a visual storyteller, direct acting, spot talent, lead a crew, collaborate with agencies and clients, and then there’s all your post-production responsibilities. It’s like piecing together a complicated puzzle, and if one piece doesn’t fit – you’re screwed. Directing is one of the most hands-on yet visionary jobs I can think of. Any good creative is a visionary, but making the jump to director involves technical understanding and craftsmanship. This can be tricky to grasp at first, but having the right people around you helps massively.
I loved the pace of my first commercial job, compared to slogging it out for 5 months on one campaign as a creative. But with pace comes an end. And now it’s all over. Although I help run Habana Creative, I don’t know exactly where my next commercial gig might come from. Opportunities don’t land on my desk daily anymore. It’s all about fighting for each and everyone one now. But if they’re anywhere near as rewarding as my first ad, I’m happy to fight for them all.
Essentially I think are pros and cons to working as a creative before directing. I fully understand the process of advertising; which agencies love. I get new trends, technologies and of course concepts, which I hope to add to. I grew up in this industry, but this could also be seen as a negative. Creatives love directors that will add an unexpected brilliance to their work, perhaps learnt from other industries; shooting promos, films, documentaries, and art installations – you name it. But then again I’ve got time to try my hand at all of these. And look forward to doing so.