Sam Freeman

Theatre | Comedy | Marketing

Tag: theatre

All my controversial thoughts about how to run theatre right. Not wrong. Like you might do it. Yeah you.

So, here it is, strap in, I’ve got some truth bombs to release, I’m going to let rip, welcome to the fast lane of opinions, the deep fat fryer of fact, I may even use CAPS LOCK, or maybe Randomly Capitalise Words for little or no apparent reason, underlining get ready, CRTL + U, prepare to have what’s morally right smeared into you face, yes you, in this blog.

Are. You. Ready. For. Controversial. Opinions.

***silence from the crowd***

Are… You… Ready… To… To… Ermm… Hello…

Oh, wait a second, hold on a moment, it turns out I don’t have any controversial opinions about Theatre, Marketing or pricing, nor do I have any truth bombs to let off, I’m not even sure where the fast lane of opinion is.

Now obviously I’m being a knob – maybe you were lured in by the possibility of conflict – it’s exciting right? No such luck.

There have been a few posts of late with people slagging off how other people run their venues. I mean don’t get me wrong, everyone does it, it’s just rare it’s as up front on twitter. That said we’re closing in on Christmas, and sure, if I’d spent the last 9 months obsessing over panto sales I might release some opinion grenades too.. So… My take..

For all policies in theatre (and for the excitement levels you hoped for prepare for them to slide from this point onwards), and particularly in relation to pricing and how it’s done there isn’t, I don’t think, a right or wrong answer, it’s a hundred shades of grey, a complex mix that relates to and encompasses the audience demographic, the organisation, the type of work they show, the funding they get, the pressures they’re under from outside stakeholders and the aims and objectives of the company – that’s not even the full list.

Every policy (and almost every decision that is made in theatre, and, probably, in life) always, has people who benefit and people who don’t – all of which don’t just relate to audiences and accessibility but also the ability for an organisation to stay open, to pay staff and artists fairly, to meet funding demands, to make sure that the creative engagement work in the community (that is key and vital) still happens, maybe even the number of actors you can afford – that’s not even the full list.

We (subsidised theatre) should, absolutely, and unambiguously, be responsible to make sure that as many people as possible have access to the work on stage – we should be enabling the most vulnerable in our communities to access arts, culture and theatre. We should be doing our best to help those who need us.

But, in a world where arts salaries are not excessive, teams are often slim, arts people work regularly above and beyond and organisations operate to break even, we should remember that despite that decisions are, in my experience, for the most part, made with audiences at the forefront of the mind, but also bearing in mind that…

  • Accessing theatre is harder if the theatre is closed down.
  • Accessing theatre is harder if the subsidy is reduced to an extent where offering any discounts is impossible.
  • Accessing the arts is harder if to keep a theatre open all the education, access to the arts and creative engagement teams are cut.
  • Using the arts for real good and change can be impossible if engagement projects with the most vulnerable groups don’t happen.
  • Accessing theatre is harder if infrastructure is cut so that people don’t know what’s on, there’s noone operating the venue or noone is around to chat to audiences and be that reassuring face.
  • Audiences don’t always do what we want them to, don’t always think about the bigger picture, aren’t all socialists and want the best for society in general (but many do!).

What works for one venue mightn’t work for another, but it feels tricky to deal in absolutes, to say what one organisation does is wrong or right.

There’s a clarity question of course, decisions we make we should be accountable for – if we say tickets are From £XX we should be able to tell people how many tickets were that price, how to access them, why the prices work that way and, if people can’t get prices at that starting price then what other options are there to help those who can’t afford to access the arts if not instantly, then in changing and motivating behaviour. (I also suspect we spend a disproportionate amount of time focusing on price as a barrier to engagement while the art itself gets off quite lightly…)

I spend my life desperate for simplicity, but simplicity isn’t always easy or, indeed the right solution when the overall picture and process to reach a decision is complex and nuanced.

I have huge admiration for the work of many theatres, from those who make decisions to have single ticket prices with discount/concession led additional access points and those who use dynamic pricing to offer a wider range of prices providing access points in a different way. Which is right? Who knows, possibly one of them, possibly neither, possibly both.

So there we go. I’ve said very little, had few firm opinions other than to say, context is important.

Here’s a final little sign off though – if theatre’s are being forced to act more commercially than ever before, if there are more in need than ever before, if we feel tired of always having to make compromises to get by, if we frequently have to get by, then maybe the problem is society, capitalism and the world in general.

So that’s depressing.

Night x

P.S. As a serious note, if you read this on twitter and decide to retweet it then make your tweet magical – along the lines of “You won’t believe what he has to say about Arts Marketing” or “The bad boy of Arts Marketing speaks again” or “So. Fucking. Nuanced” – Any of those will be fine x

Holidays, Ideas and Ponderings

I’m currently on holiday in Lisbon having a bit of a break with my other half. I brought the mini-laptop along with all sorts of high aspirations to write a play, create some art or learn a new skill.

Suffice to say we’ve nailed a good chunk of Netflix late at night.

Anyway, I thought I’d write a short (ish) blog which is essentially a catch-all “My thoughts from the last few days” – for a couple of reasons really, firstly I rarely have photos to add into my blog and it’d seem a waste not to now that I do, and secondly Facebook keeps informing me that I’ve not communicated with the 167 Facebook Fans I have for a long time.

You should know that of the 167 Facebook Fans I have, only 3 of them are people who I don’t know in real life so… Yep, I’m writing this for 3 people. If you’re reading this and not currently following me on facebook, twitter or on my e-mail list then, well, you should join all three (to give you an idea of the frequency with which I send e-mails – at the moment it’s pretty much once every 2-3 years) – of course unless you already know me in which case you following me in those ways will do nothing but erode my increasingly fragile ego.

Lisbon is a very lovely place, steeps hills, coffee shops, old fashioned trams and riverside walks. It’s very relaxed and unpretentious – there’s something slightly glorious about the way that everyone seems beligerant but also simultaneously friendly – I think the most common expression we’ve seen is the shrug as if to say “well they would, wouldn’t they”.

We try to avoid doing anything too much in the tourist trap, but, inevitably fail along the way. We went for a 7 mile walk down the riverside to the fortified tower and monestary (who allegedly make the nicest Pasties De Nata’s – they don’t) just past the main suspension bridge. Beautiful and serene if slightly crippling when you realise this is the most exercise you’ve done in months. There’s a brilliant foodhall and market (annoyingly sponsored by Time Out which takes some of the glow away from it) – with a good mix of cuisine and good wine that’s relatively cheap.

We visited Sintra – much vaunted by many – and it is indeed a lovely town on a hillside with many beautiful houses and gardens built by stupendously rich people one hundred and fifty years ago. If I’m honest it left me a little cold – it feels like the shadow of a previously incredible place and at points a living museum/tourist trap, slightly devoid of normality and real life that I find so endearing in other beautiful towns and cities.

On the other hand Cascais (just down the coast) was a delight, lovely beaches, few joggers, the odd surfer face-planting into the waves and great views of the ocean. Really worth getting the train to Estoril and then walking down the sea front – I will caution that we’re here out of season and there’s enough British ‘inspired’ bars to make you suspect that this beautiful place may become a dickhead magnet in high summer.

Having spent a bit of time in a few markets in the UK, Seville, Lisbon and Copenhagen I’ve come to the conclusion that the UK’s a bit behind the times. What separates out the mainland European markets from the UK is how they seem to focus on environment as much as the stalls. UK markets tend, it seems (although maybe I’ve visited the wrong ones) to be a random mix of stalls, tricky to navigate for the uninitiated, not necessarily encouraging dwell time, and often a bit underloved and inconsistent. The Lisbon one cleverly unifies the marketplace with common brand identity, pays particular attention to the public areas making them feel welcoming and almost intimate, they play music to set tone, use the venue lighting to create a warmer ambience and focus on quality messaging rather than cost (that’s not to say they’re not good value). I wonder if there are cheap implementations that could be stolen and applied to UK markets. I appreciate that the natural reaction to this might be gentrification, which is why it’s about finding the balance I guess.

As I said earlier I brought the laptop along to do something creative and have resolutely done fuck all. I’ve been thinking about motivation a lot. I wonder if I’ve been trying to do things I’ve been not at all motivated to do at the cost of not discovering new things I might be motivated to do. To elaborate. I’ve been trying to write plays since I was 15. One was good, one was average the rest have been pretty dire – I also, don’t particularly enjoy the process of writing them – it feels like i’m fulfilling an obligation not to fail rather than pursuing a passion. I wonder if the reason I struggle to feel motivated to write plays is the fact that now, 20 years on from being a 15 year old Ayckbourn wanna-be, I’ve changed.

