Arts Leaders’ Egos and Bad Arts Marketing


In my last post a reader took issue with my having suggested that executive arts leaders’ egos might have something to do with bad arts marketing.

Please allow me to be more direct.

The egos of executive arts leaders have everything to do with bad arts marketing. Arts marketing sucks because so much of it is developed to feed the egos of executive arts leaders.

The reason arts marketing is overwhelmingly self-centered, self-important and self-aggrandizing is that executive arts leaders with healthy egos and little professional marketing expertise make all the final marketing decisions. Asking an arts executive to approve a brochure filled with shameless self-flattery is like handing a loaded pipe to a crack addict. They can’t help themselves. They don’t really know what professional, customer-centered marketing should look like, and since there’s no one to stop them, they’ll approve the marketing they believe is the best reflection of their organization’s worth. And since the reflection of their organization’s worth is also a reflection of its leaders’ abilities, they will inevitably go for the content they find most flattering.

In the real world, effective marketing strategy begins with the customers and is designed in response to their desires and expectations. Professional marketers develop their strategies to leverage those dispositions, which means keeping their focus on the customers. And executive leaders who manage these marketers know their role is to approve the methods and materials that do this most effectively. Smart business leaders may have personal opinions about marketing, and they may think their products are worth crowing about, but they understand that their job is to let objective market intelligence and rational, customer-centered methods take priority.

In the arts, meanwhile, marketing begins with the products and what organizations want to tell the world about their merits. After various promotional ideas have been mocked up, arts leaders use their professional discernment (a.k.a. personal opinions) to choose what they they think looks best or feels most appropriate or fits best with industry norms and traditions. And since industry norms and traditions consist primarily of inexpert arts leaders choosing the best reflections of their organizations’ worth, self-flattery will always win the day. This dynamic is so much a part of the culture of culture that we as an industry accept narcissistic marketing unquestioningly, as if it’s a given. “Why wouldn’t we boast about ourselves? We’re wonderful! People should know that. And the more wonderful we tell them we are, the more likely they’ll be to want to buy tickets.”

Makes a great dating strategy, too!

This is the point where the executive leaders I’m talking about say,

“Well of course he’s not talking about me. I’m a respected arts executive. I’m too wise, perceptive and accomplished to make such poor decisions. Why, I’m the boss of a big city arts institution; I oversee the marketers so I am automatically a marketing expert. My thoughts on audience development have even been published in the Sunday newspaper! Besides, I’ve been vetting promotional materials for years and doing a damn fine job of it. This chronic decline in audiences has nothing to do with me. Now if you’ll excuse me I have a budget crisis to deal with and artists’ salaries to cut.”

If you’re an executive arts leader who’s in a position to govern your organization’s marketing choices, and you learned what you know about marketing on your way up through the nonprofit arts, it is highly unlikely that you have sufficient professional expertise to save an organization that’s losing audiences. The nonprofit arts are a terrible place to learn marketing and you have undoubtedly learned an outdated, idiosyncratic, mid-twentieth century brand of “promotional” marketing that doesn’t work anymore. Arts marketing is a quirky, tradition-bound, quasi-professional endeavor that bears little resemblance to the full-on professional marketing that successful leaders will need to master keep their organizations alive.

Poor old Ian Campbell thought he was making wise marketing decisions right up until he scuttled the San Diego Opera – for lack of audiences. Leaders at the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra thought they were making wise choices when they approved this bizarre brochure – just before locking out their musicians. And the leaders at the Minneapolis Orchestra no doubt believed their monumentally self-adulatory brochure was the best of all possible choices - to spring back from the brink of disaster. All executive leaders of struggling arts organizations think they’re making the best possible marketing choices - even when they’re woefully underprepared to make those choices and their organizations are falling apart around them.

There was a time when the marketplace was so full of people who wanted what the arts had to sell that we could be as self-centered and boastful as we wanted and people would beat a path to our doors. But the world has changed; there are far fewer avid arts fans out there who find our overly generous self-assessments appealing. Every arts leader has heard this admonition a thousand times, but at some point it has to actually influence behavior: IT’S NOT ABOUT US ANYMORE. You can’t just nod in agreement when people say this at industry conferences and then come home and publish marketing materials that are all about you; you actually have to make it about them.

