Starting over: From creative director to filmmaker

After almost 20 years in adland, Sarah Clift left agency life behind to become a director. Here, she tells CR how she went about making her first film – and what she learned in the process

It was a birthday present from a friend that inspired Sarah Clift to make a career change after almost two decades in advertising. “It was a pack of pencils, and on the front it said ‘what would you attempt if you knew you could not fail?’ It sat in the drawer for a few months and I hadn’t really thought about it, but one day I saw it and thought, ‘if I could do one thing, I’d make a movie’.”

This was around five years ago. In 2017, Clift released La Madre Buena (The Good Mother) – a charming short about a mother’s quest to find a Donald Trump piñata. The film has been screened at over 80 festivals and won 38 awards, including a Young Directors Award at Cannes Lions. It’s an impressive achievement – and an inspiring story for anyone thinking of making a career change.

ift found her way into advertising after studying design at university. (She initially planned to study painting, but a tutor advised her she’d have a better chance of making a living from graphics or photography.) A trip to Leo Burnett’s offices in her first year sparked her interest in becoming a creative: “We did some workshops with the late Bob Stanners and it really inspired me: I loved the workplace, the building, the briefs … and I was good at coming up with ideas,” she explains. “I also saw advertising as a bit of a challenge. People told me that it wasn’t for women [at the time, there were only a handful of women in senior roles], so I thought ‘right – I’m going to prove you all wrong’.” After graduating, she got a place on Tony Cullingham’s prestigious ad diploma at West Herts College, and within 18 months, had landed her first job in the industry.