The question is do what? I know it has to be more immediate, no waiting around for some tedious director of a London theatre to reject it 9 months after sending it with a note to say that due to their new green policy it’s been recycled (this is deliberately me being a dick head btw – I’ve been rejected by people around the UK – and in fairness everything I’ve sent them has been bad). It needs to be something I get the credit for – I am egotistical enough to get frustrated when my work has rarely been on by the fact that actors get clapped. Suggestions welcome.

Sales Reports
This is a Head Of Marketing question really. Everytime I go on holiday I have the same dilemma – keep the sales reports turned on or switch them off? I’ve tended to go with on as I get so anxious without the daily reminder that I’m not good enough at my job that it ruins whatever I’m doing. I wonder if turning off is really possible in the arts?

Asking the big questions
It’s also occurred to me that, in the arts, more specifically theatre, we spend too much time working through the small issues, the stuff that, I suspect, if we ignored, would lead to nothing happening. I guess my question is how do you have the big conversations you don’t know that you need to have to make sure you challenge the status quo and keep having conversations that offer a balance of both revolution and evolution? Devoted and disgrunted anyone?

No. But thank you for the offer, it’s very flattering


And finally… Drugs.
When we were walking home this evening a charming fresh-faced youth approached us and offered me weed (aka. Drugs). I was quite taken aback, clearly he has bad eyesight or a poor understanding of Marijuana’s key demographic. Anyway, I got flustered, said “no” but also “but thank you for the offer, it’s very flattering”. He looked confused and walked away grinning.

The Bigger Picture: Using Data In The Arts

****Please Note: This is unremittingly a blog about theatre marketing, data and being smarter****

How it all started

About four months ago I was sat in a meeting at the theatre I work for as conversation bounced round the table. Every now and again a question would be asked or a statement stated – “how did that show do?” or “this year’s going much better/worse isn’t it” and I’d jot down the bit of information I’d need to run 3 or 4 reports by the next meeting to answer.

“If I have to run another shitting sales report they want a “minor tweak” to I will go on the rampage…”

A little while later I started to think, well, this was all just a bit silly. After all the data we need to make smarter decisions is sat in our box office system. In fact, there’s probably far more data in there than we know what to do with. But while we can run reports the process is incredibly time consuming and, crucially, the report will answer only the basic question we ask of it.

Let’s think about that most simple of question, raised countless times, “how did that show do?” You see that’s not the question which, when answered, helps you make a great decision. Exploring it a chain of questions might go something like this:

How Did That Show Go? > Was that just a bad year though? > How did it do compared to other shows in that year? > How did it go compared to other similar shows? > Did our members buy it? > Was it a shocker of a dog-shit show so we comped it to the extent of 300 tickets a night BUT because artistically it got 4 stars in The Guardian our collective memory has gone a bit awry?

It’s never ending and simply running reports destroys your time. Let’s imagine that every report takes 5 min to run… How many reports would get you to the answer? 5? 10? Would you have to get new reports made? Maybe it’ll take a day, week to turnaround? In the meantime a poorer decision might have been made.

Sometimes you need Jazz Hands…

So I found myself in this position wondering what to do. I also wondered how to use data to persuade people. Data is only as useful as the influence it can have and if it’s presented in a shit Excel chart then some people will turn off to it. So I needed something that would visually be simple to read, could answer questions fast, was completely customizable and, crucially, was pretty as a picture so that I could use it to show non-excel geeks.

I’m not interested in… Wait… Wow… What a lovely graph…

The solution has been Tableau (link here) a data visualisation piece of software where you import a .csv file in, move the data around and into different formats and then explore the data. It’s obviously a bit more complicated than that but you, yes you, reading this, can do it.

Below are  some images of some of the dashboards that I’ve created as part of a Tableau file I’ve affectionately named Data Cruncha.

***Obviously much of the data is fake as the real version has actual financials in – use them to get an idea as to what’s possible!***

Filtering The Data

The first thing to realise is that you can have near-instantaneous data to play with. This search criteria is a really simple version that I made to look at the data. It can run on whatever datasets you want in whatever combinations you need.

This one can filter by:
# Month (but it could do year/hour/day/week)
# Genre (depending on how your data is labelled)
# Who Produced The Show (depending on how your data is labelled)
# Venue (my theatre has 9 distinct venues…. sigh…)
# Whether a ticket was complimentary or not
# Whether a member purchased or not
# Or just looking at a single show…

You can essentially search by whatever dimensions (or categories) you have in your original data. So if you had an incredibly insightful box office manager who added in the show director into the show setup then you could potentially search by that. This ease of filtering is really important to know as it instantly updates every graph, chart and map you will see in the next few images.

Sales Dashboard

This is exactly what it says on the tin – it pulls together all your basic sales data. Things to note:

  • You can set up tooltips (the Dad’s Army box), essentially pop up bits of info that appear when you hover over data these can be populated with whatever you need.
  • You can group the data in columns or lines or bar charts, by any time period.
  • Each graph is made separately and then assembled on a dashboard. You choose what goes on which dashboard. This is great as you can start to visually see correlations in the data.

Behaviour Dashboard

This is (also) exactly what it says on the tin – it pulls some of the data about  how your audience interact with you.


A quick and easy way to use top line postcode data (e.g. CH7) to look at where you audience is coming from and how it’s changing.

Target Setting Dashboard

Want to look at how a range of events performed – perhaps need some guidance of the best case and worst case scenarios? What’s interesting about the cinema data below is that if you look carefully you can distinguish between Live Screenings and Standard Films without a filter…

Donations Dashboard

You’ll also have line-by-line data on merchandise, donations and any transaction fees. All these can be reported on and explored.


This is the quite cool one. It’s useful for understanding how people book your tickets and which seats are in higher demand. You can then answer how well the house dresses itself. For reference the stage is at the bottom and red seats are the ones which have, on average, been booked most in advance (opposed to looking at frequency it’s been bought). Essentially if you want seat E16 our most popular seat then you’ll have to book 134.3 days before the show’s on… ish… (This is a real bit of data, but only for last year’s production of a touring comedy that sold out…)

What next?

Top question. Here’s my answer…

  1. Well if this is of interest then please tweet me @mrfreeman1984 with something cryptic like “#TopData” or “‘#CoolGraph”.
  2. You should also download the free demo version of Tableau which is available on their website and have a play with it… It’s really easy to use and it’ll help you try to learn if it’s going to be good for you or not.
  3. If you want to have a chat to me about what I’ve made or have a 10 minute online demo then drop me a tweet and we’ll see what we can do. (If you want a more in depth chat or me to make you something on a freelance basis either for money or free (if i like you or your theatre) then also get in touch.)
  4. Be fucking brave and not a massive wimp. Four months ago I tried this for the first time, I’ve been playing (yes, playing) with it in my spare time, learning by failing and then improving. It’s changed how I think of data. So give it a go.
  5. I’ve so far only scratched the surface of what this can do, of how it could be used organisationally… If you use this then get in touch, we’ll swap ideas and both become smarter.

I hope this is useful/interesting.

Best, Sam x




The art of the season brochure

Today I signed off Unity Theatre’s season brochure – the last of my six year tenancy as Marketing Manager (I’m going to Theatre Clwyd and am dead excited as you will undoubtedly discover over the next 6 months!) – and I felt a wave of emotions briefly as I said “yes, print it”.

The first was relief, that was quickly overcome by sadness that that was it, done, and that was even more quickly overwhelmed by reminiscence. I can chart the progression of Unity’s marketing and its development over the past 6 years through the brochures most clearly – each one filled with battles won and lost, decisions correct or not, lessons learned – many of these side-by-side with changes in my life, my progression as a marketeer but also the solidification of an element of Unity’s brand over time.

I wanted to write a little bit about it to help clarify my thoughts about them, but also because they often get overlooked in marketing conversations. We regularly (and rightly) talk about social media, digital, CRM, experience management and more, but rarely about the place of one of our staples, the fibre of the marketing world, keeping us regular – the humble season brochure.

I appreciate that as I write this some people will read this who’ve abandoned them, others will be sticking rigidly to them. This is not suggesting that the way we worked is correct for everyone. The opposite, you should market as effectively as possible to the audience of your venue and your community – do what works not what’s necessarily fashionable or demanded by board members or friends.