If you want to sell something to somebody, you have to tell them how it will satisfy their desires. It’s one of the oldest truths known to humankind. But in the arts, we don’t really know who our new audiences are, we refuse to learn what they want, and without knowing what they want, we can’t tell them how our products will satisfy their desires. So instead we blather on endlessly about how wonderful we are – or how wonderful people should think we are – and hope that young, culturally diverse people will somehow magically find us as appealing as traditional audiences once did.

I’m well aware that I’m just pissing in the wind here. Executive arts leaders won’t read this because they just don’t pay much attention to marketing. In my experience they show little interest in learning how to do it well because they’re perfectly comfortable with what they think they already know. (I’ve never seen an executive arts leader at a marketing conference, have you?) You’d think that leaders of an industry that’s facing a catastrophic decline in customers would be rushing out to get marketing MBAs, but no. It’s easier to complain about how poorly the rest of the world is being educated than it is to get the education they need to solve their own problems.

The answer to the arts’ audience crisis is heartbreakingly simple: know your new audiences well enough to understand what they want, and then speak to them humbly and honestly, in a language they understand, about how your products will make them happy. Out-of-touch arts administrators who hole up in conference rooms filling brochures and emails with canned, amateurish, self-congratulatory bombast, and then spraying them at the world in hopes of hitting like-minded fans, simply aren’t going to survive.

If You Have To Say You’re Doing Engagement…

I’ve noticed that many arts organizations are including “Community Engagement” sections on their websites and listing engagement activities as if they’re some sort of program offerings or one-off events. One venerable classical music institution says that their education and community engagement programs:

“…offer individuals of all backgrounds an opportunity to develop their relationship with the [organization] and build their ownership of and engagement with orchestral music through high quality, relevant, multi-leveled, and interactive education and community engagement experiences.”

How lucky those little community members must be to have such a high-minded institution offering them this incredible opportunity. (This didn’t come out of a grant application, these people actually published this on their website.)

The thing about engagement that arts organizations don’t get is that it’s not something you talk about or, god forbid, offer to people; it’s what you are. Publishing a list of community engagement programs on your website is like printing a list of interpersonal behaviors on your business card:

Friendly smile √  Firm handshake √  Eye contact √  Warm greeting √  Remembers name √

If you had such a business card handed to you, you’d think the person was an idiot. Good interpersonal skills aren’t something you telegraph in printed materials, they’re something you exhibit naturally, or by practice if necessary, in the presence of others. For arts organizations, this translates into being naturally engaging throughout the entire organization as a part of your everyday interaction with the world around you. If you’re not doing it, no amount of promotion will compensate for its absence. And if you are doing it, you won’t need to talk about it on your website.

Sadly, the copy above shows how wide the gap still is between arts organizations’ willingness to do engagement and their ability to be truly engaging.



Arts Marketing Workers Unite! The Time to Organize is Now

The arts are facing a catastrophic audience crisis and American arts marketing is a mess:

  • It is governed by executive leaders who have no professional marketing expertise
  • It is shackled by outdated, counterproductive, nonprofit traditions
  • it is self-centered rather than audience-centered
  • It is isolated from the broader marketing profession
  • It is under-valued and under-supported relative to its necessity
  • It is inconsistent in terms of titles, job descriptions and compensation
  • It has no self-governed infrastructure for professional development
  • It offers severely limited opportunities for career growth
  • It is not being used to solve the problems it exists to solve

By organizing to address these issues, arts marketers can put the industry back on a path toward solvency and productive growth.

1. The arts industry is filled with talented, educated, motivated young marketers who are regularly overruled by inexpert executive leaders. By organizing, young arts pros will have the collective authority and sector-wide backing they need to insists on professional alternatives when inept leaders make bad marketing choices.

