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The Work That Made Me: Nicole Ackermann 

Merman director Nicole looks back on her highs, lows and some of the work that's shaped her career

The Work That Made Me: Nicole Ackermann 

Nicole’s directing career kicked off with writing and directing theatre, finding that she had a passion for creating beautiful, emotional narratives. She went on to study film at Wits University in Johannesburg and completed part of her honors year through a scholarship program at Tisch, NYU. She immersed herself in the world of advertising through years of creative research and a stint at TBWA/Hunt/Lascaris before directing commercials. In the advertising space, she's worked with major international clients including: The Economist, KFC, Singapore Airlines, Samsung, Nestlé, McDonald’s, Whirlpool, Grey Goose and Burt's Bees.

Nicole is a passionate, detail-orientated storyteller. She has a unique visual style and a strong intuitive approach to performance.


The ad/music video from my childhood that stays with me… 

I’m going to cheat a little here and rather speak about a film that stays with me. I remember watching ‘The Hours’ when it first came out nineteen years ago, and being so in awe that I just stayed sitting there in the theatre for ages afterwards. I had never had a film impact me on such a deep level, and still to this day I’m struck by how that feeling has stayed with me. 

There’s something so beautiful about the storytelling of this film, and how the separate narratives and different experiences of these women are woven together so elegantly to create one powerfully collective experience. 

I see the ripples that this film has made throughout all of my work today, even in commercials.

Also, Nicole Kidman’s performance was absolutely incredible!


The ad/music video/game/web platform that made me want to get into the industry… 

I’m South African - so I remember Keith Rose’s spot ‘Time Flies’ for Allan Gray really resonating with me when I first saw it. It’s a beautiful message, and I realise now what it was that I loved so much about it. The way in which Rose was able to balance technique and emotion, and how he was able to do something so technical without detracting from the heart of the story. He created such beautifully evocative work, and his ability to get a message across with such originality has really stayed with me. 

Allan Gray - Time Flies 


The creative work that I keep revisiting… 

Undoubtedly the work of Wong Kar-wai. I was completely blown away the first time I watched ‘In the Mood for Love’ - I had never seen film and art intersect in such an incredible way, and it made me realise how skilfully one is able to craft visuals to evoke such deep emotion. Wong Kar-wai has this wonderful ability to be so restrained in his narratives; avoiding exposition and relying rather on the power of his densely layered visuals to tell the story. 

The Step-Printing technique that he uses in his work creates these incredibly rich, almost painterly scenes. 


My First professional project...

I did a few small projects right out of university, but I would say that my first real professional project was the series of McDonald’s commercials I co-directed with Jonathan Parkinson. These were really simple, but well-written stories, and one of the resounding lessons I learnt from them, and from working with Jonathan, was how powerful and important performance is. 

McDonald’s - Ending a War 


The piece of work that made me so angry that I vowed to never make anything like *that*…

There’s no particular work that’s made me angry as such, but I will say that a lot of fashion and beauty commercials over the years have represented women in an inauthentic way that I vow never to do myself. Some of the best advice I’ve received in my career as a woman, was to try and avoid the stereotype of becoming (only) a fashion and beauty director. It definitely seems to have been improving in recent years, but I think that a lot of female directors used to get pigeonholed in this way. 

I really appreciated that advice, and as it stands, I have done more car commercials than beauty commercials. The one beauty commercial that I did was for Burt’s Bees, they are such a great brand for authenticity, we didn’t even do any clean ups on our model’s skin in post. 

Burt’s Bees - The Force 


The piece of work that still makes me jealous… 

I’ve always loved the work of Seb Edwards. I think he’s a master storyteller with an enviable ability to create whole new worlds in each of his spots. Then more recently, I’ve found myself envying the work of Daniel Wolfe. He has an incredible point of difference in his eye and aesthetic choices. He’s a really brave and pioneering director who seems to constantly be paving the way for a lot of new trends in the industry. 

Lacoste - The Big Leap (Directed by Sen Edwards) 


BMW - The 8 (Directed by Daniel Wolfe) 

 

The creative project that changed my career… 

It’s difficult to name just one project that changed my career, as it feels rather that it’s been a slow and steady progression. But if I had to choose, I would say that my first American job that I did with Merman was perhaps the biggest catalyst in getting me to where I am now. Connecting with Merman has been an absolute Godsend, I honestly feel like they plucked me out of obscurity and I’m still reeling! Kira Carstensen really believed in me from the get-go and has been an incredible support. I am thrilled to be recently working across the Atlantic with Merman London too and looking forward to shooting across a global landscape. 

Citi / American Airlines - Karl Shakur 


The work that I’m proudest of… 

This is such a tricky one to answer, I usually get to the end of every job and wonder about all the ways in which it could have been better! To pinpoint one of my proudest moments though, would probably be the moment I landed my first car commercial. We had been working really hard to get me on car pitches, finally Team One and Lexus decided to take a chance on me. I loved shooting that job and I’m so grateful to have had that opportunity. 

Lexus - Keep the Light Alive 


I was involved in this and it makes me cringe… 

You know what… It’s so cringey that I don't even want to call out the specific work in question. But I can say that it taught me the importance of really believing in the message of the work. How important it is to believe in what the work is trying to say. I’ve learnt that I am unable to do advertising just for advertising sake; I have to feel that I am putting some kind of positive message out into the world. When I believe in a project, I do a much better job as a director! 


The recent project I was involved in that excited me the most… 

I shot a Guinness Africa commercial at the end of last year which was really exciting for me. I started my career as a creative researcher in South Africa and I remember that the Guinness Africa work was always my bench mark for beautiful, authentic African advertising. So, it was an honour to work on this piece. We teamed up with Hey Human! in London and shot on location in Cape Town. It was also the first spot that Guinness made under their new 'Book of Magic' umbrella. Despite being in a difficult time globally, I feel good creative work is being made and the industry is bouncing back. 


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