BrochuresWhy not get rid?
I remember about 10 years ago when I was starting to get into Arts Marketing attending an AMA conference where marketeers were confidently proclaiming that now we were entering a digital world that “brochures were dying” and predicting they would be deceased within 5 years. That never happened, nor did any of us predict that youtube would catch on, myspace would die and that people would ever find 120 character sentences (or tweets as they became known) interesting.

I was part of this “they’ll be dead crowd”, so why didn’t it happen? It didn’t happen for a few reasons, some economic, some brand and some job security led. Economically we were getting a good bump from sales when they were produced, not huge advanced bookers but a good chunk. In addition our website, digital profile and online booking was terrible and needed an overhaul and it made economic sense to distribute the brochure with lots of shows in rather than loads of different flyers (over 40 shows a season). The print we were receiving was pretty bad too – it had an air of the unprofessional at times – this was an easy way to gloss over that. However there was a limited budget of which it was eating far too much, it lacked clear brand direction, it wasn’t the most exciting or dynamic or USP led thing but it was tangibly doing a job in sustaining audiences effectively within resources.

Brochures2How Unity’s changed?
I had a mentor who said to me that “Rome wasn’t built in a day” and I think it’s quite true. What’s also true is that once Rome is built (or certainly the foundations are there…) you forget what things looked like before.

The change in Unity’s brochure happened over 2-3 years really – at the time I found it frustrating that the change didn’t happen quicker, but in retrospect it was necessary as lots of different things were aligning at the same time which is not an immediate transition. We never had enough money to do a full rebrand so instead changed things gradually – it started with rewriting copy, trying to remove the jargon, anything superfluous and really define who it was for: audiences (yes I know that’s vague, but I’m opposing this to people who work in theatre all the time). Sentence lengths shortened, academic language and jargon was phased out, plot and content came to the foreground, form and style to the background and the number of arguments with companies increased hugely as we ripped their copy apart and reassembled it for our use.

Brochures3Then came a design step change – we started thinking about values, what our work encapsulated, what was important to us. We also, ordered every brochure from every other theatre in the country and went through them with a fine tooth comb. If there was something clever we highlighted it, if the tone appealed we cut it out, if we hated it we found out exactly what we hated. It was a useful exercise in finding the things that we related to, that were exciting and dynamic. We had a challenging moment with our long standing designer and eventually parted ways and so auditioned (such a theatrical word, I mean “went through tendering”) from 8 designers to see a) how they related to the brief, b) whether we thought we could work with them, c) if they brought things to the table and d) price.

We had better copy, a designer who related to the theatre, our way of talking about the organisation was becoming, dare I say, less serious and we had found an aesthetic that worked. We changed the size of the brochure from a 150mm square to A5 – this cut costs dramatically, reduced our postage costs (for packaging) and we sourced the printer (rather than designer) meaning we could shop around a bit more.

This began a period of time of “bringing together” which was essentially of aligning all the elements of Unity which had previously felt pretty disparate. We updated the website (with usability and navigation top of the agenda), examined our mailings, looked at how the building presented itself as we looked around and generally tried to improve everything one step at a time.

With the brochure we started a process of deconstruction after every brochure – we used audience and staff feedback to gradually refine what we had. This usually involved taking two brochures apart, gluing them to sheets of A3 and writing “this is shit” with massive red circles over anything that didn’t quite work, putting down new ideas and also using the retrospective knowledge of shows that didn’t sell and applying them to what we’d done to get “what we’d have done differently”. That was then applied to the next brochure and so on.

The brochure covers began as quite dark with a bold colour, reflective of where we were at the time, but also, in a city filled with great venues, something that helped make our brochure stand out and look dynamic and different against the others on offer (please note, I’m not saying better, just different). Then as we progressed we had natural development – firstly to place the shows at the core of what we were doing, then to go brighter and then to offer something completely different to coincide with a new artistic director.

As we progressed the content became tighter and tighter, the formatting became more exacting and the deconstruction kept continuing (top tip: always start by talking about what works otherwise you’ll feel drained after the meeting!). We made sure that the tone fitted our brand identity and also increasingly matched the positive audience perception but also the work that we put on stage.

Brochures5I was incredibly lucky in having a succession of Marketing Officers and Box Office Managers who were liberal with their opinions and were passionate in leading the charge. I can’t stress enough how important they were in making things develop and move forward. Two things that spring up that’s useful for brochures 1) make sure you’ve someone with a good bullshit detector and 2) be prepared to compromise sometimes. The bullshit detector is incredibly useful because we all write with a voice that is unique to us – sometimes it will sneak into things we’re writing (copy for example) and needs to be sought out and put right. In my case I can occasionally write “bullshit”. Or, more specifically, overly complicated complex sentences with an excessive amount of exclamation marks. Sometimes when you get deep into “brochuring” or “the marketeers burden” you can need this jolt to get you back on the straight and narrow and stop you hallucinating reviews and shows that are “unmissable!” The compromise element is that sometimes you can’t win every battle, it’s better to pick and choose what you’ll compromise on and give yourself more time to work on something else – after all time is finite.

This has all led (that was quick) to our latest brochure – the one I am most proud of – that I signed off today. It is thinner than all the others we’ve done, cheaper to produce and takes the smallest amount of the marketing budget than it ever has. I know there will be an error in it that we missed – there always is. I know that in a years time I will look at it and think it’s shit because the new thing I’m working on will have surpassed it in my mind. It will sell tickets. It will drive audiences better than its predecessors. It will tell people what Unity is about.

And it is throwaway.
The only place remembering those brochures past is this blog now. Something that’s worth remembering – it has a job to do and then it’s gone.

The future?
This kind of brings us back in full circle. Is the brochure still the thing? Will it be here in 5, 10, 15 years time?

I was thinking about this a lot recently and trying to define my thoughts. A couple of points below which will change in time, they will, I’m sure reverse, contradict or, upon finding something new out, be deleted from my consciousness completely. Here goes:

  1. They won’t die but will evolve – they have a function which is to drive audiences to the website as well as inform. There is room for editorial which few have really approached – for helping people understand what we do and why, and, for many of us, explain why we’re worthy of their time in a less sell, sell, sell, way. This feels a distance off at the moment…
  2. People like the tangible – ever noticed how people still go to real shops even though amazon exists. Some even go to bookshops. Some people find it hard to connect with digital everything. I like to scribble on my Edinburgh brochure, make notes, pass it to people. That’d hard to do with a PDF. For that reason I think they’ll survive. Maybe simplify, become more listingsy… Not everyone is a digitally-savvy, tablet-using, apple-loving, pdf-opening, hipster-bearded, digital native. They shouldn’t be excluded.

I’m aware I’ve not covered loads of stuff – from segmentation models, how we did distribution, the rise and fall of the mini-brochure, linking online and digital, why we removed the logo from the front cover (its become off-brand… oh the irony…) and also the merits of various paper stocks in relation to their brand values. However I hope this has been interesting to you marketing geeks – as always please share this article far and wide, send me a tweet @mrfreeman1984, follow me on facebook (click here) and leave a comment underneath.


Best, Sam.

Rain, driving and hills

Today was an odd day with a smattering of driving pain, driving in rain, new dawns and sunrises. It was my first post interview visit to my new employers in North Wales, a pre visit before I start properly in Wales. I was at Unity in the morning sorting some brochure odds and ends before driving over. I realise now that I’ve learnt the following things.

  1. It’s faster to get the bus into Liverpool city centre than drive and parking.
  2. £4.50 for parking is an obscene amount…
  3. …especially when you don’t have the correct coins and the machine doesn’t give change.
  4. Stalling at traffic lights in rush hour doesn’t endear you to your fellow drivers.
  5. Nor does stalling again 30 seconds later in front of the same driver as before.
  6. The third time is when they think you’re taking the piss

IMG_20160329_184938So I drove over to Wales and the icy rain started to fall, literally rain with ice, as if rain alone wasn’t quite hardcore enough. It was with a little trepidation. When you start a new job you’re entering the unknown – what if they hate you, what if it’s awful, will it ever stop raining?!?

I can happily report that I had a lovely time. The building is immense, I’ve never walked round a place for 35 mins and then discover a cinema, or a cafe or a subterranean tunnel. I can also report that the bakewell tart is excellent and served at a size which promises diabetes, there is a great pub next door (from where I’m writing this), incredibly friendly staff, offices with space (a foreign concept to me as I’m used to working in a cupboard) and some incredibly exciting plans.