2. Many marketing traditions that older arts leaders insist on perpetuating were designed to appeal to twentieth century patrons who are now dead. By organizing, arts marketers will have the power, knowledge and tools to they need to reconnect with the marketplace and learn how to engage with living audiences.

3. Effective marketing focuses on the customers and how the product will satisfy their needs or desires, while arts marketing focuses exclusively on the virtues of the product. By organizing, arts marketers will be able to redirect the industry’s communications focus toward the customers on which its future depends.

4. Arts marketing is an isolated, amateurish enterprise that is largely unconnected from, and thus uninfluenced by, the broader marketing profession. By organizing, arts marketers can identify, establish and strive to maintain professional standards that transcend parochial arts industry norms and expectations.

5. Only marketing can save ticket-sales-dependent organizations that need a constant supply of new paying customers. By organizing, arts marketers can ensure that the industry supports marketing in a manner consistent with its importance, and that it recruits and compensates marketers according to their value.

6. Arts marketers have a right to expect basic consistency in titles, job descriptions and compensation levels across the industry. By organizing, marketers can establish benchmarks to which organizations throughout the cultural sector can adhere in order to ensure fair treatment and career stability.

7. The fact that American arts marketing workers have no formal, self-governed mechanism for furthering professional development is an embarrassment. By organizing, arts marketers can develop industrywide training and accreditation processes that will ensure productive career growth and highest-possible job performance.

8. Good marketers seldom ascend to leadership positions in the arts (a fact that explains why the industry fails to attract and keep good marketers, and why arts organizations have so much trouble selling tickets). By organizing, arts marketers can establish sensible career paths that position marketing professionals for leadership roles.

9. Because there are so few leaders among arts executives, or in the funding and policy communities, who possess legitimate professional marketing expertise, arts marketing is not being used to solve the problems that it exists to solve. By organizing, arts marketers can take control in a leaderless environment and assume authority for moving the industry in a more decisive, sustainable direction.

These and other issues point to a clear need for a well organized collective of arts marketing professionals. Whether a union, guild or association, arts marketers must come together to address problems that only professional marketing can solve.

The choice is clear: Unite and lead, or continue to follow “leaders” who don’t know where they’re going.





Sylph-centered Arts Marketing

Got this brochure recently from the reanimated San Diego Opera…

SD Brochure









… and couldn’t help noticing its kinship with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s season brochure, which features images like this:

Atlanta Sylph









I wrote a few weeks ago about SDO’s post-crisis brochure, which featured a short white man in a brown suit, and I think this might be a marginal improvement, but I can’t help wondering what’s up with the flying babes. What the hell do sylphs have to do with selling tickets and why are two of America’s most notoriously troubled arts organizations featuring them in their marketing materials?

Do these organizations know something we don’t know about the persuasive power of sky spirits? Or is it possible that inane marketing choices are a shared characteristic of failing arts organizations?

In professional marketing, images that appear in sales collateral are chosen according to market intelligence and they’re designed to leverage actual audience dispositions. Given my experience with nonprofit arts organizations, I’m going to guess that these images were chosen by amateur insiders according to personal opinions and designed to look nice.

If the creators of these materials had access to objective research data and were designing sales messages in response to what target audiences told them they were looking for, sylphs would never have been a consideration.

Executive leaders of arts institutions that don’t sell enough tickets should understand this.

If they don’t, we may have a clue as to why they’re in so much trouble.

Arts Marketing Wouldn’t Suck So Much If It Were Like This

I came across this ad for Android devices today.

