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By Leah Montebello
Pamala Buzick Kim, Executive Director at FREE THE WORK, explains the helping hands that led her to be a pioneer for underrepresented creatives.
Behind The Camera
“We focus on what goes on behind the camera. We statistically know that if you have a director who is from a marginalised community then you will have a production set that is more diverse. Representation is important because it impacts a story”
As Executive Director at FREE THE WORK, a nonprofit initiative dedicated to identifying systemic inequalities and expanding access for underrepresented creators, Pamala Buzick Kim’s work in advocacy and inclusion is grounded in her own background and career trajectory.
“I didn’t grow up in a great neighbourhood and my family were at the lower end of the socio economic stature. In high school, my Dad had been pretty determined that I would be going to the military because we couldn’t afford college…My high school drama teacher really jumped in and saved my ass and got me accepted at the California Institute of the Arts”, she says.
Explaining the many forces that helped her on her way, from inspiring teachers, to personal mentors, Buzick Kim is humble about her successes: “I have a lot of people to thank for this journey, and I think that’s why I want to help other people. I definitely wouldn’t have gotten the opportunities without those helping hands”.
She continues, “A lot of it comes down to exposure, if you don’t have that, you can feel like you are very much trapped in whatever you have been given exposure to – that’s a lot of where my ethos and philosophy comes from”.
The art of managing talent
Whilst at the California Institute of the Arts, Buzick Kim was exposed to a different type of education and “really got to work with artists and to see what other types of artists go through”.
Studying at Cal Arts gave her the essential training she needed, landing her first job at Partizan, an award-winning production company, working as the second assistant for the French film director, Michel Gondry. This was eventually followed by a move into the sales team.
During this time, Buzick Kim learnt the commercial ropes behind advertising and the intricacies of talent management. Her role was to represent the talent on the advertising side and find them as much quality work as possible. She really enjoyed this part of her work, and says “I ended up doing a version of this job for the next 17 years”.
In fact, it was this interest that inspired Buzick Kim, and her business partner, Kamila Prokop, to found their own talent representation firm, Maven Label, in 2010.
With a select roster of clients, their prime focus was on authenticity. “We never took our role lightly, especially when you are dealing with people’s livelihoods and creativity. We were always conscious of who we signed and that we could actually elevate their careers”, she urges. Her agency housed premiere, Oscar winning directors, editors, animators, VFX artists and composers.
Ageing out of the ad world
In 2017, Buzick Kim decided that she wanted a new change and new challenge.
Discussing how women tend to “age out of advertising”, she took the bold decision to close down Maven when they were, in her words, at the “top of their game”.
“Representing talent is very much a relationship game: you have to be out every night building new relationships. I could picture myself being 45 and not wanting to hang out with a 25”, she remarks.
So, having a keen interest in tech, Buzick Kim took a role at Working Not Working (WNW), a curated two way marketplace, which connects companies with the world’s creative talent, first as Head of Membership and then as Interim CEO up until 2019. And managing the subscription-based SaaS startup, Buzick Kim discusses defying the “traditional tech guy” stereotype, which is normally a young, white, and Ivy League educated male.
On shattering this glass ceiling, Buzick Kim took what she already knew from the advertising agency as well as representing talent, and signed up for night classes to become an expert in two way marketplaces. She says how “she brought a different point of view with all my experience of working with creative people”.
In fact, WNW instilled Buzick Kim’s “passion to build”, and she sees herself as a “connector” and a conduit of empowerment and growth. This perhaps makes her subsequent involvement at FREE THE WORK unsurprising.
Free the work
Buzick Kim started her work with FREE THE WORK just as they were relaunching from Free The Bid, which originally focused solely on female identifying individuals in advertising.
Founded by Alma Ha’rel, the initiatives are rooted in Ha’rel’s personal experiences at work, and the premise of having one female director in every triple bid. This pledge by brands and their agencies would then increase the female director’s exposure, skill set and overall chance of actually winning the bid. This idea “took off” and has gained more and more traction across the industry.
