How talent, inspirational mentors and a lot of hard work ‘accidentally’ led to success directing commercials.
If you want to be a commercials director, you should probably stop trying to become one. Having interviewed a few of the most successful ones, it seems clear that they all fell into their jobs backwards, without really trying.
Take Sam Brown for example, a director who’s consistently held a place in the top tier of ad directors for some years now at Rogue Films. He had no burning desire to direct originally, but here he is. “Most of the directors I’ve met never intended to become directors,” he agrees. “They just stumbled into it.”
But while he wasn’t running around as a little boy with a Super-8 camera, it was clear from an early age that Sam had creative talent. He did a lot of drawing and remembers taking a unique approach even back then. “If I was going to draw a man I’d always start with the hand or something, but I’d do the hand with as much detail as you can possibly imagine and then grow the man from there,” he says. “Quite of then I wouldn’t finish them, so I have all these drawings of half a person. The hand is immaculate but the rest is not drawn at all.”
Sam had no ambitions to turn his talents into a career until he was approaching his GCSEs at the public school he attended. “I didn’t work very hard,” he says. “I was disruptive.” He was good at drawing but the old-fashioned school had never treated art as a real subject and so Sam had never considered it seriously either. But his path was altered by the school’s new art teacher, who put Sam on track towards a successful future when he came in and created a completely new, serious art department for the school. “I remember him taking me to one side and saying ‘art and design can be a career for you’”, he says. “’You can be as successful and make as much money as these other boys who are going to go out and be bankers.’” The teacher explained that everything from toothpaste packaging to the title sequences of films is made by someone.
This was a revelation for Sam, who remembers the conversation vividly. “It was the first time somebody had said to me ‘someone is out there having a good life and successful career doing this. And you could do it too if you focus and stop fucking about.’ It was an eye opener.”
From then on he knuckled down a bit and dedicated himself to the visual arts, eventually earning a degree in photography. After the expensive course he graduated completely broke, so was forced to get a job straight away while his buddies ran off travelling round Thailand and India.
The job he ended up in was as a runner for a food photographer. “God, I hated that,” he reflects. But it was good practice in honing the meticulousness his childhood drawings had hinted at. The photographer was doing one or two ten-by-eight plates a day for magazines, teaching him an important lesson in patience and attention to detail.
This was in the late ‘90s, when the music video industry was going through a golden age. Visionaries like Jonathan Glazer, Spike Jonze, Chris Cunningham and Michel Gondry were making the promos that we still regard as seminal. Sam wanted to get involved. “You had amazing directors creating bodies of work,” he says. “Every couple of months they were turning out something extraordinary and you don’t get that anymore. It’s just people coming in, doing single videos and vanishing for ages.” Of course, crucially, there was also still money in music videos.
Sam sent out hundreds of letters to production companies and after about a year in his photography running job he started answering the phones at Activate, the company that had represented Chris Cunningham, John Hardwick and Ben and Joe Dempsey. It wasn’t the best time to join the team. The week after he joined the company disintegrated and the partners went their separate ways. “I remember sitting in the office and my boss Mary Calderwood coming in and talking about how to divide up the assets and who was going to have what directors. I remember he pointing to me and saying ‘he’s coming with me.’” She wasn’t asking.
Mary went on to form Flynn Productions, who became one of the foremost names in music videos. But at the start it was just her, one other producer and Sam in an empty office with hardly any directors. “It was like Ghostbusters, sitting there waiting for the fucking phone to ring in this huge office.”
Flynn took off pretty quickly and soon Sam started doing more than just answering the phones. He’d notice treatments doing out to commissioners with grammatical mistakes. His meticulous nature couldn’t stand for that, so he started staying late to rewrite them. Soon he was writing whole treatments for directors, sometimes expanding ideas written on the back of an envelope or a napkin. Eventually tracks would come in that none of the directors wanted to touch. Mary asked Sam why he didn’t pitch on those himself.
He reluctantly started making low-budget music videos with absolutely no experience in filmmaking. £30,000 was considered low-budget back then, so it was a daunting responsibility for someone who didn’t know what crucial members of crew actually did. “I really was in at the deep end,” he says. “I had excruciating early experiences [and] made a series of absolutely diabolical music videos.” Sadly none of these are available online. “I hope they’ve been sealed in some sort of casket and jettisoned into space.”
Slowly Sam worked out his role in filmmaking with help from other people at Flynn. He remembers the mentorship of Alex Hemming, another director at Flynn who served as Sam’s Director of Photography on some of these early videos. “He’d talk to everyone on set from the runner to the caterer. That was really helpful in learning how to conduct yourself on set and understanding that as a director your mood is infectious.”