Watch it and pay close attention to these things:

  • The ratio of content featuring customers vs. content featuring the product
  • The fresh, down-to-earth, colloquial, customer-centric language
  • The emotional impact of customers engaging with the product
  • The emphasis on YOU (meaning the customer)
  • The diversity of the customers shown enjoying the product
  • The fresh, professional, contemporary production values

Now go get your last season brochure and pay attention to these things:

  • The ratio of content featuring customers vs. content featuring the product
  • The fresh, down-to-earth, colloquial, customer-centric language
  • The emotional impact of the customers engaging with the product
  • The emphasis on YOU (meaning the customer)
  • The diversity of the customers shown enjoying the product
  • The fresh, professional, contemporary production values

In my last post I drew attention to some shamelessly egocentric marketing materials that were produced by big financially troubled arts institutions (Minnesota Orchestra, Atlanta Symphony, San Diego Opera). This Android ad, by demonstrating so well what good marketing is about, shows exactly why those arts marketing materials are so bad:

  • Their content is entirely about the product
  • Their language is canned, stuck up, artsy and self-centered
  • They tell customers what they should feel rather than showing them how they will feel
  • Their emphasis is on US (meaning the product)
  • There is no diversity of customers shown enjoying the product because there are no customers shown enjoying the product
  • Their production values are stale, amateurish and old-fashioned

Make no mistake. The blame for failing to attract sustaining audiences lies squarely with executive leaders who allow their organizations to do narcissistic marketing.

When troubled arts organizations start developing marketing content that’s about new audiences – and how their products will make those audiences happy – they’ll earn the customers they deserve.

‘Monumental’ Adjective Abuse at Minnesota Orchestra

Here are some words that executive leaders at the Minnesota Orchestra like to read about themselves in their marketing materials. All were published in just one post-fiasco season brochure:

Extraordinary, brilliant, celestial, dazzling, festive, stunning, shimmering, beautiful, star-studded, never-to-be-repeated, heavenly, glorious, wonderful, tragic, heartbreakingly, sprightly, treasured, superb, brilliant, monumental, tremendous, thrilling, stellar, magnificent, sensual, shocking, radiant, majestic, lush, enthralling, amazing, phenomenal, shining, beautiful, lush, characterful, stirring, distinctive, triumphal, charismatic, brightest, world-class, priceless, thrilling, most famous, lush, romantic, richly dark, tragic, star-crossed, thrilling, tragic, cinematic, comic, most-popular, utterly charming, gorgeous, stirring, wonderful, famous, remarkable, brilliant, striking, timeless, legendary, wonderful, dramatic, lyrical, dramatic, lovely, illustrious, soaring-voiced, spine-tingling, profound, ethereal, beloved, world’s greatest, fantastic, heartrending, unforgettable, greatest, most soul-stirring, transcendent, exquisite, enchanting, always-zestful, magnificent, deeply spiritual, ground-breaking, exciting, demanding, outstanding, blissful, thoughtful, witty, nostalgic, multi-faceted, fiery, famous, other worldly, stirring, great, distinguished, breathtaking, dancing, lyrical, extraordinary, marvelous, youthful, vigorous, esteemed, exhilarating, dance-infused, wildly popular, inimitable, preeminent, magically, mysterious, triumphant, epic, celebratory, historic, glorious, top-class, revered, hottest, immortal, jubilant, renowned, distinguished, extraordinary, delectable, magical, soulful, distinctive, organic, meditative, powerful, spiritual, romantic, glorious, perfect, special, bubbly, magically, rich, first-ever, stunning, wonderful, exquisite, wide-ranging, thrilling, classic, popular, beloved, festive, extraordinary, imaginative, stunning, phenomenal, captivating, beloved, ever-popular, timeless, transcendent, greatest of greats, beloved, stellar, multi-talented, uniquely, consummate, monumental, unforgettable, wonderful, glorious, funniest, bona fide, genuine, dazzling, esteemed, riotous, beloved, great, fantastic, heartrending, unforgettable, greatest, most soul stirring, pure, unadulterated, historic, legendary, glorious, extraordinaire, wondrous, beloved, lively, famous, popular.

Here’s a word that describes the professional qualifications of executive leaders who would approve this much hyperbole in one piece of sales collateral:


Here’s a word that describes the marketing team that would produce such a brochure:


Here’s a word that describes funders who allow their financially troubled grant recipients to do this sort of amateur marketing:


Here’s a word that describes an industry that accepts untethered, narcissistic bombast as acceptable language for public communication:


And in case it isn’t obvious, here’s a word that describes the seats that might otherwise be filled by new audiences who need to be spoken to in a normal, sane, humble, down-to-earth, customer-centered persuasive language:



Maybe Atlanta Symphony Should Lock Out Its Marketing Department Instead

I’ve been reading about the musicians’ lockout at the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra so I popped on to their season brochure to look for clues as to why the organization is having so much financial difficulty. Turns out the clues were plentiful. But first, some basics.