The wind howled, rain poured and then as I finished the sun came out and revealed the view that’d been disguised by heavy set rainclouds. 




Arts Marketing: Six things I wish I’d known…

I have been given two pieces of rock solid theatrical advice in the past 15 years and both I’ve used when directing shows. The first was from a now-acclaimed performer and creative who said the key to any show was to “get in quick, say what you have to say concisely and get out quick”. The second was from a brilliant and respected Artistic Director having a flippant moment with the brilliant “audiences will forgive a multitude of sins when you have a nice set”. The first I think applies to much in life and the second when put into the context of me being about to direct a show I’d written, rather galling. Both however were effective and have driven my logic around theatre, firstly that it’s about not wasting time and secondly it’s recognising that theatre is more than the words.

As many people now know I’m leaving Unity Theatre where I have spent the last 6 years as Marketing Manager. Inevitably as I wind down this part of my career to move onto a new and exciting future I start to think about the changes I’ve know, how they’ve effected me and what I wish I’d known 6 years ago when I started. With that in mind I thought I’d write down 6 things, not top tips (I’m not quite that arrogant) that I wish I’d been told at the start. If they’re useful please tweet me or comment at the bottom of the page.

rome-colosseum-1480086-640x480 #1 | Rome wasn’t built in a day
This took me a long time to realise and it only really sank in when Paul Clay, a brilliant arts manager, said it to me. When I started I believed that I could turn everything around in a year, that everything that needed updating, systems replacing and ideas formulating, could be done in 12 short months. It doesn’t work like that. Good change, I think, is built brick by brick and not imported wholesale – especially when your organisation is not overburdened with cash. Unity’s website development took 3 years to reach where it is today – not perfect by a long stretch, but a mile away from where it started. Having a clear idea of the endgame is key, but it has to be tempered with reality. I had a running phrase with one of my Marketing Officers Paul (who is an amazing musician) that “This time next year it’ll all be perfect”. Invariably it wasn’t. We’d reach a year later and yes, by the standards of 12 months ago things had improved, our expectations had risen, meaning that we were looking for the next step rather than taking in the step we’d already taken.

writing-1560276-640x480#2 | There’s rarely a definitive right answer with creative
I once had an argument where another arts marketeer described something I wrote as “awful”. I, internally, described them in slightly less pleasant terms and got wound up by it. There is no definitive rights or wrongs with creative (e.g. images, copy etc…). There are factor that effect its success; whether it speaks to your audience (which is different venue to venue), whether it fits your brand identity etc… but ultimately the mark of success is whether the show sold. I would also be wary of directors, actors and others who tell you that they’re the most qualified to write or create images. As a marketeer we are the ears and eyes of the public – we have to filter through the arts bullshit, through pretention, and find the gems, those bits that will relate to as wide an audience as possible and not just the people who work constantly in the arts, on shows or with other creatives. When you’re being concise and making a strong sell (or invitation) your role is to sell tickets and the brand. It’s okay to say that, well, actually noone has ever bought tickets because of the lighting designer or the DSM apart from family members (sometimes that can also extend to the writer and director) – people want to know what it’s about first, what it says second and who says it third (unless you’ve a star). Bare in mind that even as I write this I can remember exceptions to the rule – so also remain flexible.

As a final aside to this I am also of the opinion that “experience” can also be, on occasion renamed as “baggage”. Also just because you work in marketing or admin makes you no less or more a creative person than anyone who defines themselves as creative – it’s merely that they happen to be being creative differently – if they think they’re better than everyone because of it then be wary (or shoot to kill).

notepad-1192373-639x839#3 | Never be content with the status quo and fail regularly
The point where something needs to be looked at is the point when someone says it doesn’t need to be (and also when they say it does too). There will be a moment when you’ve redone the website, sales are going well, the e-bulletin is hitting, social media is bobbing along and you’ve upgraded everything. Don’t stop. Don’t f**king stop. Start re-examining, don’t be satisfied with where you’re at, look to what’s next. Sometimes you have to experiment to try new things – we discover improvements by failing. If you’re trying new things and failing regularly, so long as you’re learning as you go and implementing those failures it’s no bad thing. Our aim is for long-term success not short-termism. A to-do list can be good for this (but also occasionally soul destroying).

anger-management-1422668-640x480#4 | Management and leadership are different and are not limited to managers and leaders
This is a general thing. Management is about making systems work and managing them – leadership is about having vision, pushing in a direction and taking people with you. This can happen as a CEO or as an usher and anywhere in between. They’re different skill sets and they’re not always in Ben Hur type situations, but recognising these moment and supporting them and when other people are doing them can be really rewarding. Oh an shut up more. Let people talk. I don’t do that enough. Listen then speak. But obviously not everyone at the same time.

owl-chatting-1385170-639x426#5 | Sometimes everyone doesn’t need to give their opinion
Those meetings where we all gather round to chat. It feels lovely and democratic, every opinion is heard, angles looked at. They are useful for an hour maximum – once a year – everyone can have 5 to 10 minutes – but invariably people leave disappointed if you don’t follow the path they suggest. There are things that need group chats and things that don’t – it takes a while to distinguish between the two and sometimes you’ll get it wrong – but I would encourage action in most situations rather than endless debate. Try it, get it wrong, learn from it. It’s faster and while you may occasionally look like a dick so long as you have humility occasionally it’ll be fine. Also, for some things people will never know. Changing how you write a mailing doesn’t need debate, just do it. Worse case scenario is that someone will get pissy with you. They’ll get over it.

the-cliff-1529309-640x480#6 | Have faith
Sometimes we forget we were employed because people believe in us, our skills, our opinions and our ability to make the right decision. I’ve had points where I thought “what the shit am I doing” and “am I making a terrible mistake”. Those doubts are natural. They make you redouble your checks and work harder to make things effective. There will be a point where you’re on the precipice (for me it was a new brochure design and rebranding), you’ve done the work. Jump.

Oh and have a marketing friend or friends. Ideally outside your organisation. Chew the fat with them. I go for cake with the brilliant Sarah Ogle and it’s amazing how just sharing an issue, frustration or an idea can lift a dark cloud or inspire a new thought.

The right (& fight) to experiment in arts organisations

The last couple of weeks have been tough for me professionally at work. It’s the classic story, too much happening all at the same time, a feeling of helplessness, being overwhelmed and needing to find some order, some way of making sense of what appears unexplainable and undecipherable chaos. I think this is a pretty common feeling not just across arts marketeers but also everyone who works in the arts (or should that simply be everyone who works).

I found myself on the bus home with ideas, frustrations and conversations rushing around my head and I wondered if life couldn’t all be a bit, well, easier.

One thing I’ve noticed in the arts (my only real point of reference) is that for a creative industry we are remarkably uncreative when it comes to working practice and experimentation when it doesn’t directly involve the art form.  I started to wonder whether, if we were starting from scratch tomorrow, whether we’d continue to work in that way?

I also had a meeting with a consultant last week and two things were apparent. Firstly that I would be helpless without that consultancy and secondly that experience was the necessity in resolving that helplessness. Apart from are those both true? Now I have had time to digest and step away from the sales pitch environment the first section (“helpless”) I can identify as the sign of an amazing sales pitch and the creation of need.  The second element, experience, can be incredibly true, but it reminded me that experience can also be defined differently – baggage – and that it can be difficult to sometimes tell the difference.

In our working lives we often continue to work in a particular way because experience has taught us it’s the best way. But this experience is probably not entirely ours, I’d like to bet we’ve never really challenged the concept it’s built on. Let’s take office working – we’re often told (explicitly or implicitly) that working in an office is the best environment for work – but is it – maybe in the 1980s when connectivity was a challenge, but is it still true? If you need silence to concentrate and a radio is blaring out 90s classics is that the best place to work? If your mind works in diagrams and moodboards but you can’t put drawings and ideas on the wall is that the best place to work? Or does it take away from the experience and erode the joy in achieving our work goals? Of finishing that project? Of creating something great.

So I’ve written down the things that would help me work better (and some possible solutions). See what you think? What would your list be? Chances are different, it’s personal preference to make the work experience better. Maybe comment at the bottom?

  1. Space, space, space
    I have the world’s smallest desk. It’s about 1 meter wide and I feel hemmed in all the time. I like to be able to spread out, look at things at the same time, compare and contrast. At the moment it feels impossible without intruding. It’s also the same in a virtual sense. I have a single monitor that although widescreen doesn’t make it easy to move between projects which often use simultaneous workspaces. I long for a wall, blank wall space which i can write directly on, stick ideas on, make moodcharts, add photos, themes, an actual pinterest board in real life. When I think I stare blankly into space, searching for inspiration. They help.
  2. The end of paper
    Paper, everything is on bloody paper. I make notes at a meeting, or pop an idea down and end up with reams of notes, all unattributed, all unlinked to projects, all potential goldmines (or coppermines) untapped. What I want is all my notes digitally held – notes written on a tablet, added to project files, conversations placed in the same place. We’re incredibly wedded to microsoft office but what about collaboration software? We use wunderlist and it’s great in many ways, it helps me keep an eye on what my team is up to but also when I feel like I’ve not achieved I can look at what has been done, it’s motivating to an extent. I want work syncronised. I want to get files when I’m not at my desk. I want 100% access 100% of the time. That’s not to say that I’ll use it. But if I’m in a meeting I want to be able to open what i need at that moment. Oh an if we could kill off outlook too for something that doesn’t erode my soul that’d be great too…
  3. A change of scenery
    My desk has a tiny window to the left and a tiny window to the right but no view at all. The Brontës had the splendor of moorlands to write in, Wordsworth had hills, even Dan Brown’s desk overlooks something. We need to find a space that inspires. A perfect view mightn’t always be possible but what can I do to make it more inspiring?
  4. Personal development time
    I think sometimes we need time to step back, take a deep breath in, try new things and move outside the day-to-day. I was incredibly lucky under three Marketing Manager (Rachel Chapman, Antony Dunn and Abbigail Ollive – all three ace marketeers) that they gave me the freedom to learn new things, try ideas, do silly things like social media (at the time a new thing) and develop new skills and in areas I didn’t expect. How can we continue this throughout our careers, so that learning and the simple joy of discovery and growth is inbuilt in our work ethic?
  5. Guilt free breaks
    Okay, this is 100% me. I feel bad about taking breaks. There was a theatre I worked in where all the tea breaks were synchronized so that in the morning everyone would have 20 mins break together. It’s slightly authoritarian in one way, a bit like the school bell, but actually is this the space where the communication and ideas can happen? We can still talk about work but actually connect, throw ideas, laugh, unwind for a moment? What if the tea break was where every good idea came from and we’d never found it out? How many great ideas have come from meetings and how many have come while chatting over coffee? What if that break was paid because we recognised it helped morale, and was a space for conversations and networking?

That’s it from me – just barely scratching the surface. Some starter ideas and thoughts there to consider. You may hate them, you may love them, you may be indifferent. If you’ve liked this blog post please share the post on twitter or facebook and leave a comment below – follow me on twitter or facebook, oh and join my mailing list!

P.S. In other news I’ve hit a peak of creativity outside work. Currently I’m working on (deep breath) a new proper play, new storytelling show, a half hour TV pilot which we’re filming in Feb, new projection stand up show and a semi-improvised show which combines every Gangster/Crime film ever (possibly also with GTA5) in an epic 1 hour 2-hander. If you want to know more about any of these then get in touch! Best, Sam.

Cats, dogs and why we live.

Firstly, before you read any further, let me drop a couple of truths before you read any more (then you can decide whether I’m going to waste your time or not).

  1. This blog post is heavily related to arts marketing and theatre
  2. It is also related to the idea of owning a dog (even though I want a cat)
  3. And it touches on working practice and happiness.

Want to read on?

Here’s your chance to go…

Right, now that I’ve got your full attention I want to talk about a couple of ideas that I have found are dominating the arts and the direction I think we should be going. To start with a few trends I’ve noticed. As always, all opinions are my own and not reflective of any of the organisations I work for.

  • We’re time poor, in static environments non conductive to work and under stress
  • There are highly stressful pinch points throughout the year
  • Wages are remaining static (at best), or are drastically decreasing through inflation, increased hours (we’re all working pro-bono but are in denial about it) or simply through budget cuts.

I’ve also noticed that there are other elements touching my life away from work.

I’d like to own a dog for example (actually I’d like a cat but my other half is allergic…), I’d like to do more writing and creative work, I don’t exercise enough or, and I appreciate this is a contrast, drink in a non-binge fashion enough. It seems that work is increasing encroaching upon life. This naturally begs the question which we all ask from time to time: are we living to work or are we working to live?

I suspect the answer lies somewhere in the centre but slanted towards living to work. What I know to be true is that life shouldn’t revolve around feelings of stress, helplessness or occasional panic, nor should we accept stress, being time poor or wages as “part of the job.”

I’m a firm believer that there’s an issue in the UK where we mistake someone who is good at their job for hard working. After all someone can be shit at their job and hard working – the hard working is, it could be argued, symptomatic of lacking the efficiency to work a sensible amount more effectively.

See what I did, I repurposed hard working to mean something different there. Think about it, we wouldn’t approve of hard-drinking, hard-drug taking, hard-liners or excessive amounts of Laurel and Hardie. Yet when it comes to work we take pride in it. I do it too, and it’s starting to get tiring. We need to work easier, smarter and happier.

A friend once told me that the biggest problem the arts has is mistaking efficiency as a foe rather than a friend. That the prioritisation of getting work done shrouds the greater issue, that we don’t ever look at how we can make that work simpler, faster to do, to free up more time for life and creativity. We doggedly stick to systems that we have always know rather than ever really focusing on how we find an easier way. Yes, sometimes the easier way results in a lower quality of something, but we need to look at balance, efficiency, about whether the needs of that thing outweighs the greater good of the saving in energy both emotional, mentally and physically.

Let’s go back to our list from earlier – so where could we look at ideas surrounding this – i’m going to use examples from my own role.

  • We’re time poor, in static environments non conductive to work and under stress
    We need to look at how to free up time and reduce stress. Why not take a week or even better a month and look at where time is being absorbed. For me it is unfocused meetings, e-mail and lack of flexible working.

    • Meetings should have a clear singular objective that has to be achieved within 30 mins not drag for hours, and decisions should be made at the end – the decisions need to be tracked, progress monitored, and not through e-mails and meetings, through specialist software that manages projects efficiently and effectively. How much time would we gain? Would projects work more efficiently?
    • I trawl through 60+ e-mails on a daily basis – how can I reduce this to focus on the really important?
    • Flexible working is tricky – I work in a busy, uncomfortably small office where there is no space for having quiet space, or being away from people – I realised that if I work from home I do 2 days work in 1 day – how do we replicate that at work? Is one environment appropriate to all tasks we do? I wouldn’t write a play in a busy office, why would I write a business plan or strategy?
    • I’d like a dog, they’re relaxing and calming and bring joy. I work better when I feel joy, relaxed and calm. Would this added feeling make me work better at the cost of 2 x 30 min walks a day and a dog in the office?
  • There are highly stressful pinch points throughout the year
    We need to take a serious look at pinch points. For me three times a year I have near unbearable stress when I put together a brochure. It is, however, at its core, to each element, not a stressful activity (design, writing, pricing). The process that we work to create brochures merely compresses 50 shows going on sale, and everything associated with that into 2 – 3 weeks. Why not have a rolling season? Lose that stress, develop a system that is adaptive and flexible rather than operating within the constraints of the three season structure? What else would need to change? What would be the benefits rather than the costs? Would anyone underwrite us (ACE?) to try this so we don’t avoid change to avoid falling on our arses. How do we mitigate our fear of the unknown?
  • Wages are remaining static
    People do not work in the arts for the money it is said. Yet the arts are still hemorrhaging some of the best staff. Clearly it’s a factor. If we can sort the first two issues to make people more time rich, less stressed and working more efficiently (ideally with a pet) then we should look at addressing the wage problem in a creative way. Maybe not with higher wages but with better conditions. What if you did a 4 day week on the same wages? Or worked 6 hour days instead, again for the same wage? What if you were happier, more motivated, less stressed, more time rich, more efficient and paid for your time more reasonably – would that make us all work better?

I appreciate that people will invariably say that either a) that’s not how the world works or b) (and this is to be blunt) make excuses for why none of this is possible. The question I wonder is that if the arts doesn’t address the status quo, the increasing difficulties that the workers in arts organisations have, how can it expect to sort the issues the whole industry faces organisationally, sociologically, ethically and morally.

