Sam Freeman

Storytelling | Theatre | Arts Marketing

How To Annoy Everyone In Arts Marketing (or, Arts Marketing’s Technical Problem)

I got back from this year’s Arts Marketing Association conference feeling quite pleased with myself – this is unusual – usually I return with feelings of inadequacy or guilt, and/or the feeling that tweeting at post 11pm, half-cut on cheap white wine “My Harsh Opinions About Everything People Are Doing Wrong” wasn’t, after all, such a smart idea.

Instead this year I returned home actually having actually enjoyed the conference, having felt actually inspired by some terrific actual speakers and with the solid knowledge that the one brutal tweet I’d actuallybeen tempted to send had been intercepted by one of my colleagues when, in a rare moment of clarity, I asked “if this would piss everyone off”.

As I write this now there are two things you should know.

  • I’m unsupervised.
  • I’ve not drunk any wine (white or red).
  • I write this as a memo to myself as much as a thought for others to ponder.

Or three maybe.
So here goes.

I’ve had lots of conversations in the past month about Arts Marketing, the career I have chosen and the industry in which I work. I’ve been struck by the huge number of passionate, theatre-literate, creative, enthusiastic people who work in the arts – it is both humbling and inspiring – I look at these people with much admiration – if theatre marketing was powered by passion, enthusiasm, theatre-literacy and creativity alone then our auditoriums would be full with smiling, Guardian-reading joy-mongers, Brexit would never have happened and we’d be talking about what to do with all the renewable energy we had left over over a bowl of home made hummous.

But it’s not – and that’s where this blog post gets problematic.

Let me start this with a caveat – being world-class (or even just good) at some of what I’m going to talk about is not essential for all job roles in arts marketing – teams need balance and too many of one thing can be a bad thing, but it’s useful to have some of what I mention in every organisation (I think).

I will also say that writing this makes me feel slightly uncomfortable – not least because I realise skill deficiencies in myself and my ability to lead effectively sometimes. I’ll also say that writing this had helped me appreciate more the brilliant mix of skills and balance I have in the team in which I work and how they help drive us forward (as well as hide some of my glaring inadequacies).

We absolutely need people with empathy, skilled networkers who can juggle companies, artists and performers, people who can write copy to make your heart sing, and those who can look after and manage the egos that frequent our organisations.

But it seems that there’s a lack of something else – the less arts side, the side that’s marketing and not just arts – I’m talking about technical skills.

Arts Marketing as a discipline has changed immeasureably over the past 10 to 15 years – when I started we had a small group of digital marketing people across Yorkshire venues (myself at York Theatre Royal and Alex Croft at West Yorkshire Playhouse being part of the core group) who would share our ideas about the new digital dawn that was errupting around us – we’d chat about, play and experiment with new technology – E-mail, Myspace, Bebo to name a few – they didn’t all last.

Like many people I learnt on the job supported by random courses every three months, supported and encouraged to try new things by incredibly foresighted managers, and, like many people of a similarly geeky disposition I was drawn to the new tech. I had time to experiment, to try new things and learn what I was doing. I factually don’t know whether arts marketing has become a faster moving, more intense, more relentless industry since 2005. It feels like it has, and having spoken to people returning after a while away, they seem to think so too.

That relentlessness means that more is expected of everyone. It can seem that after 10 – 15 years of regular salami-slicing of budgets and staffing that we carry more weight than ever before. So it also feels that time is even more at a premium and, consequently the ability to learn skills isn’t there as much.

Here’s an exercise for you to mentally try – how many of these can you , or can someone in your team do, both strategically but also in implementation to a high level? How many of these could you innovate with, to really use to make a difference tomorrow (if you had to)?

We’ll start easy and get gradually harder.

  • Boost a facebook post
  • Create a twitter ad
  • Create a PPC facebook campaign
  • Implement facebook remarketing
  • Create a PPC text google adwords campaign
  • Create a PPC display google adwords campaign
  • Optimise a PPC campaign (facebook or google)
  • Analyse a facebook or google campaign
  • Set up remarketing
  • Distribute a podcast or video campaign
  • Know your CSS from your HTML
  • Know what the facebook pixel does.
  • Conduct data analysis of all the trends in your organisation
  • Use google analytics to find problems and opportunities
  • Add personalised recommendations to a website
  • Send highly segmented, audience-defined, personalised mailings.
  • Make (film & edit) a short interview video
  • Measure the ROI of mailings and e-mails
  • Successfully be able to measure ROI of any of the above
  • Identify success based on metrics for any of the above

Talking to people at the AMA Conference, more often than not these technical skills seemed lacking – they were in the “we must get on that” category of to-do jobs – the problem is these need to be the job.

Of course you may be sat reading this thinking – “actually dickhead” (because you’re pissed off with the tone of this article) “I think you’ll find we outsource lots of these things to external companies – we don’t need those skills inhouse”.

Don’t you?

Let’s say that we don’t need those skills in house – that what we need is the ability to co-ordinate and manage a range of skills – after all, we don’t print our own brochure – most of the time we don’t design it? But with both those things I would argue that we can come to a quick and effective aesthetic and creative judgement about quality (even if they are based on opinion and not fact) – our bullshit detectors are much more refined – these are areas that are our bread and butter.

I once sat in a meeting virtually (Skype) to discuss the progress of a marketing campaign for a big show i was tangentally connected to. As the conversations progressed I found myself hearing phrases like “that was a good ROI”, or “it’s getting impressions but not clicks which is great” – all I could think was “prove it” – prove that it’s a good ROI, that the “impressions but not clicks” are actually great.

