The world of marketing is in a profound state of change. Gone are the days when a director working in advertising would only have the chance to forge a career within the triple-bid agency system.
Enterprising women directors, like Alison Roberto, have seen the potential in new options for content’s creation and dissemination, and have built careers for themselves that involve more fluidity between the roles of director and creative director.
In her entertainment marketing work for clients like Netflix, including content creation for shows like GLOW, 13 Reasons Why, and Insatiable, Alison finds new ways to connect audiences to the world of each project. The content she creates—a karaoke-limo ride collaboration between GLOW and Lyft; a Snapchat campaign for 13 Reasons Why that ended up achieving a 85% viewer retention rate—is born from a deep understanding of the potential for evolving a vision across all social media platforms.
Alison’s approach, taking on the role of director, creative director, and producer for the entertainment marketing that she creates currently, was honed from a background in visual art; years of experience as an art director at MTV; and a 15 year stint as a creative director for music and entertainment. Alison brings her multi-faceted experience in marketing strategy, social and post expertise to her directing and into the way that she works with actors and crew.
We spoke with Alison about the singular road she’s taken to get to her current career, the reality of the effort required to succeed in this field, and some important family wisdom—to keep a seat at the table for everyone—that’s played a role in shaping her personal philosophy.
Your career trajectory has been pretty unique—what were the steps that led you to the kind of content creation you’re currently engaged in? What were some of the hurdles you encountered on the way?
Alison Roberto: After watching my father lose his battle with cancer when I was 13, reality was not something I felt safe in anymore. I had to grow up too fast and learn the world was unfair and happy endings were just a distant fairy tale in lands far away. I was born creating, drawing, and playing music. It has been a part of me for as long as I can remember, and after this death, I was on a mission to create beauty, create an outlet, and keep myself alive. I owe my life to music and art, and will forever be thankful for my love and connection to it. My head was always buried in a book or in an elaborate art piece I was creating. I am a classically trained fine artist; painting, charcoal and photography were my favorite mediums of expression. My background in visual art aids heavily in everything; from my eye for composition to my meticulous color correction.
I studied art and design at the School of Visual Arts in NYC, and was hired by MTV before I even graduated. I spent nearly a decade learning from some of the industry’s most incredible innovators and creators. My time there truly informed who I would become as a creative—obsessed with irreverence and bringing a "what the fuck" attitude to my work, in love with composition, kerning typography, and telling authentic stories. I built a custom Vegas hotel suite with David LaChapelle for the MTV Music Awards that we filled with everyone from Rihanna, to Kanye West to the Foo Fighters; had Ryan Dunn shoot paintballs at me at Bam Margera’s house, ran around the backstage of Radio City with Jimmy Fallon, and directed countless shoots for The Hills, Laguna Beach, 52 Weeks with Lupe Fiasco, Jackass… the list goes on. And I loved every minute of it.
Through all these years, my true passion and voice was always on set. I was never trained or mentored, just thrown into the fire in my early days at MTV. One day, I literally just got up and started directing. It came naturally to me, working with actors, editors, DPs and the lot of them. My gift has always been to pull out talent, performances, and the best work from those around me, helping them to reach their full potential. The thrill of being in the moment, collaborating with amazing creative talent and allowing unexpected moments to create magic are my reasons for getting out of bed in the morning. So when my clients started calling me directly to concept, direct their shoots and deliver the final assets, the decision was made for me—I just had to not be afraid to take the leap. Eventually, I did. It was like ripping a body sized band aid off. It was scary and painful and I had to make sacrifices, but I was finally free and there wasn’t enough money in the world to make me go back.
I would not be true to myself if I didn’t acknowledge all of those years of dedicated work. Missing family functions, friends' weddings, working until 4am most nights to prove myself. I have been the only woman in nearly every work environment I have ever been a part of.
I still hear, “It’s so nice to meet a woman director . . . " more often than I care to admit. I have worked in testosterone fueled creative pits where I had to pretend not to hear their insults and sexist comments, I’ve walked away from jobs who were exploiting women and the worst of humanity with their content, I’ve dealt with everything from female bosses holding me back out of worrying there was not room for us both and male bosses that overstepped their boundaries due to their own insecurities and narcissism.
But the times, they are a’changing. Women are supporting one another, banding together and holding each other up. As my great grandfather would always say when someone wandered upon his front door (an Italian immigrant who spoke no English, was poorer than poor and had 11 kids to feed): “Make room at the table. There’s always room for one more.”
You’ve had a fruitful creative relationship with Netflix—your role in crafting the marketing content around shows like GLOW and 13 Reasons Why, including music videos, promos, and social media campaigns, falls at the intersection of creative direction and film direction. Can you tell us about how your relationship with Netflix began?
After nearly 15 years in NYC working for MTV, HBO, BBC and NBC, I was recruited by several Los Angeles creative agencies, which led me out west.
My first campaign was 13 Reasons Why, S1 for Netflix. I was not slated to direct, but after a few curious circumstances, I ended up at the helm for the two day shoot. That’s when my relationship with Netflix truly began and I started to become recognized as a director. Everyone’s stories of how they get here are always so fascinating, and I truly owe my big break to Ali Feinstein at Netflix, who believed in me and gave me a huge opportunity. Crafting concepts, writing scripts, leading creative post teams and concepting short form original social and A/V content for shows like GLOW and Marvel’s Defenders gave me the opportunity I needed to do what I love. And that’s when it all aligned.
