Diana Ellis Hill co-founded her own, female-led and female-founded creative agency.
An established name in the industry, Diana has also had the pleasure of working with and learning from some of the best documentary-makers in the country. In our conversation, Diana shares her story, her love for the work and the driver behind her starting her own agency.
What is the most memorable or favourite work you created, or were involved in creating, for the BBC?
My most memorable project at the BBC was definitely the Wonders of the Solar System presented by Professor Brian Cox.
It was one of the first series from the Science department to use cinematic techniques to bring visual beauty to explaining complex scientific ideas. We travelled the world to bring context to extra-terrestrial phenomena, through some of the most stunning landscapes on our planet. Did you know that the rings of Saturn were actually made of blocks of solid ice the size of houses, just like the iceberg fields of Iceland? Only 175,000 miles across!
It was where I discovered my love for explaining complex ideas in entertaining ways.
I know that it can have a profound impact on people’s behaviour, as the series is credited with helping the rise in students choosing to study physics at university after it was released.
We were nominated for 4 BAFTA awards and won an RTS award, but the university statistic is what I’m most proud of.
Who are some of the best documentary-makers you have worked with and what did you learn from them?
Both went on to win BAFTAS for the series they directed, ‘The Surgeon’s cut’. James also won a BAFTA for ‘Britain’s forgotten slave owners’ and Sophie an Emmy nomination for her feature-length documentary ‘My beautiful broken brain’.
Sophie has an innate sense of story. She is amazing with people; quietly charismatic and people open up to her. She sees how the story threads will plait together and then she will add a creative wrapper to the whole thing that no one else would think of. It’s not a surprise she has gone on to be so decorated.
James is one of the most intelligent people I have ever met. He almost has a sixth sense of what is really going on. He reads voraciously about history and culture and adds to that a visual style inspired by design language. We travelled across the States together filming ‘Horizon: A war on science’ covering the federal trial where eleven school parents took the school board to court over the teaching of Intelligent Design - an ‘alternative’ to evolution. It was ruled unconstitutional as the judged excoriated members of the school board, who lied to cover up their religious motives, made a decision of “breathtaking insanity” and that Intelligent Design is a religious viewpoint that advances “a particular version of Christianity.”
James expertly navigated the trust of both sides of the community to show the human stories of this polarising controversy, whilst not giving undue prominence to an idea proven to be wrong. A skilful balancing of opinion and truth - public service broadcasting at its best!
They both inspired me by showing that you can be from an under-represented group and achieve at the very highest level.
What was the driver behind starting the female founded and led creative agency Be The Fox?
My co-founder Meg and I started Be The Fox ten years ago as we wanted to be in charge of our own destinies. I’d spent ten years at the BBC, but Meg had freelanced at multiple indies and in commercials. She convinced me that brands would be commissioners in the future - she was right.
As we launched into commercials and branded content it became obvious how underrepresented women are in this industry - particularly in commercial film crew.
We wanted to redress that balance.
We felt strongly that if a film was aimed at women, it should have female representation in the creative team and in the director - something that so often didn't happen.We saw time and time again how this led to obvious missteps in authenticity, which would surely have a knock-on effect on results. We also came to realise that women drive the majority of consumer spending through a combination of buying power and influence.
Yet so few ads were actually made by women.
We have worked to create a representative gender-split collection of independent directors who we regularly work with to actively ensure there is greater representation in all the creative we produce, across various roles, behind and in front of the camera.
Female leadership in agencies is incredibly low, but female agency ownership is even lower.
When women are in charge of where the money goes, they have a different perspective on who to hire, which HR policies to have, where to reinvest the profit and which CSR policies to prioritise.
We want to see more women starting agencies and knowing that it is possible.
What is the work you are most proud of creating at Be The Fox and why?
I’m most proud of our work for Hertility. This was a true labour of love for us, and we released something meaningful into the world.
I met Hertility’s co-founder Dr Helen O’Neill on the set of our ‘Curiosity Unfolded’ films for RAPP/Samsung, celebrating the entrepreneurs of the Samsung Founders Forum. We realised we had tons in common—both with science backgrounds and a passion for women’s equality.
When it needed a brand film, we jumped at the chance and worked tirelessly with them to craft something that would make a difference.
The work we created doubled its sales overnight and won multiple awards, but I’m most proud of the fact that we had an 83% female identifying crew - truly representing the audience we were speaking to.
Throughout the creative development, rehearsal and shoot we made space for women to do their best work, often scheduling meetings around school pick-ups and baby naps. There were often children on laps during Zoom calls. At one point one of our dancers was having to pull out of the filming as she couldn’t get childcare. Our choreographer (Tony and Olivier award-nominated Lynne Page) suggested we work out how to help her, so (with the dancer’s consent) we wrote a part for her baby so she could bring her along. This is one of my favourite parts of the film! We had three children on set as Lynne’s daughter brought her home studies and Hertility co-founder Deirdre O’Neill had her baby daughter too, sitting on her hip as Deirdre watched the monitors.
The work we created was truly authentic, not just in front of the camera, but behind it as well and the results prove that this approach works!
What advice would you give to others, knowing what you know now, when it comes to starting an agency?
When we started the agency, we knew how to make films, but we didn’t know how to run a business. We’ve worked a lot of it out along the way, we’ve also had incredible mentors, coaches and advice from other agency owners who have generously given us their time.
My two biggest pieces of advice are;
1. Work out what your values truly are and align everything with that. Hiring, clients, creative work, all of it. If you don’t believe in the work, it won’t be as good. At first, it’s hard to say no to work, or chase every opportunity as you are worried about keeping the lights on! But we’ve definitely learned our best work - and the reason other clients seek us out - is always because we believe in the work we produce.
2. Get processes in place! It sounds boring, but it enables more of the budget to be spent on the fun stuff. It also means you can handle more projects at once if everything is where it should be and everyone knows what should be happening. This is a bold statement, and of course, it’s creative and productive, a curve ball always gets thrown in, but it’s a good foundation so we all know what should be happening. We have to work at processes, evolving them every time we increase in size, but I would definitely say if we had done these two things ten years ago, we would have got here quicker!
What piece of work, created by someone else, do you admire/inspires you and why?
The work I wish I’d been a part of this year is Marcel’s work ‘la Compil des Bleues’ for Orange/Les Bleues.
The film starts off with exciting scenes of skilled footwork of the french men’s team playing football at its most exciting. The words read ‘only Les Bleus can give us these emotions’ referring to the nickname of the men’s national team. But halfway through the film there is a revelation, we have actually been watching a deepfake. The faces and bodies of the French men’s team had been transposed onto the faces, bodies, and highlights of the national women’s team.
Released just before this year's FIFA Women’s World Cup it drew attention to the bias that women’s football is seen as less exciting, while showing exactly the opposite. The film surprised and delighted soccer fans around the globe and was re-shared across all social platforms.
The work resonates, is relevant, memorable and, I assume, drew more people to the exhilarating matches that millions watched. A simple idea expertly executed.
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