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  • Writer's pictureAdriana Tunku

How to Balance Creative Control as a Commercial Director


Still from Bomba by Sonaone

As a creative, I'll be the first to admit it – we're a sensitive, neurotic bunch who can sometimes come across as a tad egotistical. We tend to be fiercely protective of our work. "An attack on my creative decision is a personal attack on me!" This was especially true for me when I made the transition from a Music Video Director to a commercial director, where I had nearly full creative freedom to explore and experiment. I've had pitches like "Let's rap on a kerbau," "Let's recreate a Salvador Dali painting," and even "Let's strap the star to a bungee cord and get him to perform upside down suspended in the air." I even had to pitch a deck that “didn’t have any references”. It was lawless.

Storyboard sketch of a man on a kerbau

But despite the allure and madness of ‘complete creative freedom’, we at Denhouse, have always been an advocate for collaboration. Some of our best works have been the result of bringing different minds together. Anyway, I’m not here to write you an article with formulas and steps. I don’t believe anyone should be confined to a certain set of rules; no one director is the same, just like how no one client is the same. What works, I believe, is understanding the different types of clients out there and approaching each project with the right mindset to satisfy your client whilst maintaining your own creative integrity.

So here is Nana's unofficial guide to clients :)

Clients that have an equal amount of give or take

In the world of commercial gigs, there's a certain level of creative freedom. Some projects come fully formed, while others are blank canvases. Navigating gigs like these can be great for testing the boundaries of risk-averse clients. For instance, we recently worked on a Sunsilk Music Video TVC targeted for young women and fans of K-Pop. Two key takeaways: it's an everyday, popular product, and it's aimed at a younger female crowd.

Still from the Strong and Long TVC for Sunsilk

Understanding the ad's purpose and audience helps you set and challenge your boundaries. We couldn't tweak certain elements like the k-pop motifs and product placement scenes.

So, we got creative with how we shot those scenes; - we got Ezra Tham to create a k-pop inspired choreography that seamlessly infused the products in so those instances don't stand out awkwardly, and we got Studio Voxel to animate butterflies and fireworks in the shots to create a sense of femininity and wonderment. Now that's what I call balance ;)

Clients that are on the same creative wavelength

Collaborating with a client who's also a fellow director, like Philip Rom from Taylor's, can be a fun experience. Here, the client had a clear vision for the video's framework and concept, leaving us to discuss the finer details. What's the backstory of a character, is the setting daytime or nighttime, what's the colour of the music, and what's the meaning of the CTA? It's a different kind of balancing act – because on one hand, creative discussions are celebrated with more nuance than usual, but on the other- it’s merging two directors' visions into one cohesive piece.

Still from Campur2, a Merdeka Ad for Taylor's University

From such projects, I've learned that having a clear understanding of every decision is crucial. For example, Philip initially envisioned the video at nighttime, but I felt daytime was a better fit. It was a Merdeka ad about everyday Malaysians buying Nasi Lemak- so the characters; from schoolkids to an elderly couple, and the tone; wholesome and warm- fell into the space of daytime, under the sun. It just fits, and everyone agreed.

Clients that give complete freedom

Now, this is surprisingly tricky. When clients give you complete creative freedom, the challenge lies in defining your boundaries. My experience with briefs like this is similar to what I had to go through when making music video decks. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should (Unless that's the brief..) Aligning yourself with the brand's identity is crucial. Always ask, "Is this my voice or the brand's voice?" Finding that sweet spot between your creativity and the brand's identity can yield exceptional results.

Still from Oooh-mazing Raya for Beaute Library

For instance, when pitching a Raya ad for Beaute Library, a beauty/lifestyle brand, I embraced my shared similarities with the brand. For one, we both are “women”, two - we both love skincare, and three- we like to have a bit of fun. The result? A quirky raya comedy about a woman whose glowing skin garners all the “oohs” & “ahhhs” of every person in the room. As a creative, achieving and finding this balance is so rewarding.

Clients that know exactly what they want

It's ok to be humbled once in a while. It happens. Sometimes you’ll meet clients that just want things a certain way, and we just don't always see eye to eye. I try to put myself in their shoes and figure out their intentions. If they know exactly what they want, then they must know what they need. Once I better understand why they want what they want, sometimes I go in and offer an alternative that still suits their needs, but if that still doesn’t cut it for them, then redha je la (lol).

Still from Platinum Pack TVC for Astro

In a recent project for Astro, they had us going back and forth with the overall pacing and timing. The initial cut was 90 seconds, but Juju, their Group Marketing Director wanted it shorter at 60 seconds. That meant cutting a few scenes and speeding up the shots overall. To them, they prioritised audience attention span over preserving scenes. And to me, I learnt that I can’t be too married to my shots and I had to learn to let things go. Despite it all, what came out of it still remained one of my favourite works to date :)

Conclusion: The Journey Continues…

As you navigate the world of clients and concept building, a few core elements will always take precedence: intention, audience, and pacing. Just like the Deathly Hallows from Harry Potter, harvesting these 3 will yield you unbeatable~ (but don’t take my word for it)

As what my good friend and colleague would say-

“Remember we're not bad at what we're doing, especially when someone challenges your ideas. It's not an attack, it's an opportunity for growth. You're growing, and it's a constant journey.”

You’re doing good kid :3

The Denhouse team

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