The arts are about change for the better, to find a vision for a new hope through reflection or ambition. They need to find a place in the 21st century and discover how they can influence the development of society and humanity in a world that increasingly feels to have lost the wonder, the clear eyed wonder and joy of simply living – and this it needs to start at home.

Big statement? Yes.
Big ideas? Maybe.
Starts from the smallest but bravest of changes? Definitely.

If you found this post interesting then please read this one which I wrote a few weeks ago! Click here!

Any thoughts or comments please tweet me @mrfreeman1984

The Future Of Arts Marketing (and Theatre)


On Wednesday I attended the Spektrix Conference at the Lyric Hammersmith which was, at it invariably always is, incredibly thought provoking. One of the lightning talks took a fictional look at how theatre ticketing might be in 2020, looking back over the past 5 years of innovation that is yet to happen. It was funny, interesting and insightful and it made me think (along with other things) as to the changes that have happened in the course of my career and the direction I think we’re heading.

In many ways when I think back 10 years to when I started in Arts Marketing the world has changed hugely – social media, the rise of youtube, website development and online sales – the idea of cloud computing was foreign those years ago. However these changes while seismic have not registered highly on the Richter scale (to continue the metaphor). Invariably change happens at a much slower rate than we expect. Also, by the very nature of change, not all of us are early adopters, innovations happen, and some are kept whereas other fall by the wayside. Two that spring to mind are twitter and second life – both were picked up at the same time but only twitter has been widely adopted.

So where does this leave us, and me? Well I started to think about the things that I’d like to look at over the next 5 to 10 years, the changes I think will actually be adopted, the directions we will go and the places we will see. Some of these are arts marketing, some are my inclination about more organisational issues.

  1. Brochures still won’t die but they’ll be redefined.
    We’ve been saying it for 15 years – “in 3 years time noone will do brochures” – and yet, invariably we still invest huge amounts of time and effort in brochures. I still think they have a place, they offer a different audience and a tangible, touchable, real connection to an organisation – however, I think they’ll become shorter as they increasingly become portals to digital-only content. There will also be reconsideration of programming cycles. Films aren’t programmed seasonally so why is theatre? There’s a strong case for a rolling cycle of work, especially in a world where long term planning for customer purchasing, particularly on lower value items is becoming less and less. Also, why stress ourselves our 3 times a year going through a brochure process.
  2. Content to become king (at last)
    The next five years will see the content led marketing move to the foreground, the homepages will become feasts of interesting information. What we see at the moment is content about the shows and artists – what the future will bring is podcast and more video but also, content around the themes or context of the work. If there’s a play about immigration expect work about the Syrian conflict, surviving as a refugee and about the history of migration. The future of marketing will belong to the geeky data analysts and the content creators.
  3. Personalised experiences
    We will see websites customise to audiences when they log in (catching us up to Amazon). Logging in will display a what’s on list ordered by things we think you’ll like – we’ll already know your favourite seat (and get you them or ones close by) – we’ll tell you about how your last donation was made and will send you personalised details of travel – your recent purchases will have info about what other people thought, we’ll even give you the podcast from the Q&A you attended. Also the box office will link to the bar and the restaurant – we might even suggest a new beer we’ve got in stock or a special our chef thinks is just right for you.
  4. Route controlled logic tree marketing (automation)
    Time will become more valuable than anyone expected – writing great articles takes time. As a result we’ll look at how we can automate our systems. What if for a comedy show each article we wrote was linked to the sales page through the CRM and CMS, each blog, podcast, video. So that the e-mail that is sent to customers sends the top 3 bits of content as well as the show, or maybe even instead of the show? What if we set logic trees for a shows, a strand of work, a season of work – so that activity is planned, created and then constructed to your specifications according to need. A customer never clicks on the podcast? No problem, they get directed to blogs instead. Customer donated to an organisation fund? No problem, the latest bit of content about the project is taken and sent to them.
  5. Live streaming
    I don’t think Live Streaming will replace the Live Experience. But I think it will act as a strong incentivisation for audiences in theatres that can’t do the scale of ambition that is NT Live. What if each theatre had 4 webcams, 3 on the performance and in the foyers? No sound, not great quality, just seeing art in motion? Would it work? Who knows – all i know is when I visit the Minack Theatre live stream it makes me want to go to Cornwall.
  6. Live digital feedback feeding the experience
    No more static FOH screens. Feedback being generated live feeding into the displays and website. Would it be moderated? Who knows – part of me thinks that if it isn’t then people will trust it more. We should encourage people to tweet pics of the set, themselves at the venue. This feedback will, I suspect, be collected, but the question remains as to how it is used?
  7. Experience flow to become key
    There is, at the moment, in many venues a disconnect between the marketing, FOH, Box Office and Bar experience – mostly because they’re run separately with oversight not necessarily concentrating on the implementation of brand and values. Expect FOH, Operations, Box Office, Bar and Marketing Departments to merge and work as one team offering a more consistent experience, translating organisational values and brand more efficiently than ever before. Some venues are doing this already…
  8. Marketing to be renamed Communications, then Content Delivery, then Data, then back to Marketing.
    If #7 doesn’t happen then expect this. It happens every two years or so with little or not meaningful effect… Still means some new badges.
  9. Programming and Participation Departments to merge
    Programming and participation sometimes work too separately – they need to interact holistically and with real synergy so that they are wholesale leading how the audience experience is deepened at enriched from the earliest stages of conversations about work – some theatres do this incredibly well, the programming being shared more will open up new opportunities and possibilities.
  10. Changes to work ethic, roles and creativity. (post burnout)
    Expect tough times. Working hours have increased, stress has increased, pressure and workload has increased. Something will snap and that something will be staff. We need a wholesale change in work ethic. Increasing working hours is not a solution, merely a sticking plaster on a symptom. We need to look at efficiency of how we free up time and develop systems to make life easier. Let’s bring in 30 hour working weeks as standard on the same wages as 35 or 40 hour contracts. Let’s encourage 1 day in 10 working on a creative project. Let’s work out how to cut down e-mails. There is a logic that the happier, the less stressed, the more joy and creativity we have in our jobs the better and more efficiently we work (with less sick days too). Why are we not seriously looking at making our lives more enjoyable – we need to break systems causing issues before they break us.

I appreciate that much of this has been said and done before but I’d love to get your thoughts, views and opinions. I am as always looking for the odd freelance activity to run as an added extra in my life of arts marketing so if you want to chat through any of these let me know!

As always these views are my own and do not represent the views of anyone I work with or for (nor Spektrix, I merely had the thoughts while at their conference!).

Best, Sam x

Marketing DIY: Intermediate Heat Mapping (Genre)

In the last Marketing DIY post (here) we talked about how you can do a basic heat mapping of your auditorium. We took basic data contained within your database to look at how long prior to booking people actually booked their tickets, used this as a basic measure of demand and then mapped it using conditional formatting to get an insight into how the booking of an auditorium works. Simple, not perfect, but useful.

But what do you do next? I gave a few examples of ideas you might have to increase revenue, but there’s probably more data you need to examine (particularly in regional reps where you have a broad variance in programming) before you should make your decisions about how to do your pricing. One example, which I’m going to touch on here might be variance in genre.

Let’s start with our hunch. I go to the theatre a lot and know that the experience of going to a comedy night varies from a theatre show – some people just hate that direct contact, they want to avoid being “picked on“. Equally, I have a suspicion that families always want the front row and that, in a rather more silly example, for circus shows that people love the side seats. So far, just a hunch, so how do we test it?

For this example for ease of explanation and to make it a little easier to write this blog post I’ve created some data based on an entirely fake 9 seat venue called “Sam’s Theatre”. The venue has had 4 shows in this example – comedy, drama, dance and physical theatre.


In my sample data the addition of the genre column (which is an event attribute) means that we can start to slice and examine the data in different ways. Our first port of call is, like in the previous post to put the data into a pivot table. As you can see on the right we have our fields of information, so by row we’re looking at the individual seat (this is what we use to build our heatmap). The values we’re looking at is the day’s prior to booking – in the values box there’s a dropdown called Value Field Settings and set the Summarise Value Field by Average.


So we’ve essentially got what we had before and we can build our heatmap using conditional formatting.


So here’s our heatmap which is the averages of all our data from across my (admittedly limited) four show season. What we can do next is use a tool in the pivot table to examine the data in different ways (pivot table tools > options) called the slicer. This allows us to look at slices of data. In our example above we have currently two unused columns of information – show title and genre. The effect is to only look at portions of data and to give us a visual representation of what is happening.





