Gender inequality is a topic that crops up from time to time, constantly reminding us to continue fighting for fairer representation within the industry.

And recently-signed B-Reel Films director Alma Har’el’s new initiative #FreeTheBid does just that; thrusts the conversation around gender inequality back into the limelight.

Har’el strives to create greater democratisation across adland by encouraging agencies to take more of a chance on female directors and include them in the pitching process.

Traditionally, agencies consider three directors to pitch, but Har’el’s campaign responds to research that female directors are often excluded from this.

#FreeTheBid aims to restore the balance by getting agencies, production companies and brands to pledge their support and vow to consider more female director-led pitches. Leading industry figures like Cindy Gallop and Spike Jonze, as well as agencies like Mother and FCB Global have pledged their support to the platform, which will also offer a database of over 130 signed female directors as a resource for agencies to tap into.

shots caught up with Har’el to find out what inspired the initiative, how she got it off the ground and why she enlisted the help of adland's finest.



What inspired you to create the #FreeTheBid initiative and why did you feel that it was still a topic that needs to be addressed today?

In the past two years of experiencing the ad world - and because I entered as an outsider [thanks to filmic background] and was pretty much straight into national campaigns for Airbnb, Facebook and - I saw a lot of dynamics right away. I also noticed very early on that I am almost always the only woman in the room or on-set. Then you start seeing the numbers and realise that many women you know, who are incredibly talented and capable, just can't get jobs. It made me want to do something practical that could break the cycle. I never like initiatives that send women to seminars and connect them to mentors; I think we're ready and we need a job. 

I did an interview a few months ago that received a really powerful response; it gave me a good feel for the status of women directors and how they experience the ad world. I know the ambivalent relationship people have with women directors. It can be incredibly frustrating.

PJ Pereira, who I worked with on the two AirBnB campaigns I directed (one below), reached out to me to let me know he was affected by the interview and decided to implement this idea of a mandatory female bid into his agency. Once I heard it I just jumped out of my chair. I wanted to get it to everyone. It seemed impossible at the time that everyone would agree, but after a month of hard work and endless talks, it all came together. I never thought we would get so many major network agencies involved before we even launched. 



How long have you been working on #FreeTheBid and tell me about the steps you took to launch it?

It's been about a month and a half of what feels likes millions of emails and conversations. It started with the interview and the conversation with PJ Pereira, who set the ball rolling by agreeing to put one woman in the mix of every three directors at the pitch stage in his agency. 

It seemed like such a simple way to open up the gates and see more great work from women. When you take into account that the days of Mad Men were just a few decades ago and that 95 percent of creative directors still are men, it is very natural that they're more drawn to the male gaze. But women make up half of this world, and they are big decision makers when it comes to purchases. Up to 85 percent of decision making is done by women, so we need to start opening up the process. 

So, I started with a PDF of the idea which led me to have many conversations with women directors and ad agencies. There was a clear disconnect: Most creatives complained about not knowing where to find women because the production company they work with only has one or two women on its roster. Some people were worried about their clients feeling cheated out of three strong male directors; and some just didn't like the commitment. I wanted to find solutions to be able to feature more female directors on the site regardless of the production company they're in, something that #FreeTheBid does, making it easier for creatives to discover their work.

Considering my short experience in the industry, I initially reached out to the people I trust and know like Mother's Mark Waites and Sasha Markova, 180's Rafael Rizuto and Eduardo Marques, B-Reel Films and Epoch because I worked with them. PJ was doing the same thing and reaching out to his contacts. It was incredible to watch the industry unfold and learn how much people are shocked by the numbers. 

No one feels like they're being gender-biased; everyone wanted to find and use more female talent but in reality, less than seven percent of directors are women so it's difficult to actually implement. Once eBay and Microsoft also pledged, it was proof that brands also want to connect to women and see more varied work.  

There was a point in the process where I thought, “It's not going to happen.” I'd exhausted all my personal connections and I'd spent the past month alone with my laptop and an assistant; it was taking over my life and I wasn't sure how far I could push it. 

Then Susan Credle, global CCO of FCB, sent an email out to the big networks and helped to send the PDF viral. She's been great at bringing the bigger agencies in and taking PJ's idea to the big offices. Together, we don't see this as an initiative limited to women. We want people to talk about the lack of diversity in the industry - so if they can't find a woman to pitch, they will be encouraged to search for other ways to free the bid. Like racial diversity; the numbers are just as bad. 


You’ve already acquired a strong network of people who have pledged their support. Why was it important to secure this ahead of the launch? 

This is a very radical step in the context of competitive advertising. Affirmative action always gets criticized and the status quo has to find its messengers to keep it intact. We need an ARMY of creative thinkers and producers who have faith in the process of changing the advertising ecosystem one pitch at a time.  


 Cindy Gallop has pledged her support to #FreeTheBid.


You were the first female to direct commercials for Stella Artois, Facebook, AirBnB and Uber. What’s it like pitching against all male directors and convincing the client to judge your idea solely on its creative merit? 

I've been extremely lucky to get Airbnb's first national and then international campaigns. The success of those campaigns and the fact that I was also a DOP on them and won awards brought in a lot of offers, and it allowed me to sustain my filmmaking career. I could do a commercial once every four or five months and then work on my films and my writing for the rest of the year. A lot of male filmmakers sustain their careers like that and keep their creativity fed by engaging in different aspects of filmmaking. In every one of those campaigns, I was against two other men during pitching. It started to dawn on me. 

I'm the first one to admit that as a woman I have a lot of what is sometimes deemed, male traits. I don't look at gender in such a binary way in my personal life, but in my professional life, it's interesting to be aware of it. Even Hillary Clinton has been subjected to scrutiny, partly because she's a woman.  


How will #FreeTheBid source and represent female directors internationally? 

#FreeTheBid isn't actively representing women, we are featuring them and making sure all the big agencies have access to their reels and their contacts, while keeping their production companies at the front. We actually have production companies pledging too. The idea is to offer a huge support system for women directors and make it easier for creatives to look at their work. Imagine being a creative that wants working with more women but production companies represent very few. That means, the creative has to source women from various companies to find the reel they're after. In a world where deadlines are tight, we want to make this process as short and fun as possible. We want all the women on one site and to offer them the sense of community. The site will get updated fortnightly with new stories and curated talent.

We will feature an unsigned director every month in the hopes that it will allow people to discover new women and possibly even sign them - like this month's Janicza Bravo. 



What do you hope to gain from this project and how do you think the industry will respond to this initiative?

The response has been unprecedented and it’s clear that there's interest within the industry to do something active.

I hope creatives and brands pledge to free the bid and to start listening to new talent and more racially-diverse voices. Not just to see more women getting bids, but to see them winning jobs and directing them with more female-led crews. That way, we can hope to slowly change the cliché portrayal of how women are represented in advertising. The next questions are equal pay and how women can sustain themselves and families financially, but retain the freedom to develop themselves as filmmakers. I want it all for us. 


The campaign is very similar to Sweden’s One in Three Programm, which was initially successful, but has been difficult to implement long-term. How will you ensure that #FreeTheBid is actively adopted and continued past the campaign’s launch?

The #FreeTheBid website features over 130 signed women directors from leading production companies around the world. We will also organise special screenings for ad agencies, where they can discover female directors.

The database is a critical resource because it will help the pledged agencies keep their commitment. Sweden's One Out Of Three didn’t manage to create such a profound impact because agencies were struggling to find female directors. This resource is a facilitator, however. The real change will happen inside the agency. We feature some incredibly-capable and talented women on the site, but without the commitment from ad agencies and brands, it's just a database of women who deserve a chance. I hope agencies will report positive results from this initiative and that we'll see a real change in a year from now.

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