Ad agencies are taking a huge step toward getting female directors hired

Two months ago, Mashable exclusively reported that less than 10% of television commercial directors rostered at the major ad agencies are female. Now, because of that story and the activism of director Alma Harel and others it included, more than a dozen of those firms are taking a major step toward a meaningful and immediate fix.

The agencies, including some major players, on Thursday announced their #FreeTheBid pledge, a promise to include at least one woman in every bid put forward for ad campaigns.

At the bidding stage, when agencies present talent to clients, its common to present three directors (usually with one “preferred” recommendation). Effective immediately, major agencies like Mother, FCB Global and 180LA are making it mandatory that one of those three be a woman.

Several major agencies are pledging to include at least one woman in the list of three potential directors for each client bid

Women are often not included in the three-directors mix because their reels cant compete with their male counterparts’, the result of years of gender bias. Introducing a mandatory female bid will hopefully help to change that and could trickle into Hollywood, as commercials directing is a traditional path to TV and feature film.

“I find #FreeTheBid so inspiring,” says Spike Jonze, known for his commercial work as much as features, on the pledge’s main web page, which launched Thursday. “It seems like a no-brainer. Of course we should be getting more women filmmakers to bid on jobs. As with all great ideas, it’s such a simple one and the end result is going to be getting more diverse voices into the conversation and therefore more diverse voices into the work which makes the work better.”

But making the pledge is one thing. Actually living up to it may be quite another as the low numbers of signed women could make this a challenge.

“To find great female directors first you have to look for them,” says Susan Credle, Global CCO at FCB, whose clients include Clorox, Nestle Waters and Anheuser-Busch and one of the first major players to pledge to #FreeTheBid. “Its that simple. [This initiative] reminds us all to open our eyes to the less obvious but perhaps even more brilliant choice. It helps move conversation from ‘Whereare the women?’to ‘Hereare the women.’ And its about time.”

Like in Hollywood, change is being routinely demanded in the ad world and even swiftly implemented, like when Saatchi & Saatchi Chairman Kevin Roberts was forced into early retirement after suggesting the industrys gender diversity issue was “over.”

How Mashable helped inspire #FreeTheBid

Alma Har’el at the 5th Annual Cinema Eye Honors for Nonfiction Filmmaking at the Museum of the Moving Image.

Image: Dimitrios Kambouris/WireImage

#FreeTheBid came about over dinner in a hip restaurant, where PJ Pereira, CCO and co-founder of Pereira & ODell (Coca-Cola, Intel, Skype) invited commercials director Alma Harel to catch up and praise her for her part in Mashable’s story on the issue.

“Immediately after I read it,” says Pereira, “I told my team that from now on we should always have a female director on the bids. Everyone seemed to feel that it was not only a natural decision but overdue, so we didn’t talk much more about it; it was the right thing to do, period, and we moved on.”

After hearing that, Harel immediately suggested that she would take the initiative to all advertising agencies and turn it into something much bigger. The problem she encountered: Some agencies were worried about finding enough women, or their clients feeling forced into a type of “affirmative action.”

And so Harel started what she calls her “process of reverse-engineering every problem that stops advertisers from working with women.”

The simplest solution

Lauren Greenfield, the only woman on client feedback firm Filestage’s recently published list of the 50 best commercials directors in the world. Greenfield directed an award-winning campaign for Always called “Like a Girl,” and landed at No. 38.

Image: Getty Images

#FreeTheBid attacks the situation from all directions by getting production companies and brands themselves to take a pledge, too. The site also showcases over a 130 directors from all leading production companies and will start to curate screenings of new directors for the pledged advertising agencies.

‘We’re ready. We don’t need a seminar, we need a job!’

“There are a lot of initiatives for women that offer support and courses and lists and seminars,” says Harel, whos been hard at work with a few women volunteers she gathered to bring together, “but my approach has always been, ‘We’re ready. We don’t need a seminar, we need a job!’ I couldnt have been an independent filmmaker and make the films I love if I didnt make a living directing commercials. I want to make sure other women filmmakers have the same chance to sustain themselves while being creative and shaping the way women are represented in advertising.”

#FreeTheBid comes as a solution to a problem the ad agencies are already trying to address.

“We have to remember that women are the No. 1 consumer group and make for 85 percent of product purchase decisions,” Harel said. “They’re tired of men telling them what to buy and how to feel about their bodies. The need for more nuanced work and a feminine point of view is natural. We’re just helping the process, we’re not forcing the need.”

Another potential fallout reaction: there are specific areas in commercial filmmaking cars, beer, sports brands where there aren’t many female directors with a lot of experience. Which is what Pereira thinks is precisely the problem.

“They can either sit down and wait for someone to fix it or join and get it fixed faster so we don’t have to worry about it anymore,” he says, “The thought that no woman is funny enough to direct your ad or that no female director can properly portray a car or the pleasure of drinking a glass of beer is simply preposterous. And the only reason why women may not have a strong reel with commercials in some areas is because nobody gives them a friggin’ chance.”

Read more: