Whether it’s a Serena Williams- fronted ode to female athletes for Nike; a challenge to toxic masculinity via Gillette; or D&AD Black Pencil-winning ad titled Viva La Vulva for Libresse, her brand of iridescent activism is the future for socially-sensitive brands. Good luck standing in the way.
Many of your works carry a strong message, not only in the scripts, but in elements like casting too. Was it an early career goal to really champion inclusive advertising?
Thank you for noticing this. I have always tried to make work that is inclusive and embraced diversity. From the very beginning of my directing career I have been keen to show different faces, ‘real’ faces, faces not normally associated with advertising. It has always been important to me because advertising has such reach into so many homes, so if you can normalise diversity on screen, then it may help in real life too.
How did you dictate those project choices earlier in your career when you might not have had such a high profile?
Like anyone, I did all the jobs I could get when I was starting out. But whatever they were I would always try to bring a humanist approach to them, finding an honesty and humanity in whatever the subject matter was. I was always interested in taking some of the pretension out of advertising so that often informed the casting decisions, and those casting decisions I think have had the most impact.
Do you have a set of criteria for the projects you work on today?
I just look for projects that feel authentic to me and reflect my values in some way. I love ideas and I am always drawn to projects with strong core ideas that I feel I can execute in an interesting way.
Do you think Gillette expected their short film to be so controversial from day one?
I am not sure what they expected, but I know I definitely wasn’t prepared for it.
Did the backlash against the ad and more importantly, yourself, surprise you?
I was not expecting it at all. I knew it would have some sensitivity, but I was not ready for the intensity of the response. The final film the agency released was actually quite gentle and I have to say I was confused by the level of anger it provoked. The thing I was most challenged by was that there was so much directed at me personally, when the truth was that the film was written and edited by a group of men; I was the only woman involved in the making of the film. So I guess the response justified the message!
I always trust my instinct. When I don’t, it almost certainly goes wrong.Kim Gehrig
What kind of steps do you take to ensure you’re building an inclusive environment behind the camera/on set?
I always ‘cast’ my crew. I look at what the project is and needs and make sure I reach out to the right people for each job. I start with what I think is the key role in the job and then I look to the key crew and make sure I cast a mix of ethnicities and genders in the team. It is really important to me to do this on all jobs regardless of subject matter.
When we think about campaigns like Alma Ha’rel’s FREE THE BID, what else can the industry (in particular those in positions of power) do to further the number of women and diverse voices in directing roles?
Alma is incredible and has done such an awesome job with FREE THE BID. It has really transformed the careers of many female directors. One thing we as female directors can do is really go for it and make great work. The better the work is, the more undeniable it is.
Being visible with strong work shows clients what is possible and also shows a pathway to the younger generation. I also think it
is important to let the younger generation ‘in’; rather than being protective of our worlds and work, open them up. Where possible, I try to have an aspiring female director on set to watch and shadow the process. They are welcome to investigate any department on set and are party to all conversations I have in regards to the job.
How then might we convince clients that inclusive choices (like casting real people and shedding a light on real issues) is more effective than the status quo of an unattainable perfect life? Especially at a time when companies like Nike and Gillette are facing boycotts for making such bold choices.
I don’t know. I actually think it has to come from the client. The best work I have made has been with great clients where it is a true collaboration.
My instinct is that Nike and Gillette are on the right side of history. Time will tell.
Commentators like Yassmin Abdel- Magied have suggested it is increasingly up to brands to set the tone for our public norms while traditional institutions become less likely to take a moral stand. To what extent do you believe in brand activism as an imperative of being a big company today?
Some people are very anti- brands having a point of view, and I do understand the argument against ‘virtue signalling’. However, brands have such an influential role in our society, why not use them for social good?
Advertising is such a potent medium. Why waste it?
That carries into your latest commercial for Nike ‘Dream Crazier’. Can you talk about what Nike wanted to achieve, how you selected and sequenced the pre- existing footage, and the images you chose to shoot yourself?
I actually have to give the credit to the agency on this one for the fantastic writing. Emma [Barnett] and Alex [Romans] from
W+K had such a tight script that it was a joy to be part of this project. I love working with sportspeople and, for me, the direction was all about authenticity; finding the truth of each athlete in the short moments I had with them. The trick really was that you wouldn’t know what was shot and what was found footage, so I am going to keep that the trick as I think we managed to achieve it.
How much do you trust your instinct now, and how much are you experimenting and learning in new ways of working?
It has taken me a long time to get here, but I now always trust my instinct. When I don’t, it almost certainly goes wrong.
Can you offer some career advice for how to make it as a young director in the year 2019?
Trust your gut, and don’t wait for anyone else to do it for you.
Kim Gehrig is represented by Revolver/Will O’Rourke in Australia and Somesuch in the UK/USA.