Sam Freeman

Storytelling | Theatre | Arts Marketing

AMA Reflection

I’m back from nearly three days in Birmingham at the annual Arts Marketing Association conference where 650 marketers and fundraisers from around the country gathered to talk about curiosity, or, more specifically, how to remain, or stay, curious. It was an interesting conference that I have mixed feelings about, but, more on that later, first a few words on some thoughts gathered since the train journey home.

It seems that we are, as we have been told, in the midst of a culture shift and, largely, while it seems something we are broadly aware of, not a huge amount of people are responding the changes it has brought. The introduction of digital should have revolutionised the way we communicate with audience, but instead, speaking to a few people, it still feels like a tool, or add on rather than an integral part of what we do.

Perhaps we should consider two parts of that – firstly the idea of communication – is this the best we want to achieve? For those historically interested, we have moved from a basic dispersion of information (put up a flyer and hope people come) approach, a publicity approach, to one that offers a deeper interaction (where we give insight into what we do), where we seek critical reaction (feedback loops perpetuating increased sales) and then communication, which, incorporates all of these but suggests a dialogue. Digital technology has enabled this to happen (although analogue ways certainly exist) – think of facebook, twitter, youtube – now regarded as key components of the marketing mix. But we should question whether we have taken the next step – dialogue is one thing, but it is, arguably only of intrinsic value if it leads to change, development and action. This is where we, I wonder, fall down. With 70% capacity audiences we consider success, but is it? What if success is 99%? What if the 29% difference is missing because we are not responding enough to our audiences. Do we truly listen and respond? And, crucially, should we?

The second part is the idea of digital – if digital is so deeply en grained in our organisational and artistic culture then why do we still separate it out? To use a poor metaphor – it’s like moving in with a loved one and both of you keeping your toasters and delineating that one is exclusively for wholegrain and the other white. It’s all bread.

So where is this problem perpetuating. I think there are two elements – firstly that change, to try new things, is motivated by innovation, innovation occurs strongly at times of crisis, we avoid crisis, or the extremes to allow us to make and take these risks. Ironically, the very points when we should be innovating is when we are at our most secure. Change is hard, tiring and confrontational to our very ability. By its very nature it is difficult – we work in pleasant organisation with nice people we don’t want to offend or upset, but I wonder if this is needed more regularly -and if so how can we make our working environment such that these changes are enabled and supported by the very organisations we work for.

Secondly we have a work problem. Ask anyone in the arts if they’re busy and they’ll say yes. Finding the time to do these new projects, embrace new working, lead change is time consuming, of which we have very little. Are we all doing too much? Clearly the answer is yes, as invariably everyone will answer – but do we, as a sector fail to address this sufficiently. Here’s a quick question – if you used the word efficiency in a staff or senior management meeting what reaction would it garner? I suspect fear, suspicion and probably a surge in traffic to Guardian jobs and Arts Professional. But it shouldn’t be a dirty word – we need to repurpose it and find new direction with it. Efficiency is about allowing us the time to engage in the creativity that really enriches the audience experience by reducing the time spent on less essential tasks. In a marketing context this could be using api’s and technology to syndicate content rather than tripling – it could be automating reports – it might be cutting something all together that has a small impact to focus on the bigger picture.

Returning to the idea of listening and actions – how often do we get critical feedback from an audience that is negative and fail to pass it to a company? How often do we ask an audience what they’d like to see? Do we have focus groups into our programme, what should be on stage, what our community really wants to see? Of course they may say and do different things and there is a fear that it removes the arbitor of taste, the creative, or programmer, or artistic director, to the role of tally chart reader. Or does it? Perhaps it helps us respond better, perhaps it places us, if we are not aligned with our audience to innovate? Do we fear that everyone will ask us to produce musicals and Wicked? And if this is the result and dialogue we are getting are we really getting to the source of what engages our audience, or are we scratching the surface of our audience by not getting to know them deeply enough?

It was reiterated several times by very successful people that blaming the customer is not the route to success – instead the route to decline. So if we assume that we’re not happy with our 50 – 70% capacity we’re achieving (and i’m aware this is just one metric we can use to judge success), and that any problems we have in our organisations are solvable, then how do we ask more, listen more and respond quicker (and crucially measure the difference)? How can we look to our audiences for direction, our industry, and, importantly other industries, for solutions. If the future is going to be hard (potential cuts to DCMS of 40% mentioned) then we need to get closer, more engaged with our communities, we need friends and allies rather than simply ticket purchasers.

The conference was, I must say, a little disappointing, despite what I have written and learnt, that’s not to say bad, just a little underwhelming. It felt a bit tired at points, a little traditional and a little slow paced.  However I thought it was worth going to. This seems a little negative, but, I still gained ideas and felt refreshed (in a work sense) by the conference, and that is of great value in itself.

What would make it better? Shorter seminars (90 mins is a stretched 45 mins – let’s be concise) and more of them, 8 seminar sessions should be a minimum over 2 days – which would also help with networking. Short sharp keynote speeches – an hour is too long to be consistently inspirational, funny, empathetic and dynamic. Round table events on key subjects, issues, groups (touring companies round table) – perhaps programmes & strands of work? Maybe even exhibitors sharing seminars – let’s seem them fight it out.

Please comment below – you may disagree with me (that’s fine) or agree with me (also fine) – if it’s interesting then please share, retweet or pass on – or, even better, write your thoughts and send me them.

Best, Sam x