Fundraising is Evil?

I have a colleague who believes, and isn’t even remotely embarrassed to say, that marketing is evil. Like many arts pros he thinks that marketing is a dubious but necessary process that the arts must endure in order to survive in a culture that’s lost its arts-belong-on-top-and-everyone-should-aspire value hierarchy.

I read an arts blog today that made a passing reference to the evils of marketing. At first it seemed like just another glib aside, but soon it dawned on me that the idea runs much deeper than I’d imagined. Arts professionals talk like this all the time. Nobody would dream of casually referring to fundraising as a necessary evil, but as an industry we regularly confess, and often promote, a matter-of-fact disdain for marketing in our ongoing professional discourse.

Lately I’ve come to understand that arts professionals’ aversion to marketing isn’t just surface-level stupidity, it’s bred in the bone like a racial bias or phobia. We don’t just roll our eyes and say, “Gosh, wouldn’t it be great if we didn’t have to do all this marketing,” we say frankly, openly and without a hint of reflection or guilt that there is something inherently malevolent about the marketing process itself, and that it’s been foisted on us, through no fault of our own, like when the wrong sort of family moves into the house down the street.

The idea is preposterous, of course. Anyone who thinks marketing is evil is ridiculous and anyone who has the temerity to say it out loud is a fool. Marketing is a value-neutral tool that can be used for good or evil. Saying marketing is evil is like saying the knife in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho was evil. Any intelligent human being knows that Norman Bates was evil and the knife was just a knife. People can be evil. Tools can be used by evil people. But tools themselves cannot be evil.

Back in the 1980s I managed telephone sales teams for nonprofit arts organizations where we sold subscriptions and solicited individual gifts. I trained my staff to use carefully calculated techniques that could turn someone who wasn’t even thinking about subscribing or donating into someone who’d plop down a credit card and charge $500 in the space of twenty minutes. Those techniques were extremely powerful tools and they worked just as well on subscriptions as they did on donations, but they weren’t evil, and neither were we.

If you’re the sort of person who’s fond of saying that marketing is evil, or someone who perpetuates the metaphor in less direct ways, or even someone who harbors such sentiments privately, I challenge you to separate out the fundraising we did and call it good by comparison. The process was identical. If the marketing was evil, the fundraising has to have been equally evil. Both were accomplished using the same tools.

And the principle applies across the board. Marketing is a process of persuading people to participate in the arts. Development is a process of persuading people to give money to the arts. There is nothing whatsoever about the marketing process that makes it less moral or honorable. The value distinction lies in arts professionals’ prejudices, not in the processes themselves.

Why do arts pros harbor such a deep-seated belief that marketing is evil? That’s a long and complex story, but my theory after 35 years in the business is this: We resent having to sell something that we believe people should want. Our egos and identities are so deeply invested in the unquestionable value of art – and, by extension, the value and worth of our career investments in the arts – that it’s almost impossible for us to admit that we have to do something as low and humiliating as persuading indifferent outsiders to want us. We project evil onto marketing because we fear it: An honest, open-eyed acceptance of marketing threatens to lay bare the fact that we’re no longer on top, that the value hierarchy has been leveled and that tomorrow’s audiences don’t aspire to consume what we so desperately need to sell.

Here’s a scary thought. Marketing is the only reasonable hope many large, traditional arts organizations have for survival. Audiences are disappearing steadily and the only way to get them back is to persuade them to come through strategic communications, a.k.a. marketing. The better the marketing, the greater the chance of survival. Arts pros who want sustaining audiences will have to meet new audiences where they live, engage with them personally, learn from them what they yearn for and then figure out how to convince them that the art we make and sell will make them happy. At its core, that’s what marketing is, and as far as I’m concerned it’s the most honorable job any arts administrator could ever hope to do.

The arts’ aversion to marketing is irrational, unhealthy and counterproductive. If you’re an arts pro who likes to toss around facile condemnations of marketing to compensate for your waning belief in the sustainability of your chosen profession, it’s time to stop. Marketing is a useful tool that honorable people can use in good faith to lead others toward transcendent ends.

It may just be our salvation.

Amateur Marketing Won’t Save Professional Art Forms

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History will probably tell us that one of the greatest tragedies in the arts was that our generation gambled away the survival of professional art forms on the false promise of amateur marketing.

Classical concert music, for example, employs the most talented, highly trained, technically proficient professional musicians in the world, yet we market their output with the efforts of workers who rank nowhere near the top of the marketing profession. Arts marketing is somewhat of an oddball in the broader marketing realm. It stands apart from the mainstream, it answers to its own set of quirky norms and traditions, it doesn’t evolve with the markets it expects to influence and it takes its marching orders from executive leaders who have severely limited marketing expertise. Unlike artists, who at the top of their professions work for nonprofit arts organizations, the world’s best marketers work well outside the cultural sector in successful businesses, corporations and political campaigns where strategic communications are far more sophisticated.