The more I listened the more I felt intimidated and flummoxed by the jargon – the more I listened the more I realised that the digital campaigns being paraded as successful fact were evidenced little more than a print distribution campaign – but I said nothing – after all who are we, the non-experts, to challenge those reading numbers off ipads?

You might contine to ask:
“Do I need to know the intricacies? That’s what experts are for?”

How do you know if what an expert tells you is true?

We all bullshit with confidence from time-to-time – the question is who is doing it too much and writing cheques they simply can’t cash – how do we tell? Also, and let’s not forget this, not everyone can afford to work with a digital agency, or pay a consultant, or hire someone to manage their PPC campaigns – it’s expensive and we’re all, largely pretty poor.

Of course everything can be monitored to an extent. Accurate (or quite accurate I should say) ROIs can be created – it’s just that most of the time we don’t because it’s relentless and checking on the success of one thing that’s done is delaying the creation of something that’s not done. I think that in a time-poor world the tools that’ll help us find peace and better numbers are the tools we don’t have time to learn, don’t have time to do and are the tools we’re ill-equipped to use.

So where’s this tech deficit coming from?

I also have a suspicion that we as an industry are not all that fond of outsiders. I know of a few people outside the arts who’ve had extensive marketing experience, but little experience “in the arts”, or who can’t “talk in depth about their long-held love for theatre”, or who “have qualifications in what we do”. They’ve not got interviews – “not worked in theatre”. Maybe I’m being unfair – and there is a possibility that I’ve happened upon a particularly small sample – and don’t get me wrong as a failed director arts marketing has provided me a place within theatre – but shouldn’t we be hunting for marketeers to join us as much as arts lovers? Balance in arts marketing, as with the force, needs light and dark, good and evil.

Perhaps I’ve stumbled on a few exceptions. Maybe they generally simply don’t come to us because we don’t offer enough as a career? If you’ve the technical skills what’s the lure of a badly paid, often underappreciated, long hours job in the arts where your creative ideas will be often ditched because someone WITH THE TITLE OF CREATIVE thinks they know how to do the job better than you. Hard to work out why they’re not joining us. And god forbid (for most people, I feel like an exception for this one) anyone would have an opinion on what we actually make. What are the five P’s of marketing again?


As a tangent but still part of the same thing…

I also noticed that as I looked around the AMA conference that I am increasingly feeling old – it felt a little like Arts Marketeers are taken out to pasture at 50 and are never seen again – but where is that experience going? Are we losing talent and experience because the job is grinding people down? Are we losing talent and experience because the job (which has never been 9 – 5) is incompatible with a healthy life, with family life? And if that’s the case don’t we have a shitting massive problem?

I mention this because how we work and our ability to retain people has an effect on the strength of our industry – if people are lured away to pastures greener (and I don’t just mean Spektrix) – then are we losing that experience and mentoring ability within the sector?

So here’s my thoughts:

One, we need more technical knowledge in our teams.

Two, we need time to be able to analyse what we do and we need the skills to do that properly and make proper judgement calls.

Three, we need time and the only way to get more time is get more tech skills, find more time to analyse and then to learn what to stop doing more effectively.

Four, we need to work out how to diversify our teams and attract those who generally avoid us – and how to work out how to make what we do more attractive and better without simply screaming “but you get comps”.

So what else… The solution?

That’s how these are meant to end. With solutions and vision. So here’s two ideas, simple, actionable (if you happen to run an arts council or two) – you’ll read it and think I’m an idiot pointing out the obvious, or that you already do it (in which case tweet me the link!).

  1. More technical courses – simple stuff – all at a low cost and delivered regionally so people can get there. A series of simple 5 hours (bring your own lunch) on “how to set up analytics” or “facebook ads beginners” or “reporting a mailing’s ROI” – all hands on, instructed, with no inspirational stories of outcomes, just raw, bloodied raw technical learning.
  2. Quantitive, large-scale research on communicating with audiences (not just the audiences and creating another bullshit segmentation model that, frankly, puts an individual’s face on someone you’ve never met and are making broad assumptions about) – what’s the best method of reaching people on X, Y & Z. We’ve hundreds of venues. Then use that to feed point 1.
  3. A Balance Of Inspiration and Learning – The AMA conference was great, but it was predominantly inspiration with occasional learning by proxy – let’s throw a few brutally hands on sessions in there. With worksheets. Or a Quiz. Maybe?

That’s all from me. TBH I struggled writing this post – let me know what you think – it’s not one of my finest or most useful I suspect.



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2 responses to “How To Annoy Everyone In Arts Marketing (or, Arts Marketing’s Technical Problem)”

  1. Amy Sanderson Avatar
    Amy Sanderson

    Absolutely agree with all this and struggling with it too. And if you felt old at the AMA, I was bloody ancient.

  2. Antony Pickthall Avatar
    Antony Pickthall

    Love it.

    You are so right! Part of the problem is that for a while we needed those outside experts, because it was all new. Now even Mailchimp can give you remarketing – though how good it is is another matter.

    Marketing is a brilliant introduction to the business side of the arts – you’re at the sharp end where the money or the perceived value lives, there is no reason people have to be put out to grass at 50, though earning enough to keep a family can be challenging, unless you’re at the bigger venues.

    Experience in the arts, is less important, more important to know about digital marketing. Audience development is slightly different. Perhaps it is also one of the reasons as an industry we’re not as diverse as we should be.

    I love working in the industry and I’ve worked hard to keep on top of all things digital, but it is still hard to get the training we need. Even with the AMA Digital Day. Training is different to raising your awareness of what’s out there. It actually requires you to do stuff and learn from your mistakes.

    Social media is important too, but not at the expense of sounf technical knowledge.

    Well said, Sam.