How you operate and create entertainment marketing within your role? What are the specific challenges and benefits of creating marketing content in this way?
Nothing about this has been (or is) easy. It’s not for the weak-hearted. But I am now a fully independent director. I have a production and post team. We are a small and nimble group of creative badass ninjas that deliver beautiful and thoughtful work. We concept, write, produce, direct, edit, and finish commercials, promos, brand videos, and music videos with complete attention to social creative and how it’s consumed. I’m doing it my way, by taking on projects I am passionate about. I don’t wished to be pigeonholed into tampon commercials and beauty ads. I strive to empower the women and men in front of my lens, to pull out unique performances, to constantly be thinking and concepting unique social pieces and make content that adds a unique perspective to the world and hopefully a few laughs.
Tell us about the process of created branded content that exists within the universe of the shows you have worked on, such as your GLOW x Lyft campaign. How did you find ways to merge the universe of the show with that of the brand?
This was such a fun project.
We had just wrapped up the GLOW campaign and "Maniac" music video when I got a call from Lyft. They were working on a '80s Limo experience with Netflix for GLOW. I had just worked well with the cast and I’m such a huge fan of the show, so I jumped right in.
We worked with Deep Local in Pittsburgh to build a custom '80s stretch limo, equipped with a karaoke machine / GIF maker and adorned with a fashion closet in the trunk. Writing original content is my world. Together with the Lyft team, we created a karaoke sing along experience that felt synchronistic with the current campaign while still feeling like an elevated and stand alone piece.
It was about a four day turnaround from shoot to posting, which I credit to the talent and dedication of our team.
Can you talk through some of the marketing content that you’ve created that you’re most proud of, or that gives the best example of how your role differs from a traditional director?
The ‘Maniac’ music video for the GLOW campaign was one of the most fun and incredible shoots I’ve ever been a part of. These women are so talented and supportive of one another. I wanted to show that strength and beauty, that vulnerability and silliness, that snark and wit, all the things we as women are and so often don’t get seen.
The cast danced and sang their hearts out and the whole crew cheered them on. It was a beautiful and collaborative experience where we ended up creating so many additional pieces of content with all of the magic that was made that day.
We earned a ton of media and rave reviews from the likes of Adweek, Rolling Stone and Time Magazine.
For 13 Reasons Why, we concepted custom content and social experiences so others could feel the effects of social bullying first hand. One of our Snapchat ads received an 85% retention rate, and they reached out to ask what we had done to make it so successful. We are always considering the social platform, the experience, the edit, the engagement with lack of sound. It’s a world I’ve worked in for so long that it’s ingrained into my brain and how I make content. That knowledge coming from a directorial point of view was a game changer for me.
How do you see the future of integrated entertainment marketing evolving?
Big companies with large overhead are going away faster and faster. I see more and more individuals wanting to work with individuals and not some large faceless company. You go to who you trust, who has a track record for creating beautiful and thought inspiring content and who you know will be dedicated to your project and not swamped and buried under 12 others. Engaging content and innovative creators will make all the difference in this new world, because that is what breaks through the noise.
You’re also a music video director—can you talk about some of the work that you’ve done with up-and-coming female artists, like Emma Cole and Jen Awad, who may not have appropriate funding?
We all have to do our part to lift each other up. We are part of an incredible moment in time and need to acknowledge that. I give back in some small way by mentoring young directors, donating my time to incredible talent and taking part in projects that show women in a strong and empowered light.
I will actually be speaking more about this at USC in October for their CU@USC live show. Past guests have been Tom Hanks, George Lucas, Anderson Cooper, but you know . . . they said no pressure.
As a director who has found a path to a career that blends directing and marketing and exists outside of the triple bid commercial system, what would be your advice to those interested in getting involved in a similar space?
Again, nothing about this is easy. You have to really want it and work hard for it and get knocked down and get up 12 more times. You have to sacrifice your comfort for your truth. You can’t be complacent. You have to create opportunities and then not be afraid to take the leap when they present themselves.
I came up this way from my 15 year long career in television. Creative director to director is not a next logical step for most, but it’s what suited me the most and it’s where my passion has always been. When you love something that much you find ways to create opportunities for yourself and my background is extremely beneficial for all my clients. Use what is unique to you and what makes you stand out as a creative. Use all of the resources around you and like-minded networks like Free The Bid that are changing the game. Be nice to other creatives and help them. Karma is a real thing. Challenge the production companies you speak with about their strategy to evolve in a non triple bid world. Everyone needs content creation, from TV series to brands to films and everyone in between. This is an unique and exciting time to go after what you really want. Unique concepts and strong thinking will rise above the noise. Creative hybrids will push the boundaries of our thinking. If you truly want to live outside the rules you have to think outside them and find non traditional avenues.
My favorite advice of all time is from Robert Rodriguez, “You have to think about what’s pure, what’s fun to me . . . training yourself to come up with original ideas is a powerful place to be.”