I attended a talk by the top Royal Ballet choreographer and dancer, Liam Scarlett. He is only 26, but he has already choreographed two exceptional ballets for the main stage at Covent Garden. And he still finds time to dance in the company.
Scarlett was discussing how he approached creating his 2011 work, Asphodel Meadows, around a particular piece of music, Poulenc’s Double Piano Concerto. One could be intimidated, he said, by the scale and complexity of the Concerto. Where to start? How to break into the task? Whereas with narrative ballet there is a natural sequencing to follow, with an abstract work there is no obvious entry point. He explained that his own process was first to identify the ‘epicentre’ of the music, its emotional core. He knew that if he could just design the pas de deux around a particular romantic passage in the second movement, everything else would follow. Having got to the emotional heart of the music, he could work outwards to the rest of the piece.
I am often in meetings nowadays when a Client demands an idea that is media neutral, that extends across every channel, region, product and form of engagement. All the colours, in all the sizes. Such a panoramic demand can be rather intimidating. And I have found that telling the Creative Department we need to cover the walls with ideas is not entirely helpful.
I suspect that, following Scarlett’s lead, the key to cracking this kind of challenge is not to consider it in its totality or in the abstract. Ideas tend to be born in the specific. The key is to find the epicentre of the task, to find its emotional heart.
In the old days, of course, one could assume that the epicentre of any campaign was TV. The answer’s telly, what’s the question? But engagement is no longer so simple and one of the arts of the modern strategist is to provide focus, to set priorities, to isolate the heart of the matter. Do we start with a particular audience, a particular task, a particular medium? Will the visual identity unlock everything? Should we work up from the product or down from the vision? Because even a solution experienced in parallel may have to be arrived at in sequence.
I am no expert, but I love ballet. I love the combination of art and athleticism, grace and danger. I love the unexplained relationships, the wordless ideas. And I confess I find its transcendent beauty somewhat soothing at the end of a day discussing brand pyramids, lost mojos and ideation.
Ballet has also made me consider my own approach to work. I recently heard the fantastic Devonian dancer, Lauren Cuthbertson, explain how she rose to the top of her profession. The interviewer asked if she always knew she would be a ballerina. Oh, yes, she said, and despite her sunny demeanour, a steely determination was audible in her voice. She once came to a career crossroads at ballet school when she was challenged over her application in class. She decided that every night after rehearsal she would replay the whole class in her head. She would lie awake in bed retracing every pirouette, every plie, every jete. So she would return to class the next day, having rehearsed the piece twice over. Inevitably her progress accelerated. And Cuthbertson continues to rehearse in her head, every day, everywhere. When she walks to the tube, eats her supper and relaxes in the evening, she is also pacing the stage at Covent Garden, leaping, vaulting, careering. She is always at work.
I hesitate when applying this thought to our own discipline. I have prized my own ability to compartmentalise work, to leave it behind at the end of the day. I encourage others to forget, to live a life beyond advertising. Because a richer life out of work enables a richer contribution in work. And Lord knows we have enough problems with stress in the office without encouraging people to take work home with them.
But it’s also true that I have solved the knottiest problems relaxing at home. Whilst the content of one’s dreams may, for the most part, be meaningless drivel or the output of some primal displacement process, I have occasionally woken up in the middle of the night with a clarity that has eluded me in the day. The brain seems sometimes to leap further and faster when it is unconstrained by conscious thought and a computer screen.
So I have reached a compromise. I endeavour to leave the tedious work worries in the office. The people problems, the deadline demands, the fracas with the photocopier. But I also try to take the more interesting strategic challenges home. Because I suspect our unfocused, unconscious brains may be our most valuable assets.