I mean no disrespect to arts marketers. There are many talented, experienced arts professionals who do marketing, but the standards the cultural sector sets for marketing fall so far short of the standards upheld by the marketing profession in general that any critical comparison will reveal a disturbing imbalance.

What fascinates me about this imbalance is that amateur marketing is so deeply ingrained in the culture of culture that we rarely, if ever, step back to consider the damage it’s doing or bother to ask if we should expect our marketing staff to perform at the same level of professionalism as their counterparts on the stage. Venerable institutions that represent the highest imaginable achievements in artistic excellence are either tanking or teetering on the verge of insolvency because they “can’t” sell enough tickets – yet they refuse to apply the same rigor to the process of persuading new audiences as they do to producing or presenting art.

Take a look at the promotional content used by just about any ailing arts organization that’s making headlines these days and you’ll find communications that bear the unmistakable hallmarks of having been created by amateurs. Those hallmarks – as I’ve stated so often on this blog – are self-flattery, self-indulgence, self-importance, condescension, presumption, cloying clichés, off-putting stereotypes, frivolous poetic metaphors, artifice, unrestrained hyperbole, mindless repetition, cutesy wordplay and a cavalier, if not arrogant, disregard for the perspectives of persuadable but skeptical outsiders. Seldom will you find down-to-earth, customer-centered messages crafted by knowledgeable communications strategists using objective, external market intelligence and rational methodologies. That sort of thing may be commonplace in professional marketing circles, but it’s just not how we do things in the arts.

I find it ironic that local cultural communities can rally around expensive and unnecessary building projects that saddle arts organizations with massive long-term overhead, but can’t scrounge up the money to hire marketers with enough expertise to keep the doors open. And I’m amazed that the cultural sector as a whole continues to undervalue marketing as if it’s the shameful concession people thought it was back in the 1980s – or fundraising’s bastard stepchild, or a common sense endeavor that anyone who watches Mad Men can do, or the operational department that makes all those pretty posters and brochures.

Traditional sales-dependent arts organizations need a steady supply of new audiences to guarantee their survival. That’s an inescapable fact. The only way to get those audiences is to persuade new people to come, and the only way to do that is with new, more effective, more persuasive forms of strategic communication. We can’t fundraise new audiences (unless the funding community wants to pay their way). We can’t find new audiences through public policy. We can’t build new audiences with squishy engagement fads. We can’t educate new audiences fast enough when it takes a generation to see returns. We can’t generate new audiences by doing what we’ve always done and hoping for better results (which for some reason remains the dominant strategic approach). We can’t compete for new audiences if we fail to match the sophistication of our commercial competitors. And we can’t attract new audiences by placing all of our faith in data and technology when the strategic impact of the content of our communication is what makes the primary difference.

Can the arts professionalize marketing? Sure. With the right industry leadership, the right expertise, the right allocation of resources and an influx of educated, experienced, properly compensated marketing professionals, it’s well within the realm of possibility. But can the arts make the changes that will be required to make it happen? That I seriously doubt. Comprehensive change would have to originate with leaders who understand the issues, know where to find external help and have enough influence to move the industry quickly and decisively away from self-destructive traditions. Given the cultural sector’s preoccupation with fundraising and public policy, however, and the obvious scarcity of marketing expertise in industry leadership circles, such change is unlikely to occur.

Meanwhile we sit and watch as a long line of organizations creeps inevitably toward the brink, all the while preening and strutting and flirting and boasting as if it’s 1959 and the world is overflowing with avid arts lovers who find them irresistible. That’s not the case, of course; new audiences find traditional arts organizations to be highly resistible, but it appears that somebody forgot to tell the people who approve all the emails, ads, press releases, banners and brochures.

Professional marketers wouldn’t let their organizations boast endlessly about how wonderful and important they were unless they had plenty of objective evidence to suggest that self-proclaimed wonderfulness and importance were compelling factors in new audiences’ decision-making processes. The likelier scenario is that they’d learn what new audiences actually think is wonderful and important – in their realities and on their terms – and then talk about that in equal measure.

The arts can be forgiven for having taken so long to accept marketing. Nobody wanted to believe back in the 1970s and 80s that art needed to be sold. But now that we know that attracting and keeping new audiences is the only thing standing between survival and obsolescence, shouldn’t we at least give professional marketing a try?

