Summer 2019


Making a Statement

Director Kim Gehrig is making waves in the commercial realm but doesn't want to be pigeonholed

By T. L. Stanley

"I'm definitely open to projects with a social conscience, but it's not the only thing I do," says commercial director Kim Gehrig. (Photo: Twitter)

In the #MeToo and Time's Up era, being labeled "woke" seems like a badge of honor, but Kim Gehrig doesn't necessarily view it that way.

The decorated commercial director behind the recent Gillette remake of its iconic 1989 spot "The Best a Man Can Get" and Nike's female-centric, Serena Williams-narrated "Dream Crazier," Gehrig has often gravitated to clients who want to make a statement in their marketing.

But she isn't searching out potential lightning rods, per se, as a way to build her own brand.

"If you examine it, 'woke' is just another pigeonhole," says the Australian-born, London-based director whose CV includes work for Uber, Honda and Gap. "I'm definitely open to projects with a social conscience, but it's not the only thing I do. Female directors get pigeonholed enough as it is."

At the moment, after three back-to-back high-profile campaigns she likens to "riding a roller coaster," she's perhaps best known for the 90-second Gillette ad that spotlights toxic masculinity, including bullying, sexual harassment and misogyny. Its intended message—Gillette believes men can rise above that kind of behavior—was lost on some vocal critics, which took her by surprise.

"I thought it was so refreshing that a brand was being self-reflective and reconfiguring its role in image-making," she says. "I hadn't seen a brand do that before, and I thought, 'That's a big idea.'"

The spot also proved to be a magnet for haters and trolls, who took exception to what they considered an anti-male sentiment.

She thinks both she and Gillette ended up "on the right side of history," with the fervent response (pro and con) teaching her "a lot about what the current world is like," she says. The experience won't change her criteria for choosing gigs, though, which starts with "a fresh and original concept" and "a firm hook."

"I like to find something with a chunky middle and a bit of bite to it, which doesn't have to be controversial," she says. "I ask myself if it's making a creative leap."

A commercial Gehrig directed late last fall for Swedish feminine products brand Libresse certainly fit the bill. "Viva la Vulva," which features a mix of live action and animation and, literally, singing vaginas, "felt so on the edge to me," says Gehrig, who added strategically placed lip-synching to the musical ode to vaginal pride. "I wondered if we could get away with it."

It became an instant classic, and Adweek named "Viva" one of its favorite ads of 2018, calling it "a visually lush and wonderfully enjoyable piece of film."

Stills from Gehrig's work on campaigns for Gillette, Nike and others. (Screenpulls: Procter & Gamble/Gillette)

Her recent commercials, including the celebratory Nike ad featuring female superstars such as Chloe Kim, Simone Biles, Ibtihaj Muhammad and the U.S. women's national soccer team, show how Gehrig deliberately changes her aesthetic.

"I love to genre-hop," she says. "And rather than strategizing what kind of director I am, I let the work tell me."

She's a research junkie, scanning film, photography, art, current headlines and any other media resources that may help her understand the subject matter from all sides.

Casting, which she considers a critical part of her job, often informs how she approaches an ad, especially if she's working with everyday people instead of professional actors.

Gehrig creates a bible for every project and two separate storyboards, one called "conceptual" and the other "shooting." Though she spends "countless hours" putting the materials together, she says she'd rather commit the details to memory, not referring to them constantly on set, so she can be "completely present and in the moment."

She's agnostic when it comes to equipment, using everything from handheld cameras to cranes and massive lighting rigs, preferring that the story lead the way. And because there's so little time on commercial shoots—three or four days, max—she's looking for "visual and performance efficiency."

But the shoots, for her, are only part of the assignment. She's devoted to the editing process, which she thinks can be indispensable for finding the heart and tone of the piece. ("Viva" took more than three months in the editing room, she says, and she and the 95% female crew were "there for the long haul.")

With two young daughters, she's spent the last five years steeped in short-form content like music videos and commercials that require less time away from home. Her background also includes an early stint at Mother London, a renowned advertising agency where she was an art director before picking up the camera herself.

In the months ahead, she'll be crisscrossing the country, from Los Angeles to the South (for a music video), between trips to Europe for brand campaigns, committing to ideas she finds authentic and challenging.

"I love work that can change behavior and have a positive impact," she says. "But I hope it doesn't become a trend for its own sake to do socially conscious ads. A brand needs to have a robust reason and find the right way of doing it. No one should be shoe-horning in an ethical message."


Feature stories about the craft and challenges of directors and their teams in episodic television, movies for television, daytime drama, reality, sports, news, variety, childrens, commercials and other television genres.

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