Ultimately, he’s happy he had to learn the craft of directing on the job. “There are no rules to directing,” he says. “You have to figure out your own strategies and the uniqueness of your process is what makes you individual as a director. Figuring it out from nothing is a really valuable thing.”
Finding a unique approach was challenge at the time, because every director was compared to the titans – Gondry, Cunningham, Glazer, Jonze. “It was very easy as a young director to want to be one of those guys,” remembers Sam. “They represented completely different avenues of filmmaking and had pretty much everything covered. They changed everything and it was hard for [other] directors to find their own voice.”
Struggling to find his place in the directing milieu took its toll. “I felt very demoralised and really wanted to leave the business,” he confesses. He began to believe he was a charlatan and that his videos were terrible. But Mary didn’t agree. Aware of his potential, she gave him a chance to find his feet again. She told him to make a film for himself, with no brief or client, and gave him several thousand pounds to make it happen.
The resulting short film was called The Fight, a slow-motion struggle between two people with a dance-like quality. It felt like he’d found his own voice. “I’m not sure it’s a brilliant film but it was very different at the time,” he says. “I did have a sense that I was making something completely uncommerical.”
Ironically, it ended up working very well commercially. Commissioners got to see it thanks to Mary’s evangelising. “All sorts of people tried to buy it,” says Sam. And eventually it found its purpose as the video for The Man Who Told Everything by the Doves.
This success gave Sam confidence in his role as a director. Finally he bloomed into the talent Mary had seen in him, crafting a distinct tone of voice. “I made a series of videos that felt like they were mine and not anybody else’s,” he says.
His next career-defining moment came from another all-or-nothing project. This time it was the last chance for a label to launch an artist. James Blunt had made a song called You’re Beautiful. It had already been in the charts but had languished in the lower positions and made little impact. The label wanted to repackage it and remake the video. They told Sam he could do whatever he wanted. It was a last-ditch effort to save this artist.
A successful indie music video director by this point, Sam had just had his first child and wasn’t making a lot of money. He was wondering if it was time to get a proper job. It was a last-ditch project for him too.
Choosing a one-day, one-shot approach with James Blunt himself having to jump off a building for real, it was a risky idea. “It was a set of ingredients I’d never go near now,” he says but, as we all know, it worked.
You’re Beautiful went to number one and became one the most overplayed pop songs of the decade. Sam was excited to see something he’d done directly drive commercial success, but eventually suffered from this success. “It was tough for me how ubiquitous that song became,” he says. “It almost became a trigger for me. I’d hear it in hotel receptions and go into a rage. I felt responsible for inflicting this thing on the world.”
Seeing the result of his risk-taking made him more reckless. Looking back he finds it baffling the number of times he’d get sent a track, write a treatment and not speak to the commissioner or the artist until he got on the shoot. “It was like ‘hang on. I’ve just taken 150 grand of your money and you won’t ask me any questions about it?’ It was an extraordinary amount of trust.”
The crazy days didn’t last. Once the recession struck and budgets collapsed, things started to get stretched. “The straw that broke the camel’s back was the video I did for Adele for Rolling In The Deep,” he says. With over 600 million views on YouTube now and a Grammy for Best Music Video, it undoubtedly helped propel her career, but never made Sam any money from it. He quickly decided it was time to get into commercials.
At the time it was a fairly natural progression. With the budget gap between promos and ads relatively small, they were closely tied together. It’s not so easy now. “I feel like me, Si & Ad and Scott Lyon were the last few directors wriggle through that door as it was closing,” he observes.
Rogue were the first company to approach Sam and he made the transition very smoothly with them, starting out working on commercials with the style of music videos. Careful not to get pigeonholed as one kind of director, Sam managed to broaden his style very quickly and it shows on his eclectic advertising reel, from light-hearted stuff like Strongbow, Moments of Truth to Guinness, Black, which is more like a music video than a commercial.
Sticking with Rogue, Sam’s ascent through the ranks of advertising directors has been meteoric. He’s picked up awards including golds at BTAA, Cannes, London International, Creative Circle and a best direction pencil at D&AD. He’s in the top league of commercial directors.
Occasionally Sam returns to music videos, but he’s different from others who go between the two formats. The big reason people go back and make music videos is for freedom expression, as he understands it, “because you’re the dictator of your own little island when you do a music video.” But Sam finds he gets quite enough freedom on the commercials he works on. “People come to me to develop things, reinvent things, come at them from a different angle. So I don’t crave the freedom of music videos because I get that in commercials, but with more money and better ideas. And actually, I don’t like being the dictator of my own little island. I like working with people, taking their ideas and making them better.”