The IPA's Highland Fling

“We’re all about telling stories in the most efficient way possible with the maximum impact.” The Leith Agency's Claire Wood discusses what the industry can learn from Scottish Ballet's phenomenal demonstration of creativity and craft.

In all my days with the IPA, from dinners at Abbey Road studios to careers fairs at high schools, I never quite envisaged myself watching a company of ballet dancers in a rehearsal for an impending performance. But so I found myself last week, when Scottish Ballet were kind enough to host the IPA Scotland’s latest Creative Inspiration session.

James Pais, the current IPA Scotland Chairman, focused on the twin aspects of his current agenda: creativity and craft. He’s a firm believer in the idea that creative inspiration can come from anywhere so it’s great to see this translating into such a (literally) beautiful cultural mash-up.

Scottish Ballet proved to be a phenomenal demonstration of creativity and craft. Hosting a discussion with Christopher Hampson (Scottish Ballet’s Artistic Director) and Giles Hedger (current board member and CEO of M&C Saatchi), James was a genial curator, asking just the right number of questions to allow these two men to explore the surprisingly number of similarities between the craft and creativity of advertising and dance.

They concluded that we got less time to make a campaign than the dancers get to make a ballet. “The three weeks before a show goes up, you [creative agencies] live in perpetually,” said Hampson.

Both forms of communicating set out to invite an audience to identify with them – whether through movement or an image on a poster.

Interestingly, particularly for anyone who’s enjoyed Adam Morgan’s wonderful book A Beautiful Constraint, both are about establishing the parameters upfront and finding a way through those that still achieves the intended objectives.

Giles believes that both forms of creativity are similar because each is like an iceberg. The final iteration of either an ad or a dance show looks effortless, concealing the multitude of work that went into it.

Christopher Hampson suggested that the similarity lay in a shared purpose: “We’re all about telling stories in the most efficient way possible with the maximum impact.”

I’m a planner at Leith so a huge part of my role is about helping clients tell their stories in the most efficient and most effective way we can. Working out how we connect a message that our audience don’t particularly want to hear – for example, about drinking less or not smoking – to a meaningful benefit, occupies a lot of my head space.

Hampson described working on a re-telling of the classic fairy tale, Cinderella. He knows it’s a popular story but serving up the same retelling as everyone else won’t win him an audience. Determined to avoid a traditional schmaltzy love story, he started out by trying to understand the outlook of two young people from shattered families, Cinderella’s family broken by the death of her father and the Prince’s, shaped by an absence of parents.

Empathy and understanding your audience is a fundamental part of what we do in advertising. So it was interesting to reflect on how reframing a context can help an audience to reappraise a message.

Back to the rehearsal; we were lucky enough to be shown an extract of Scottish Ballet’s forthcoming production of Matthew Bourne’s Highland Fling.

Matthew Bourne’s choreography is about as far as it gets from your archetypal pale sylph-like dancers in traditional tutus and pointe shoes. He specialises in retelling classical stories, often stolen from ballet, opera or fairy tales, in a way that brings them bang up to date. Highland Fling is an adaptation of a ballet debuted in 1832, featuring, as many other ballets, a collection of winged fairies and mortals. But Bourne’s adaptation banishes pointe shoes and presents the sylphs in bare feet and something more akin to fairy zombie make-up.

Often, in advertising, particularly when working with brands, we find ourselves trying to present the similar core thought, our proposition, in a different and creatively interesting way. So there’s lots to learn from Scottish Ballet about reinventing stories in a way that keeps them relevant and meaningful.

If you’ve been to a dance show before, you’ll know that the spectacle – set, costumes, lights – are a huge part of the experience. So there was something delightfully illicit about watching these professional athletes in Adidas, plasters strapping up their battered feet. And peculiarly, the absence of artifice made the storytelling all the more powerful. We could probably learn from that too.

Claire Wood is Associate Planner at The Leith Agency