Why Doesn’t The Funding Community Lead Us Out Of This Mess?

If audiences for traditional art forms are in steady decline, and the only hope for survival is attracting a dependable supply of new paying audiences, why doesn’t the funding community insist that arts institutions do professional marketing?

I know that’s a loaded question, but I can’t think of any other leadership entity that has the perspective, resources and influence – not to mention vested interest – to pull the arts industry out of its tailspin and start growing the audiences on which its future depends.

I’ve been writing for two years now about the sorry state of marketing in the cultural sector, a concise summary of which can be found here and here, and the upshot is this: the arts are a diminishing industry with a desperate need for new audiences, but arts industry leadership is comprised mostly of marketing amateurs who don’t have the education, perspective, business experience or professional expertise to solve the problem.

The most glaring evidence of this professional deficiency is a half century of banal, repetitive, hackneyed, presumptuous, conspicuously self-congratulatory and increasingly ineffective marketing content that is out of touch with the desires and expectations of tomorrow’s audiences. Professional marketers change their marketing to reflect changes in the marketplace, but arts organizations, despite chronic, long-term audience attrition, continue to speak a language that lost its persuasive potency decades ago.

I’m convinced that the arts industry needs a comprehensive overhaul of its strategic communications – something akin to what the Republican Party did during George Bush Jr’s first campaign. Inspired by the brilliant communications strategist Frank Luntz and guided by the equally brilliant but notorious communicator/media manipulator Karl Rove, the Republicans developed an entirely new language that contained a carefully vetted set of voter-centric strategic massages that were embraced and echoed by the entire party.

If you prefer a more hopeful Democratic example, simply replace Frank Luntz with George Lakoff, and Karl Rove with David Axelrod and you get a similar story. It took the Dems a while to catch on, but Barack Obama is President today largely because the party took control of its strategic messaging and found a way to galvanize and motivate a broad coalition of old and new voters. Most importantly, they found a way to speak to the base (subscribers, members, donors?) and to undecided voters (younger, more culturally diverse audiences?) at the same time.

The lesson in this political example for arts leaders is this: two enormous, complex, multi-layered, old-fashioned, ego-driven institutions with conflicting priorities and fragmented constituencies (sound familiar?) got their act together, yanked themselves into the 21st century and adopted new, sophisticated, professional and highly effective persuasive communications strategies.

By comparison, the cultural sector’s strategy is pretty much what it’s always been: find creative ways to get the word out.

Persuading new audiences wouldn’t be difficult or expensive, but it would take centralized leadership, high-level intellectual rigor and an industrywide willingness to abandon amateur traditions in favor of more sophisticated professional approaches. It’s fairly obvious that the arts don’t have the organizational capacity or intellectual chops to pull something like this off, so I can’t help wondering why the funding community doesn’t step in and take the lead: Find the George Lakoffs who can help us develop a more effective strategic language and use the influence that only funders have to insist that the new language be adopted and spoken throughout the sector.

The alternative would appear to be a long, drawn-out process of telling failing arts organizations they’re cut off when they’re no longer able to earn enough revenue, and watching the industry slowly decline as avid audiences disappear and their less avid heirs seek more attractive, better marketed forms of creative expression.

If Arts Leaders Don’t Get Marketing, Is There Any Hope?

Audiences for traditional art forms such as classical music, theatre, opera, ballet, fine art, etc. have been declining steadily for decades. If the decline continues – and there’s not much evidence to suggest that it won’t – venerable arts institutions that we now take for granted will eventually falter and die. One need only glance at daily arts headlines to know the process has already begun.

Solving the problem is relatively easy, but it requires leadership that appears to be in short supply.

Reversing audience declines and building dependable future audiences demands sophisticated, professional, audience-centric marketing practices, but the cultural sector clings to a marketing tradition that’s simplistic, amateurish and self-centered. We don’t market effectively because we don’t do marketing the way it’s done outside our artsy bubbles. We may be OK at marketing to the audiences we have, but we stubbornly resist learning how to market to the audiences we’ll need when the ones we have are gone.

A broad view of marketing in the arts reveals a troubling deficiency. Marketing expertise has never been a prerequisite for becoming an arts leader so arts leaders tend not to know much about professional marketing. Some arts marketers know professional marketing, but most learned their craft inside the bubble and thus merely perpetuate insular industry traditions or strive to appease executive leaders who don’t know what to ask for. And the greatest tragedy lies in the fact that funders don’t understand marketing because it isn’t a part of their world. Funders are probably the only people who have the influence necessary to initiate a shift from amateur to professional marketing practices, but because they don’t do marketing, they don’t know what that means.

