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#FreeTheBid is a Great Start for Female Directors – Now the Industry Must Keep Its Promise

London, UK
Alma Har’el has made the world’s biggest ad networks vow to open their eyes and minds to women filmmakers. Laura Swinton hopes that they follow up on it
Well done Alma Har’el for giving the industry the kick up the backside that it sorely needed. The director uppercut her way into my list of heroes last week with the announcement of #FreeTheBid, a fantastic new scheme to break down the boys club that locks women directors out of the ad industry. With a bit of help from Pereira & O’Dell’s PJ Pereira, she has wrangled an impressive roster of agency groups, from FCB and DDB to 180 and Mother, and made them promise to include at least one female director in every three invited to pitch. This is blast-away-the-glass-ceiling-with-a-rocket-launcher stuff.

“But isn’t it just tokenism?” “Isn’t it unfair to men?” No. No, it really isn’t. We need to get that particular whinge out of the way before we go further. Half of film school grads are women. But 9.7% of directors on commercial production company rosters are women. Now, unless these young aspiring female filmmakers are just totally shit (and I don’t *think* that’s likely to be the case…), there’s obviously a massive disconnect happening. And, what’s worse is that has a negative impact in wider popular culture. Music videos, commercials and, increasingly, online content are the creative sandboxes where aspiring feature and TV directors hone their skills. As I mentioned the other week, Australian director Gillian Armstrong credited the Aussie ‘boys’ club’ of advertising as one of the key reasons that there are so few women shooting feature films.

I don’t think that, nowadays at least, there’s any deliberate attempt to squeeze out women directors. And there are some FANTASTIC filmmakers doing well in the industry – Aoife McArdle, Kim Gehrig, Sara Dunlop to name but three. But overall the picture is pretty poor, down to a mix of unconscious bias and a hard-to-break-into feedback loop of agencies only ever working with directors they’ve already heard of. And while I’m sure plenty of creative teams or agency producers have thought, ‘yes, yes, we must try harder…’, it’s easy to let good intentions fizzle out damply. #FreeTheBid creates more of an impetus to change.

The concept isn’t new – the Swedish Film & TV Producers organisation and the Swedish Association of Communication Agencies launched a similar initiative two years ago - but until now, the rest of the world’s ad industry seemed quite content to look the other way and pretend it wasn’t happening. In Sweden, it resulted in production companies taking more female directors onto their rosters. Change wasn’t immediate – the scheme is voluntary and doesn’t automatically translate into jobs – but it created a platform for female filmmaking talent and, when I spoke to people in the local industry about it last year, the consensus was that it was the first step to substantive change.

And what I really like about #FreeTheBid is that they acknowledge that the lack of diversity among directors isn’t solely a gender issue. They just know that focusing on gender for now will enact the biggest change most quickly. It’s a practical solution. Alma has grabbed the industry by the metaphorical scruff of its neck and hasn’t let go until she’s extracted the promise she needs. 

Major brands are loving it and now the roll call of agency groups on board is just so impressive. BBDO. Leo Burnett. J. Walter Thompson. McCann. And it’s brilliant to see production companies throwing their support behind the project too – B-Reel Films (also Alma’s new directorial home), Great Guns, Tool.

This is not a final victory, but the start of a battle. We all must make sure that those agencies and brands currently basking in the glow of positive PR next follow up on and enforce the pledge. Now that Alma and PJ have freed the bid, the industry must keep its promise.

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