To Sign or Not to Sign: Advice for Newbie Commercial Directors

Choosing your best path to getting work

The unfortunate fact is that the commercial industry is one of the only industries where you can't just go knocking on someone's door for a job. As a director, I can't cold-email a producer at Saatchi & Saatchi or talk to a creative at Nike and just ask if there's an upcoming job I can pitch on. Top-level agencies and brands know high-end production companies that have rosters of directors with years of relationships and experience. But to our advantage, the landscape of the commercial industry has been shifting year after year. As budgets become tighter, the industry has responded with more companies focusing on non-union talent, more agencies working directly with brands, and more brands working directly with companies. There are so many options out there for directors to find work as a freelancer, but I want to explain why I chose to sign.

Whether to sign or not to sign has been the biggest topic of conversation among many of my commercial directing colleagues. The main question is, isn't signing preventing me from other opportunities that may otherwise come to me directly? The answer is not as simple as yes or no. If you have a network of previous working relationships, or recognizable brand names on your reel, then the idea of staying freelance is a viable option. Also, many production companies are becoming non-exclusive, meaning, as a freelancer, you can maintain your current relationships while having multiple companies pass you briefs that fit your work.

So I thought, the more the merrier! I joined a handful of non-exclusive rosters to cast as many lines into the sea as possible. But after some time, I realized that my work was being passed around but agencies weren't biting. My reel wasn't competitive enough to stand on its own, and I didn't have a strong network of past working relationships to fall back on in the meantime. I was tired of making low-budget web projects while I waited for those big career-changing jobs to come to me. That's what made me realize that in order to get to where I wanted to go in my career as a commercial director, I needed that extra help.

For a newbie like myself with only two commercial spots to my name, production companies have to work harder to get me work. They have to walk my reel through the door, pull favors on my behalf, and swoon the decision-makers themselves—anything to get that first bidding call with an agency. I've been lucky enough to chat with a handful of great agencies and I saw the difference that signing with a company created for me at the time. Making an impression at an agency is all you really want, even if you don't book the job. The company I was previously signed with helped walk my reel through the door at an agency and now I have a spot on my reel that aired on ESPN during the MLB playoffs. And this year, a month after I signed with Strike Anywhere, my producer walked me through the door at an agency and now I have a Procter & Gamble Olympics spot on my reel for Covid. These are the little extra pushes that I needed to help me move my career forward. 

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So, to sign or not to sign, that is the ultimate question. I think the answer depends on your reel and your existing relationships. I tried both ways, and for someone like myself who is still building my network, I found the most success when signed with a company. But regardless, that doesn't mean you can sit back and wait—you still have to create work in order to book work. Keep refreshing your reel to give your reps more ammo to sell you on jobs. No one can build a career for you—you have to do that yourself, whether you're signed or not—but sometimes, if you're like me, a production company can help you along the way. 

Erica Eng
Erica Eng is a fourth-generation Chinese American director signed with Strike Anywhere whose work has been showcased at the New Orleans Film Festival, Atlanta Film Festival and SHOOT Magazine's 16th Annual New Director's Showcase. Erica is inspired by her Oakland roots and creates work that reflects the diverse community in which she grew up.

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