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My mother gave me my first label when she named me Karen. 

At the time she had never heard the name and thought it was interesting and different and a befitting name for her new baby girl. Little did she know that it was actually going to have its own label, and not one that most people would like to own.

The label that I had never been given before suddenly became the most prominent: female. Karen Cunningham, female director. 

I was fortunate enough, though, to marry a Cunningham and I loved my new name; Karen Cunningham. I thought it had a pop and a gravitas to it and I liked the fact that my friends and people I knew well called me KC. I struck lucky; I had a baby and had set up my own company. So, then I was a mother, producer, oh and company owner. Not necessarily in that order, but still Karen Cunningham.

Then I started directing and became a mother, company owner and director. But the label that I had never been given before suddenly became the most prominent: female. Karen Cunningham, female director. 

Above: Often the path to a more diverse career can be more difficult for a female director. 


Suddenly my gender seemed the most important thing about me and I felt very other. It was something I had never ever questioned before and certainly had never defined me. Instead of being a positive it suddenly also became a negative. Female became a reason not to hire me, and yet also a reason to hire me.

I found myself wearing the label, and I felt lucky that I found a directorial niche in which both agencies and clients felt comfortable giving me a job. Children; the perfect fit for a female. I was fortunate enough to win awards and had the opportunity to direct some lovely scripts. But now I had a new label; Karen Cunningham, female director of children.

Female became a reason not to hire me, and yet also a reason to hire me.

I started to notice that directors who were male, who were directing children well, were also directing cars and people and food. In fact, everything. They weren’t being labeled, or pigeonholed, or defined by their gender, but by their job; director.

Despite the fact that one of the first and most successful world cinema directors was a woman (Alice Guy-Blanche), directing has historically been perceived as a man’s job. In the 92 year history of the Oscars, and the 72 years of the BAFTAs, only two women have won for best direction. Of the top grossing films of 2019 only 10% were directed by Women.

Barbie – Barbie: Dream Gap

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Above: Cunningham's 2018 campaign for Barbie, Dream Gap.


When I looked at the work that won at the British Arrows last year, I noted that very few were directed by women. Out of approximately 190 shortlisted entries (including Craft) only 13 directors were female, compared to 128 male directors. This would suggest that directors who are female never got to pitch on the job or, if they did, were not awarded those jobs. Which in turn means they were never, ever going to change the status quo or have equivalent work to their male counterparts on their reels. If you are not in it, you can’t win it, so something needs to change.

As we all know, the reel is the deal, and if the work isn’t on your reel, it’s even harder to get the job. So how do we change that?

This is by no means a reflection of the ethos of The Arrows, as both Clare Donald and Jani Guest [British Arrows Board Co-Chairwomen] have always been incredibly supportive of directors who are female and, indeed, I have won an Arrow myself, but perhaps it is more an underlying problem in the way the advertising industry has traditionally perceived directors who are female. 

Free The Bid opened the industry’s eyes to the lack of diversity. Initially aimed solely at women, with a manifesto to have a female director bid on every job, more recently it has evolved into Free The Work to all include all underrepresented talent. This initiative started in America, where I had always worked, but I then found myself pitching on scripts as the ‘female bid’. But, as we all know, the reel is the deal, and if the work isn’t on your reel, it’s even harder to get the job. So, how do we change that?

Unicef UK – Unicef UK: Children's Lives Will Never Be The Same

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Above: Cunningham's spot for Unicef UK.  


In the UK, directors - whomever they are - are normally expected to send in their final treatments, with no opportunity to personally present their ideas for the project. I think a way forward to help get all under-represented talent to the table, and one that doesn't just pay lip service to the disparity in our industry, would be to invite the directors treating on the script into the room to present and pitch their ideas in person. This would make for a more level playing field. Agencies (or clients) would get to feel the chemistry, sense the director’s passion, whatever their gender, ethnicity, age or background, and open the way for real positive change. 

It would be a sort of X-Factor moment, where you get to not just be a label that someone has given you, but a living, breathing person with talent, ambition and passion.

After all what client would give an agency their account without personally hearing about what the agency plan to do, feeling the chemistry in the room? It would be a sort of X-Factor moment, where you get to not just be a label that someone has given you, but a living, breathing person with talent, ambition and passion.

Going forward, the more women we see succeeding in directorial roles the greater encouragement it will give to other women and other underrepresented talent, and the more normal it will seem. Then labels will not be held against individuals, or be attached to the work they get to direct. But, rather, we will have created a culture where all voices are represented and are worthy of a seat at the table.

Hopefully, in the future there will just be directors, defined solely by their talent. A label-free world where our gender, ethnicity, age or background does not define us, and our superpower is who we are.

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