- VENICE, Calif.
While it remains a challenge for new voices from underrepresented communities to gain a foothold in the U.S. advertising arena, Thandiwe Muriu is used to even more of an uphill climb growing up in her native Kenya.
Propelled by a love and affinity for the camera as a youngster, self-taught photographer Muriu sought to break into the professional ranks when she came of career age. At the time, there was no female role model in her country for an aspiring fine arts photographer--much less for one who down the road could diversify into print advertising and perhaps commercial directing. But she bucked the odds in a patriarchal culture, making major inroads in Nairobi. She began working professionally at the age of 17. At 21, she was introduced to advertising photography. Two years later she shot her first campaign and began an ascent which saw her shoot for assorted major companies in East Africa. She was interviewed by Vogue in 2022. It got to the point where Muriu became so sought after that male photographers in the African market cried foul, contending that they were being passed over for work from major clients and agencies. Amazingly in the name of “leveling the playing field,” agencies listened to those objections and curtailed the work they had been awarding to Muriu, who then began looking for ways to extend her reach internationally.
Fortuitously, director Lauren Greenfield, a still photographer turned DGA Award-nominated documentarian and commercialmaker, got wind of Muriu. Greenfield and Frank Evers, founding partners at production house INSTITUTE, discovered Muriu’s work online and reached out to her. This led to Muriu coming aboard the roster of commercial photography studio INSTITUTE Artist under the aegis of founders Evers and Matt Shonfeld--sister shop to commercial production company INSTITUTE--and securing a high-profile international print campaign for Apple.
Celebrating and empowering women, Muriu’s artistry struck a responsive chord globally. Her personal work often reflects Africa’s unique mix of vibrant cultures, colors and people, tackling important issues such as identity and self-perception.
And now her talent has been put into motion, literally, as Muriu just made her debut as a commercial director with a spot for BIC Soleil Escape razors out of Goodby Silverstein & Partners (GS&P), San Francisco. Greenfield sees this as a natural progression for Muriu, having believed from the outset that her talent would translate well into the commercialmaking space.
The BIC razors have rose-, lavender- and citrus-scented handles. GS&P wanted a campaign with a sense of these smells. The work tells the visual story of a girl who emerges from, and is literally surrounded by, the gorgeous flora that make up the scents of each razor. It’s in this surreal escape that she enjoys a smooth shave before disappearing back into the foliage with a newfound bliss.
“We knew we had to make something you could literally ‘smell through the screen,’ and when we saw how stimulating Thandiwe’s floral-pattern work came across in print, we wanted to bring that to life in the real world too,” said Savannah Bradford, sr. art director from GS&P.
Mason Douglass, senior copywriter from GS&P, added, “Thandiwe was always our top choice, so when it turned out that it was her goal to become a live-action director with the help of Institute, we knew it was a match made in scented-razor heaven.”
Muriu said, “This was an incredible opportunity to translate my stills style into motion. I couldn’t think of a better partner and creative brief for my directorial debut. Collaboration is essential to my workflow and it was a pleasure working with GS&P on this project. There is an African proverb that says, ‘If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.’”
The BIC campaign includes :15 and :06 OLV as well as multiple social posts featuring still photography--also captured by Muriu--across various platforms.
INSTITUTE has proactively introduced Muriu to the U.S. ad market, inviting agency creatives, among other industry players, to sessions held at INSTITUTE headquarters in Venice, Calif., GS&P in San Francisco, and agency Translation in NYC. During these salons, Muriu shared her story dating back to her roots in Nairobi, showcased some of her work, with Greenfield on hand to provide further context.
Muriu’s credits her father as playing a key role in her career. She recalled him putting a camera in her hand at an early age. “I felt an instant chemistry. I was always attracted to art. A camera was the perfect way for me to begin. I never put it down.”
As for how she overcame the odds and pursued what wasn’t even thought of as a woman’s pursuit in Kenya, Muriu explained, “I began so young, at least young for Kenya, that I didn’t know it [photography] wasn’t a career option until it was too late.” She added that her parents raised their kids to believe anything is possible, letting them gravitate to their loves and interests, and find their place in the world based on those passions--in Muriu’s case an obsession with the camera, art and creativity. This fueled Muriu’s creation of visual worlds as reflected in her own personal photography and then flowing over into her commercial photography. “I was raised by my parents to pursue excellence,” she said, while keeping a watchful eye on the rest of the world, striving to meet the global standard for artistic excellence.
When that world looked back at Muriu’s work, momentum built for her career--Greenfield being a prime example. Greenfield remembered initially seeing Muriu’s photography and thinking that in some respects it looked “like an optical illusion, like an Escher piece. No shadows, almost like a Photoshop trick but she doesn’t use any Photoshop. I thought it would make for an interesting translation into motion.”
During the introductory industry session that INSTITUTE held at GS&P’s office in San Francisco, Muriu shared, “With photography I have one second to tell a story. Imagine what I can do with 30 or 60 seconds.”
As for what’s next, the hope is that the BIC job opens up more commercialmaking and branded content opportunities. Meanwhile Muriu is working with Chronicle Books on a fine art coffee table book featuring her work. And she has a solo show slated for Paris in October featuring her fine art photography. Greenfield also sees possibilities for Muriu at another company in the INSTITUTE family, Girl Culture Films, which develops documentaries, narrative features and television projects.
Client BIC Agency Goodby Silverstein & Partners Margaret Johnson, chief creative officer; Jon Wolanske, creative director; Savannah Bradford, art director; Mason Douglass, copywriter; Topher Cochrane, executive producer; Jim King, director of graphic services. Production INSTITUTE Artist Thandiwe Muriu, director; Lauren Greenfield, creative director; Frank Evers, founder/president; Matt Shonfeld, founder/managing director; Sean Lyness Tori Palmatier, exec producers; Nicole Whitaker, Jesse Green, DPs; Sara Reid, production coordinator. Postproduction E-Level David Becker, co-creative director; Steven Castor, assistant editor; Allison Lambert, post producer.