Professional marketing at its core is fairly straightforward: Learn what your customers want and then use that information to show how your products will satisfy their yearnings. Commercial marketers do it all the time. But take a look at arts organizations that are having trouble attracting audiences and you’ll find a communications approach that grows out of an entirely different strategic imperative: Tell the world how wonderful and important we are and hope that enough people still care to meet our sales goals. (The first words in these two approaches tell the whole story.)

Fifteen CommandmentsIf traditional arts institutions are going to survive, some person or group that’s in a position to influence significant change will have to step forward, demand a higher level of professionalism across the sector and then help the industry shift its communications focus from being self-important, condescending and boastful to being curious, humble and tuned in to the needs, wants and desires of tomorrow’s audiences. Unfortunately, with so little expertise among executive leaders, so few good marketers rising into leadership positions and a funding community that isn’t equipped to understand the problem, that person or group isn’t likely to arise any time soon.

Building sustainable long-term audiences is the only hope most earned revenue-dependent arts organizations have for survival. Fundraising won’t do it. New union contracts won’t do it. Advocating for better public policy won’t do it. Emergency bailouts by deep-pocketed philanthropists won’t do it. New buildings certainly won’t do it. Education won’t do it – not fast enough at any rate. And the community engagement fad, while it’s a lovely idea, won’t do it either. If large paying audiences are the key to survival and marketing is the most sensible, effective way to get them in the doors, using state-of-the-art marketing to develop sustainable new audiences should be an ultimate industry priority.

The fact that it’s not a priority points to a giant sucking hole in arts industry leadership, a bleak future for traditional arts organizations and a devastating loss for the millions of potential new audience members who won’t have been properly persuaded to participate.

The audience problem can be solved. Figuring out where to find leaders who will solve the audience problem, however, is a problem that may have no solution.

The Ghost in the Business Model

Doug Borwick has an interesting post this week where he suggests that vestiges of the partronage system might be lurking invisibly within the management structures of the arts, and that our blindness to these unseen forces could be what’s preventing us from making necessary changes. I think he may be on to something.

Arts pundits talk a lot about business models, but I wonder if the models we can see and describe are big enough to fully characterize what’s going on. What if there really are ghosts of old patronage models beneath the surface? Can we really change our organizations if there are invisible, ancestral operators pulling strings behind the scenes?

I used to do marketing for a large performing arts center where the management priorities often had little to do with contemporary reality and where board-level decision making made it incredibly hard to sell tickets. I was complaining about this to a friend who’d worked there for decades and he launched into a little tirade that went something like this:

“Your problem, Trevor, is that you actually believe the mission statement, which has nothing to do with why we’re here. This place was created by powerful cultural elites to be a playground for cultural elites. That’s its primary objective. The most important thing that happens here is the annual gala. Everything else – the art, the education, the audience – is there to make sure the gala happens every year. This isn’t an arts center, Trev, it’s a friggin’ Mount Olympus and you’re just a nobody mortal who’s here to keep things running so the Gods have a place to play. So stop trying to sell tickets; that’s not your job. You do marketing. Marketing is all about making pretty brochures that major donors can hold up like hand mirrors and say, ‘My, how very attractive we are!’ That’s all anybody wants from you and nobody cares how many tickets you sell. My advice to you is to recognize who’s really running the show and do as good a job as possible at being exactly what they expect you to be.”

“But what if we end up going out of business?” I said.

“Going out of business? Of course we’re going out of business. This place is a dinosaur. But you’re not going to be able to do anything about that, my friend. Mount Olympus itself went out of business thousands of years ago and everybody else got along just fine.”

I thought he was being facetious at first, but had to admit after a while that what he said made sense. The business model I’d been following up to that point said that the mission was the primary objective, that audiences were paramount and that the role of marketing was to sell as many tickets as possible. This was a surprising shift in perspective but it did a much better job of describing how things really worked, and it went a long way toward explaining why I was having so much trouble making my model fit.

It’s not that his interpretation of reality was any more accurate than anyone else’s, or that the Center was a front for a bunch of cynical, self-serving rich people who wanted to dress up and swill champagne at swanky parties for however long it lasted. The thing that impressed me was that he presented a legitimate but obscure alternate metaphor for understanding how the institution operated, one that, depending on your perspective, was as accurate and useful and reflective of reality as any obvious business model that any mortal management consultant might have described.

If we’re going to continue talking about arts business models, we might want to find one that describes not only the evident functional dimensions of our business structures, but one that’s capable of also describing the intangible cultural, historical and maybe even supernatural forces that work in different dimensions and in sometimes mysterious ways to influence how our organizations behave.

Trying to change one without fully understanding the other is probably impossible.

