Has the ad industry improved for women directors?

Women filmmakers have racked up long overdue accolades in recent film and TV awards. But what is the state of play in the commercial world?

All eyes have been on leading film and TV awards like the Oscars and BAFTAs of late. In recent years criticism has been repeatedly levelled at such awards bodies for undervaluing creators that don’t fit into the straight white male framework, compounded by global social justice movements such as #MeToo and Black Lives Matter.

As far as female directors are concerned, things appear to be moving in a more positive direction. Throughout the 2010s, a lonely Greta Gerwig had been the only woman to be nominated for best director at the Oscars. This year, however, Chloé Zhao’s win for Nomadland marked the second time a woman had won best director – and the first woman of colour ever – while Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman picked up Best Original Screenplay.

The word ‘progress’ has been bandied about during an entertainment awards season that marks a step in the right direction. Yet over in the commercial world, a slightly different picture emerged following the 2021 Super Bowl, the biggest event in the US advertising calendar. According to Pamala Buzick, COO and director of partnerships at talent discovery platform Free The Work, roughly 45 directors are usually involved in Super Bowl commercials each year. Out of this, she says an average of five directors have been women or female-identifying in recent years – a paltry number that dwindled even further to just three in 2021.

Launched nearly two years ago, Free The Work aims to champion underrepresented creators across the commercial and entertainment industries. The initiative evolved out of Free The Bid, a non-profit set up in 2016 by filmmaker Alma Har’el that sought to increase the number of women in the running for commercial jobs and on production company rosters.

“Before Free the Bid started, I would say rosters were generally about 5% women, and now they’re at 20-25% on the rosters, which is a great improvement. Is it 50%? No. So is there still a really long fight to go? Yes. And I would say for women directors, it’s still not an even playing field,” says Buzick. In a historically male-orientated industry, women directors are still being considered an afterthought or as underrepresented talent that often has to work doubly hard to prove themselves. “I would say some of those experiences have not changed.”

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Top: Brand film for cable channel Lifetime directed by Sarah Chatfield. Above: Free The Work aims to champion underrepresented creators across entertainment, advertising and the media

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