So let’s imagine that we’ve used a few years data, across multiple shows. Now this information becomes useful in setting pricing going forward and potentially identifying where demand might be, where price boundaries are and how we can increase yields. Conclusions in this example might be:

  • Comedy: Could we increase prices of middle row and reduce back row price?
  • Dance: the side seats are less important, can we reduce prices of these, or should the middle be more expensive?
  • Drama: 3 price bands might be a good idea? Perhaps we could look at then how we incentive customers to trade up?
  • Physical Theatre: the back row could be cheaper but no point discounting the sides?

This, as I’m sure you’ll realise, a really brutalist and unsubtle example.

Even when using much bigger data sets it’s important to bear in mind the many other factors to look at when examining pricing. How does it fit in with brand, organisational ideology, programming etc… There’s also things like clarity for an audience, organisation, staff, maybe there are errors in the dataset, perhaps there was one show where seats were booked consistently months in advance. As a result this should be a guide rather than a definitive answer to all pricing questions I think.

This is all the pretty basic end of what’s possible to look at and explore – if you’d like to know more, bounce ideas or even a little bit of (and I’m loath to use the word) consultancy, then drop me a tweet @mrfreeman1984 or contact me through my contact form (or at darklaughs(at)

Best, Sam


Marketing DIY: Heat mapping your auditorium

Heat mapping your venue has always been an incredibly good thing to do. It allows you to look at where you can place pricing bands, squeeze additional income and even develop accessibility. But can you do it yourself? I think so, and so, over the next 1,159 words I’ll be going through the process of how to do it.

The information I will be using will be from a small studio theatre (Unity Theatre) and for a single show (Hal Cruttenden) – but the principles remain, all I’ll be missing out is a section on aggregating data (which is pretty simple, feel free to tweet me about it). I’m also using the Spektrix box office system which is very nice (other systems are available).

So, where to begin.

We know that heat mapping essentially measures demand and preference, it tells us which seats are coveted more that others. We need to start with the raw data of what’s happening in every seat. I’m using a new sales report for this (no need to ask Spektrix to build you anything!), with a simple single event selection criteria and various outputs.


So we’ve got three bits of data, seat which gives us the seat number, event date/time which is the day of the performance and date confirmed which is when the ticket was purchased. Obviously if you’re a bigger theatre you add in area as well to separate the stalls from the dress circle etc… So we run this report and we get an excel report that looks a bit like this.


Now this information isn’t terribly useful at the moment. What we need to do is get number of days prior to the performance each ticket was booked.

Now, if you chat with Spektrix they’ll direct you to an analysis report for this, but with excel you can get the same result (and also at an advanced level look at loads more detail – e.g. looking at shows in relation to genre to answer questions – do people sit further back when there’s stand up on or do they move forward?).

So we add a new column D called Advance Booking (Days). We take the Event Date/Time and minus the Date Confirmed. This gives us a numerical value for the advance. As you can see in my example, that ticket was bought on the day so is a proportion of a day (0.2 days in advance).


So we apply this to all our seats – if you do this over a month or years that might be 200k lines of data, so be prepared. Also your PC will slow down a bit. Some unsold seats may register as #VALUE! which means that excel can’t do the sum as it’s impossible. Don’t worry (although it’s unlikely to be an issue with bigger data sets). There’s other ways of eliminating these seats and also using multipliers to assess unpopular seats that are simply rarely used to ensure that any bias is counteracted!

Now we have our data we’re going to insert a pivot table. This allows us to aggregate our data (although quite unnecessary in this example!).  So we create a pivot table that looks a bit like this:


Now we need to translate this into a seating plan. This is the boring bit. You have to recreate your seating plan on excel. Dull. Sorry! I’ve not made my tremendously attractive and it’s a really simple plan but you can see underneath how it works. Lots of boxes and seat numbers. Then comes a period of data entry, essentially linking the data in the pivot table into the plan. So the data from A10 goes into the box for seat A10 – simple. I’ve also rounded the figures to make it all simpler (but rest assured it doesn’t make a difference – it just hides the detail!).


As you can see I’ve added in some of the numbers. So seats A16 & A17 were booked 90 days in advance (yey) and seats A10 & A11 were released at the last minute so bought on the day (yey). Of course when you use aggregated data from multiple performances you get a much clearer picture on how your auditorium is working – because I’m demonstrating with just one show the results will be blocky! It’s also worth mentioning that if you have different areas you can split them across different sheets in excel – there’s some lovely functionality you can use to keep consistency which is particularly useful if, for example you are looking at touring versus homemade shows or looking at different genres. Be aware that in my data there are gaps in the mapping as the performance didn’t sell out!


So here we have (some 20 mins later) our completed seating plan for the performance of Hal Cruttenden (comedian) at Unity Theatre. Not all the seats sold so they have ### on them. Some are house seats (J 5 – 9) and wheelchair seats (A5 – 7). The next thing we’re going to do is add conditional formatting.

This formats the information in the chart/seating plan depending on conditions we set. So for example you could say that on any seat where people booked over 30 days in advance you want to put a star. You select the format of a star to any box that meets the criteria (booked over 30 days in advance). The newer versions (2010 onwards) have some pre installed versions.


As you can see there are lots of options so you can really set your own boundaries. However for us I’ve gone simple for a traditional 3 colour scale – so red seats are the higher numbers, green are lowest, and orange in the middle. For most people you won’t need to get any more complicated than that! So how does my plan look?


This is just a sample with one show but we can learn a lot from it. Red is popular seats, green are less popular.At the moment the entire auditorium is the same price ( all £8 as this was a preview). This information might encourage us to:

  • Increase the price of tickets in the centre block front 4 rows to £10
  • Reduce the prices of the tickets on the periphery (particularly E20 & E21) to £6

We can also see an anomaly. Have you spotted it?

Seat E4 – they’ve clearly misunderstood the seating plan and booked two seats across an aisle. Maybe two people with long legs? Maybe they should pay extra for the extra room?

This would, basically, create 3 price bands potentially which would increase ticket yields (I’ll tell you how to do that another time, again, great for spreadsheets!). There’s also the final question about accessibility. Well we’ve opened up the pricing a bit now, originally all the seats were £8, now there’s a range of options from £6 – £10.

I hope you enjoyed this blog. Please tweet me @mrfreeman1984 if you’ve enjoyed reading it or, if you’d like a chat about me doing some low cost heat mapping on your seating plan with some added extras drop me an e-mail through my contact form.

Gaffer – Opening soon

This June I’m directing a revival of a play called Gaffer.

I’m finding it hard to articulate how I feel at this moment in time, 4 weeks before the show opens and 2 weeks before we start the next stage of intensive rehearsals. I was recommended the play by a friend of mine, Duncan Clarke, who’d worked on the show when we both worked at York Theatre Royal about 10 years ago. I have to confess I didn’t see the show, I was away in Holland at Drama School finding myself and learning a range of increasingly bizarre drama exercises. I remember it was well received and that’s about it. Duncan recommended it and I got a copy of the script from the writer’s agent and has a read through. Continue reading

Arts Marketing: Now What? (Part 1)

I’ve not written a post about arts marketing for a while so, as I find myself on box office in a quiet moment I thought I’d pop down some thoughts I’ve been having recently. If you work in marketing you may disagree with them – then again I could be about to provide a moment of immense clarity – who knows, this could be either very exciting or a waste of 4 to 7 minutes.

We’ve been going through a period of quiet shows at the moment – it happens every so often – after a period of sell out shows for no inexplicable reason sales crash back down to Earth and a period of soul searching begins – What didn’t we do? Was the artwork good enough? Were the tickets too expensive? Did it just not appeal? Why didn’t it appeal? Are the audience just trying to mentally damage me?

At the core of my self questioning have been a few central point:

  1. Is the % of our budget we spend on season brochures having enough of an impact?
  2. Is there a better more collaborative way than the season brochure?
  3. How can we talk to our audiences in new and clever ways and seek to develop their knowledge of the artform?
  4. How can we foster genuine ownership for the building?
  5. How should we be using our online presence and where does the future lie for websites and social media?
  6. How do we turn our new audience into regular attenders?
  7. Is it possible to produce new work on the small-scale at a price that is economical for theatres?

If none of these points interest you I’d seriously consider turning back right now, seriously, I’d leave, flee.

Still here? Great then I’ll begin.

#1 – Is the % of our budget we spend on season brochures having enough of an impact?