Today, FREE THE WORK is a nonprofit initiative dedicated to identifying systemic inequalities in film, television, advertising, and media, and finding actionable solutions to expand access for all underrepresented creators.
Through their curated talent-discovery platform, FREE THE WORK advocate for the LGBTQI+, creators living with disabilities, female-identifying, non-binary people, people of colour and military veterans communities. These are much wider terms of reference than the original Free The Bid movement and coincides with the ongoing field work, advocacy campaigns, editorial content and events and partnerships.
Additionally, FREE THE WORK also runs a ‘reflection pledge’, which states that production sets should reflect the demographic figures in the country of production. So if that is 40% BAME, then 40% directors should come from that community.
Crucially, Buzick Kim is keen to note that this does not mean that they are a job board, but rather a discovery site. In practice, this means “We go to brands and agencies and ask them to look at their hiring practices and get them to make small changes in their pipeline and processes that will help bring more opportunities to their creators”.
She continues, “this helps companies understand why certain processes are holding back opportunities, or what lack of opportunity actually looks like”. This is key to the systemic change that she believes needs to happen:
“Regardless of how much we wish or fantasise, equality is not going to happen overnight and brands aren’t suddenly going to sign up to FREE THE WORK and fix gender equity. It takes time, especially in a capitalist structure”.
Representation behind the camera – not just in front of it
“We focus on what goes on behind the camera. We statistically know that if you have a director who is from a marginalised community then you will have a production set that is more diverse. Representation is important because it impacts a story”, Buzick Kim urges.
In fact, she is deeply passionate about authenticity and believes this is key when it comes to gaining consumer buy-in. Using the personal example of seeing a commercial of a woman wearing a “sweater set”, she says “I am immediately sure that there weren’t a lot of women involved in this production. I know women my age don’t wear that and I just immediately dismiss it”. This is incredibly damaging to the brand and undermines the messaging that a campaign is trying to achieve.
She continues, “I know people are working really hard on representation in front of the camera, but the thing with having representation behind the camera is that diverse directors can call out things that aren’t authentic”.
With this point comes the huge nuance of what authenticity is, and she praises the work of Libresse/Bodyform and their recent campaigns. Marking the difference between the award-winning “Blood Normal” campaign, which was shot by a male director and addresses the taboos around female menstruation, and the recent #WombPainStories, directed by a woman and hinged on personal stories of periods, Buzick Kim emphasises “just because you have a female product doesn’t mean that it should only be directed by women”.
The point of authenticity comes down to the specific campaign rather than the product itself. However, when it requires a female perspective to be truly authentic, then that must be reflected in the direction, in Buzick Kim’s view.
Green The Bid
Aside from empowering underrepresented creators, Buzick Kim is also on the Advisory Board of Green The Bid, which is an initiative to help productions go more green and understand the plight and impact production is having on the world.
For Buzick Kim, “Climate change is an everything cause. It is a social justice issue and a socio-economic one. Climate change is a people issue. So when you look at it, it disproportionately impacts those who are suffering most already”.
Looking at “all sides of the coin”, Buzick Kim is a firm believer that accessibility and opportunity must extend to all in all contexts: making climate change “the same cause but from a different angle”.
The goal of obsoletion
In terms of advice to young women, Buzick Kim urges them to “never take the first offer and always negotiate at least once”. Keeping her own personal goals and ambitions journal since she was in high school, it is clear that Buzick Kim is still full of her own personal ambition.
“I am very humble that I want to acknowledge and be grateful for where I am. Being a woman of colour myself but being very white passing, I acknowledge it and I am aware of it. However, I am very grateful for having grown up the way I did and having gained a lot of opportunity”, she states.
And looking out to the next ten years, Buzick Kim says “I’d love not to be an advocate because we aren’t doing it [FREE THE WORK] for the business of being a non-profit”. Their overall goal is to make themselves redundant by removing the marginalised groups from the sidelines and driving unseen and authentic stories in advertising.
The Women of Influence insight series is published in partnership with Decideware
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