Engagement or Artificial Affectation?

I ate lunch at a Panda Express the other day. When I walked in the door, a young woman behind the counter mumbled something in my direction that I later learned was, “Welcome to Panda.” I didn’t know what she’d said or whom she was talking to, but somebody else came in right behind me and he got the same greeting. As it turned out this gal muttered the same thing to everyone who walked through the door. It was incredibly creepy.

I can’t say what the executives at Panda Restaurant Group, Inc. were thinking when they asked their employees to behave in such a manner, but I’m guessing it was part of an effort to engage with customers. Presumably, this young woman was trying to connect with me personally by saying something she would never say in real life and then repeating it verbatim to everyone else who entered the restaurant. How embarrassing it must be to work there, I thought, and how out of touch those corporate executives must be to think that this was effective policy.

I mentioned this to a friend who’s a regional manager for a huge retail chain and he told me that engagement is as big a fad in the corporate world as it is in the cultural community. Every week, he said, another directive comes down the pike that’s aimed at turning hourly wage earners into more effusive brand ambassadors. “I can’t make my employees do most of this stuff. It’s bullshit dreamed up by MBAs who don’t have a clue who these people are or what it’s like trying to turn them into Disney employees overnight. Engagement is something you are, not something you do just because some genius at corporate sent an email.”

As an arts professional who’s been following the engagement conversation closely, I couldn’t help thinking that my friend’s wisdom might have some resonance in the cultural sector where engagement has moved from being something art pros just talk about (like so many other fads) to something that funders are actively asking grant recipients to do. Asking people to engage is a great idea in theory, but being genuinely engaging may have a lot more to do with the fundamental nature of an organization than with any new criteria the Underbridge Foundation decides to put in its grant application.

Are arts organizations naturally inclined to engage? Some smaller community organizations certainly are, but a lot of mid-size and larger institutions simply aren’t. In my experience, the professionals who run arts organizations are very much “behind-the-scenes” sorts of people who don’t move beyond their insider’s social milieu to engage meaningfully with outsiders. In general, arts professionals tend to respect the walls, doors and prosceniums that separate them from the ordinary folks who visit their venues, and they aren’t naturally inclined to reach out with warm, humble curiosity in an effort to interact meaningfully and generously with the less well-initiated folks who reside outside the bubble.

There’s nothing wrong with being behind-the-scenes people in an industry that needs to have plenty of good people working behind the scenes. We put on shows. We impress. We make magic. And part of the appeal of that magic may very well be the mysterious things that a select group of arts insiders do out of sight of ordinary audiences. The Wizard of Oz wouldn’t have been the Wizard of Oz if everybody knew what was happening behind that curtain.

But a significant problem arises when elite academics, funders and policy pros begin asking people who’ve spent their entire lives behind the curtain to start engaging with ordinary audience members – or else. There are a lot of veteran arts pros, especially in leadership ranks, who are no more inclined to interact personally with the churning outermost fringes of their community support systems than shy high school girls are to shout heartfelt greetings at fast food customers. Asking these folks to save their organizations by relating to regular folks outside the bubble is like asking them to suddenly become different people, and that’s just not going to happen. If arts leaders and the organizations they run were naturally predisposed to engage, they’d be doing it already.

Engagement is not a new department, program, service initiative or tag line, it’s something that must be an honest, organic extension of who and what we are. Walt Disney built an empire that was infused from the outset with his personal impulse to make meaningful connections with ordinary people. If Disney employees are naturally effusive brand ambassadors, it’s because they learn it the day they arrive on the job and they live it every day they work for the company.

Is engagement a good idea? Yes. Definitely. I’ve been an audience engager my whole life and I’ve seen the astonishing things that can happen when arts organizations step outside their comfort zones to learn from and appeal to non-traditional audiences. Will organizations that don’t have engagement built into their cultural DNA be able to do it? That remains to be seen. Virtually all of the engagement work I’ve done was peripheral to the missions of the organizations I worked for and too far beneath the leaders’ social status to be of any personal or even professional interest to them. None of it was an outgrowth of a fundamental organizational impulse to make meaningful, long-term connections with audiences.

I know from experience that engagement can’t be superimposed on an organization that doesn’t have engaging leadership and isn’t guided by a mission to engage.  Elite policy pros who hope to influence meaningful change might do well to avoid trying to initiate tactical-level behaviors and focus instead on nurturing engagement-oriented leaders who are personally committed to making engagement an integral part of their organizational missions.

We’re not selling orange chicken and fried rice. We can’t afford to have engagement become an artificial affectation that customers must endure as they endeavor (if they endeavor) to buy what we’re trying to sell.