We’re a small theatre and brochures are a heavy burden on the budget, even with vast amounts of corner cutting (It was 55% of our budget, now it’s 27% with new suppliers) with ever decreasing resources (by minimal budget think that each brochure costs £3k and we produce 3 a year!).

Genre segmentation would be one way of increasing impact, however on a small-scale (team of 2 with 110+ shows) it’s not fully practical – also not economically viable with variations of print. This idea is for a very arty small-scale theatre btw…

The brochure has 3 main purposes:

  1. Posting to previous attenders – People who’ve been before and who have a relationship with the organisation. This makes sense – they are the bread and butter audience, they’re more likely to spend money with us surely? OR is this slightly mental? Surely those people are the most informed about the type of work they’re likely to see, they have a relationship with you and if they’ve booked more than once in the past year then you’d hope a positive relationship is there? We want to develop a deeper relationship with these people but they are to an extent a captured audience. So, why not swap the 28page brochure they receive with a 8 page folded leaflet and a redirect to the website – maybe while also reminding people to update their details? We could be even smarter still, instead of sending a brochure about shows we could send a brochure about the organisation, that helps develop that relationship and a deeper understanding of our work and purpose.
  2. Distribution – This old chestnut… Well, each brochure has a high unit price and are placed as essentially disposable literature – gone are the days (for most people) of the brochure that rests on a coffee table (under a glass lid) being read like a Bronte novel periodically. A % of these will be binned by staff, a % read once and then binned and a % will be picked up and used. So, can we assume that these people have an interest so again – need less of the huge brochure and more a starting point – perhaps with links to website (mobile enabled of course) content?
  3. To engage people with the brand identity – Lists of shows only go so far in the brochure context – we should be selling an ideal, a vision, a road to the future – which is maybe why it’d be better to spend budget saved on big 32/28 page brochures and instead reinvest that money in finding a wider audience and offering deeper information with an aim to spread the organisational vision rather than content.

So this is part one.

Written. Yep.

To be honest this isn’t the most well-written thing i’ve ever done but will keep me writing down my thoughts.

If you like what I’ve written then please share AND IMPORTANTLY please leave your comments below.


Gig #15 – Vinyl, Liverpool (Compere)

Usually when I have a gig in the evening I spend the entire day worried, feel sick and have the urge to flee, extremely quickly. So it works to my benefit not to know about a gig until late so when Binty let me cover him as compere for the Pros and Coms gig down Lark Lane I didn’t really have enough time to get too stressed about it or plan too much.

Compering is very different to doing a normal set, for one planning becomes much less essential but attention to act names and maintaining a good pace and flow to the evening is very essential. It’s liberating in a bit, I mixed my usual material with whimsy but that freedom was great. I’ve had conversations with a few people about my tendency to go off on a whim at points (which I love) rather than sticking to my set (which I love less) – so this played to my strengths.

My favourite m0ment was playing off a guy with his parents with a crude fisting joke and then using a terrible pun to finish it off (gerrit?). I think it let me use some of my improv skills but in the best scenario – I’m not a very good actor but addressing and breaking the 4th wall to get to the audience is much more my thing.

But plenty to work on:

  • I need to look at remembering acts names better (i had a few moments where I lost their surnames…)
  • I need a couple of set pieces to have as backup and to use to make sure moments that drop pick up quickly.
  • A way of helping musicians and poets to get on comfortably.
  • Make sure I don’t overstay my welcome (which I did once…)
  • Find a good ending that leaves everyone on a high, kind of petered out tonight, rather than a strong moment.

Surviving a seeming arts apocalypse… (part 1)

It seems not a day passes without further signs in the decline of British Theatre in the regions, from the liquidation of the Byre Theatre in St Andrews to Taunton’s Brewhouse moving into administration it seems clear (in the media at least) that the arts are enduring a torrid time of uncertainty, fear and closure.

My arts career began at the Stephen Joseph Theatre around 2002 as an usher and continued through jobs at York Theatre Royal, Grassington Festival, TakeOver Festival and now to Unity Theatre and running my own brand new touring company. I currently work as Marketing Manager for Unity Theatre (please note the views expressed here are my own and not those of the organisation) and am also a playwright, director and comedian (although vastly unsuccessful at all three).

Small and mid-scale venues are coming under increasing pressure to reduce their reliance on grant-based funding (or in some cases forget about it completely) which, for small-scale organisations with limited capacity seating causes problems, it’s not a case of selling more tickets, moving from selling 70% of tickets to 100% of tickets, as we’re often talking 30 tickets not 300, there is limited spare capacity and the costs for producing and receiving small-scale work are very high. It’s a case of selling all the tickets, increasing prices and wringing every dime from the audience from donations to support the valuable work the venues do as part of the UK’s theatrical ecology – developing work and artists for larger venues and ultimately the West End, TV and film – even with that it’s a huge struggle.

There’s also the diversification of incomes, often mentions as a saviour, from bars and cafes, to weddings and gaining corporate sponsors all while providing challenging programmes, maintaining price accessibility, providing quality work for young people, working with schools, the list goes on and on…

Many of the smaller venues, with skeleton staff have,  I believe, one major limitation, time. To do all these things, on top of the day to day, on top of creating and supporting art, takes a huge amount of time. Even something as seemingly simple as finding corporate sponsors takes research time, resources, time meeting people, and even then it may be a sales relationship rather than philanthropic. And the best organisations to approach for donations are often being targeted by larger venues – with dedicated teams for development (or “give us money”).

Time though is the killer. Show me someone who works in the arts with an empty to-do list. They don’t exist, especially so in small-scale venues.

People often talked about the glory days, when theatre was a centre piece of people’s lives, queues round the block every night, in draughty spaces with wooden bench seating they came from far and wide – in those days there wasn’t even an Arts Council, so why now, why not any more? It’s easy to point at the competition theatre faces now, film, tv, computer games, facebook, on-demand porn, gig venues, indoor mini golf, the expansion of theatre venues – there are so many more demands on our time. Perhaps it’s relevance, or function, or the forms we use, or perhaps social expectation of theatre. Maybe it’s all of these things and more.

Scary times.

So what’s the solution?

To be honest I don’t fully know. I’m about to start work on a document to explore all that – a daunting undertaking but one I’m excited about in a strange way. I have some initial ideas, around shared services, building audiences, producing small-scale work, balanced programming, marketing strategies, pricing and operations and about experience management and development, but these are ideas rather than anything fully formed and don’t consist of a fully fledged theory or hypothesis forming “the solution”. I will write up and then share as much as I can over the next 4 months, for interest but also as a record… I’d love to get your thoughts as I broach different issues and offer questions and ideas many people will hate or find scary, or both.

For now, however, goodnight – see you next time.


P.S. – If you’re wondering why I’ve not mentioned many gigs recently it’s because I’ve found getting regular gigs hard, I really want to find a show to compere, any ideas please get in touch!

On The Edge

It’s a weird experience I’m going through this week. I’ve had an odd ‘career’ as a writer so far to date. Produced work includes a show in a restaurant about cous cous, and a studio show with a panda suit,  necrophilia jokes and, quite naturally lots of eerie silences.

In common with everything I’ve done is that I’ve been heavily involved; I’ve sat in on rehearsals, talked about things, usually either my problems or my genius as a writer. Actually I’ve never had a conversation about my genius as a writer. The last piece I wrote, now some years ago (if ever anyone suffered from the difficult second album syndrome), I also directed. It seemed insane, it’s common knowledge it seems with playwrights that you should never direct your own work. Which is why this week I have the surreal feeling of going to see a play I’ve written but have had nothing to do with other than that. The first time I will see the show will be on the opening night. There are good reasons for this, I’ve directed a few shows so am incredibly opinionated, there is usually a loud intake of breath when I like a show, so how would I react to seeing my work, done by someone else – It felt wise to play it safe and stay well away.

You’d expect then that it’d be with trepidation that i’d approach next week, but instead I find myself massively excited, not helped by friends “in the know” telling me it looks great and my faith in the director and the people producing the show. It’s dangerous as a writer letting people see and critique your work for the ego – but it’s an opportunity for me too I think, can i take whatever criticism is fired at me – and if I can take it how will it effect me – what will it motivate and start – how will it effect me in 1, 5, 10 years time. It makes you contemplate the future, what life is, what life could be and where one could find yourself.

So, go see it, tell me what you think, it’s on Friday 2nd & Saturday 3rd Dec at the Lantern Theatre in Liverpool.

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