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Unplugged: Rick & Sue Melvill

Creative energy meets business goals to deliver inspired communication campaigns

Juliet Pitman

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Rick & Sue Melvill of Unplugged

When briefed to devise a communication campaign that would increase safety awareness and behaviour among mine workers,Rick and Sue Melvill, the creative powerhouse behind Unplugged, realised they needed a professional who could drive home the message.

So they called on the services of a snake-handler. “We put him and his snakes in a room with the mineworkers, none of whom were too keen on being there,” remembers Sue. The idea was to create an experience that the audience would not soon forget – and it worked.

“Throughout that particular campaign we had used the analogy of a snake to communicate the safety message. Exposing the audience to live snakes was the most effective way to make them remember the importance of safety even after we had left,” she explains.

This is what good industrial theatre can achieve. There’s an immediacy to it that immerses the audience in a topic,creating a memorable experience and leaving them with a lasting impression of a message. It’s unsurprising that Unplugged is renowned for doing it so well –Rick and Sue were pioneers of industrial theatre in South Africa and today they remain thought leaders in the industry, continually pushing the boundaries and breaking new creative ground.

Their impressive list of blue chip clients includes Murray & Roberts, Standard Bank, Anglo American, Cell C,Volkswagen and Nedbank, to name but a few.Long before the term ‘industrial theatre’ had even been coined, Sue, freshly back from theatre school in Paris, met Rick,whose background was in advertising. Sue recalls:

“He wanted to bring theatre into the corporate world and I was looking for a way to turn my theatre into a business.” The pair formed Blue Moon in 1991 and through their work, began convincing South African businesses of the value that industrial theatre could add as a communication tool. “We were lucky to work with some visionary people in the early days who bought into what we were doing and recognised its value,”says Sue.

She recalls a comment made by Trevor Munday, who was then with Dulux, following a project that she and Rick did: “He said it was the first time that his workers and managers had had a shared emotional experience. And that’s what good industrial theatre does – it’s a common language that appeals to everyone and changes mindsets.”

This is not to say that getting it right is always easy. And there is very little room for error, as anyone who has cringed their way through a condescending and embarrassing piece of industrial theatre will agree. In addition, and as Sue points out, industrial theatre is not about art for art’s sake.

“It’s a tool to help clients meet their goal,” she says. To meet this challenge, she and her team delve into all aspects of a client’s business, getting to grips with the culture and issues so that what they produce is relevant. “As they say,creativity is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration – if you do the groundwork you will come up with the right idea.

Before you can branch out and be creative, you need to understand the business and get to the essence of the communication,” she says.After selling Blue Moon, the Melvills opened a retail company before eventually returning to their first love and launching Unplugged in 2000.

With the capital realised from the sale, they purchased the building which is now the home of Unplugged. “The wonderful thing about this business is that you have to come up with creative new ideas every time – you can never do the same thing twice,” says Sue, “And today, we’re not just about industrial theatre – we’re about communication as a whole and we draw on a wide range of media and communication tools.”

This philosophy of ‘newness’ permeates the culture of the company, urging it constantly into new territory. The journey there is sure to be an interesting and creatively inspired one. Take a bow.

Juliet Pitman is a features writer at Entrepreneur Magazine.

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