Good sales collateral must meet five specific criteria:

1. It must be developed in response to objective market intelligence. You can’t sell something if you don’t know who you’re talking to and how your product will satisfy their desires, so every good sales message must be firmly grounded in research.

2. It must show how the product will make customers happy so they’ll be motivated to buy. Doing this usually means making the content as much about customers enjoying the product as it is about how wonderful the product is (something arts organizations find almost impossible to do).

3. It must be crafted according to a legitimate persuasive strategy. Sales is a rational process that follows well-established protocols. We know you want X. We sell X. You will buy X. Make sure the first two exes match up, show how well they match up, and you’re golden.

4. It must be goal oriented. A well-designed sales tool leads the buyer naturally to the close with precision, directness and clarity. Every element has a specific job to do relative to this goal. In politics, this is known as staying “on message.”

5. It must balance the desires of multiple market segments in proportion to their value. If the organization is not attracting sustaining audiences, the sales tool must place increasing importance on appealing to new audiences.

So with this in mind, let’s take a look at the brochure that Atlanta Symphony Orchestra used to sell what has become their abbreviated 70th anniversary season.

1. You should be able to tell what an organization’s research has taught them by looking at their sales materials: “It’s obvious that the people of Atlanta said they want X because this sales material is so obviously selling X.” Apply that scrutiny to this Atlanta Symphony Orchestra brochure, however, and you’ll have a hell of a time figuring out what the ASO thinks it knows about its customers.

“It’s obvious that the people of Atlanta said they want:

  • Naked flying sylphs sporting red ribbons.”
  • To be seduced by a local nonprofit arts organization.”
  • A smorgasbord of educational trivia about artists and their works.”
  • A bunch of random descriptive words.”
  • Guest artists with interesting faces.”

I’ve sat in on a lot of focus groups over the years and have never heard an arts audience ask for these things. Usually they talk about themselves and their desire to enjoy enriching entertainment events as part of a broader social experience.

2. The brochure contains over fifty photographs and images, not a single one of which depicts customers enjoying themselves at a concert. Fully half of these could be dedicated to showing audience members having a good time without sacrificing the orchestra’s desire to remind everyone how wonderful and important they are.

3. If there is a rational persuasive strategy at work here, it is obscure at best. If I were to describe the strategy based on what’s evident, it would go something like this: “Let’s come up with a catchy thematic through line based on what we think people should know about us and design a sexy, attention-getting, upbeat vehicle for delivering what is essentially the same content we send out every year. Important goals will include being creative, following tradition, telling everyone how wonderful we are and coming up with something that senior leadership will approve because they find it flattering and comfortably familiar.”

4. If the goal is to get customers to go online and buy tickets, it is difficult to imagine how most of this content furthers that goal. Much of it is way off message including the thematic through line (unless focus groups said they were yearning to be seduced), the stand-alone descriptive words that seem to have no integral connection to the rest of the content, and the chatty, didactic show blurbs, which were clearly not written by a professional communications strategist in support of an overarching, goal-driven message strategy.

5. This is a rigorously traditional brochure that speaks almost exclusively to traditional audiences using the imagery and language that traditional arts audiences are accustomed to. If new audience research has revealed a different set of desires and expectations among future audiences that points to a different set of images and a fresher, more relevant, audience-centric language, there is little evidence to suggest that this brochure content has been balanced accordingly.

Presumably, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s labor issues are the result of the same underlying forces that are affecting orchestras everywhere: diminishing audiences and diminishing community support. But if the organization is using amateur, old-fashioned, self-centered marketing practices that fail to produce desired results, it seems counterproductive to lock out the artists when locking out the administrators who make bad marketing decisions would probably have more productive long-term consequences.