Spotlight On Alma Har'el & The Push For More Female Directors

Do you see women like you in ads? If not, you’re not alone: Nearly 40% of women don’t identify at all with the women they see in advertisements, according to a study by Unilever. Getting more female directors and creatives to produce the advertisements we all watch will increase the accurate portrayal of women. Not only will this drive equality, it will drive business. We had a conversation with a woman working to change this equation, Alma Har’el, music video and film director and founder of Free the Bid, an initiative which aims to solve the pipeline problem in the creative industry by calling for more bids for female directors. Here is how she is changing the game for women on and off the screen.
To start, please tell us how Free the Bid came to life. What is your mission with the initiative?
Free The Bid was born from a realization that a systemic inequality was keeping my fellow women directors from being hired to direct ad campaigns. I became frustrated with being the first woman director that a brand had ever worked with, time after time. When confronted with statistics of just how effectively women were being shut out of the industry, I knew I had to do something.
The average consumer is exposed to 3,000 to 10,000 advertising messages a day and over 94% of those are created and directed by men. On top of creating a constant brainwash of the male gaze, it is also keeping women filmmakers from sustaining themselves financially in a way that other male filmmakers get to do.
Free The Bid began as an intervention into the calcified, traditional triple-bid system – when ad agencies take the pledge, they commit to include at least one woman director’s pitch on every triple-bid commercial job. This does not mean that the women are guaranteed to be hired for the job; importantly, Free The Bid is NOT a quota system. When women are hired, it is based on the strength of their work and their vision for the project.
Although initially the initiative was founded to address triple-bid jobs in the advertising world, we have since expanded outward in every possible direction. We’re determined to work for opportunities for women in TV, film, Innovation (VR, AR, AI, and more), and beyond. Our advocacy extends beyond just giving voice to women directors – we aim to create opportunities for women editors, DOPs, and women across all below the line roles.  

Since your launch, we have seen many major brands and agencies make the pledge to Free the Bid. What has been the impact so far? What changes or benefits have your partners reported since taking the pledge?
The results reported by pledged agencies and brands have been groundbreaking. Agency BBDO reported in 2017 that since taking the pledge, “the number of female directors invited to participate in our bidding process has increased 400%,” while Michael Fassnacht of FCB Chicago reported that his agency had “included a female director for consideration in 95% of our production bids,” since pledging.
Glenn Cole of pledged agency 72andSunny reported to us that “half of our competitive triple bids in film and photography were awarded to women,” in the time since their pledge was instituted. We are encouraged by these initial results and feel that our database of women directors from all around searchable by skill set can transform any Brand or Ad Agency that want to discover the most untapped pool of talent in the world: women directors.
What has been the biggest resistance to taking the pledge? How do you convince hesitant pledgers to commit?
Well, aside from outright misogyny, the biggest resistance to the pledge is the fact that agencies are time-poor, and worried that they will not be able to find the number of women directors needed for their vast range of jobs. Some have misunderstood the pledge to be a quota system, while others balk because of a perceived limitation on their freedom and creativity. To this we say – creativity has been limited for as long as women’s contributions behind the camera have been systematically under-valued.
We have strategies for countering each points of resistance – for agencies who are time-poor, we send out a massive quarterly newsletter that rounds up work created by the women directors with profiles in our filtered database. We gently remind agencies that are worried about the pledge inhibiting their creativity that Free The Bid is not a quota system, and that the diversity and breadth of women on our site should be seen as a breath of fresh air, rather than a constraint.
An effective strategy for getting agencies on board is to develop relationships with major brands, who then in turn implement the pledge across all of their agencies. If the client is behind the mission, it definitely helps us move forward more quickly than we would otherwise be able to.
Lately, brands are labelling diversity as a business objective, putting pressure on agencies to hire more women and minorities. What is the business case for increasing diversity in the bidding process? Why is it not only the right thing to do, but the smart thing to do?
By excluding the voices of half the population, marketers are missing the chance to speak authentically to the group responsible for 85 percent of consumer decisions. We’ve seen example after example in recent years of advertising that alienates consumers because of tone-deaf representation, created by non-diverse teams working within white male echo chambers. Since we have evidence, at least anecdotally, that women directors tend to bring a spirit of inclusion that extends throughout their on-set decision making, Free The Bid is an important first step toward telling on-screen stories that resonate with audiences for all the right reasons.
The Free the Bid website includes a database of women filmmakers, increasing the visibility of female creative talent. What is the importance of highlighting these amazing women in the push towards parity?
Our database of women directors, editors and DOPs is an essential component of our mission. The pledge and the database formed a two-pronged approach to inequality – the database supports those who have taken the pledge by making it easy to find the exact right woman to bid on any job, large or small, all over the world.
Highlighting the successes of the women in our database helps increase their visibility. We’re constantly in “demented cheerleader mode” for the women on the site – each week, we publish interviews with directors on our homepage, spotlight directors on our Instagram account, publish exclusive quotes about new work from directors on our Facebook, and post daily Twitter updates with updates of their work and  the state of inclusion and diversity across the entertainment and advertising industries.
Hearing from women directors that we’ve made a difference in their careers and lives is the most fulfilling part of this work – that’s the reason I began Free The Bid in the first place, to create a measurable change in the amount of work that women were getting.
You have said you are committed to pulling up other women in the industry. What advice would you give to female leaders looking to help other women advance?
Find out how to make sure you’re not only helping white women. Women of color and queer voices are what most industries are missing the most. Build paths for women of color so they can walk hand in hand while we ask for progress. We are stronger together and none of us is free from male power structures until we are all free.
*Interview originally published in the Modern Guide To Equality Volume IV.
Read more on how to change the gender ration in advertising and media here:
Katie Couric and Other Top Leaders on the State of Women in Media & Ads
A Surprising Reason for Gender Inequality in Ads—And How To Fix It
Actress/Director Aisha Tyler on Diversity in Media & Gender Equality in Hollywood