I’ve Never Been a Marketer, But…

As an avid reader of arts news and arts related blogs, I can’t help noticing that there are a lot of culture wonks out there who, despite having no credible expertise in the subject, love to write about marketing.

Keep an eye out for posts and articles that begin with some variation on the “I’ve never been a marketer, but…” theme and you’ll find folks with backgrounds in journalism, education, administration and all sorts of artistic disciplines who love to speculate on marketing theory, recommend marketing practices, boost the industry’s latest marketing fad or launch into critical diatribes on other people’s marketing approaches as if marketing is something that anybody with a brain and a modicum of common sense can do.

This will be news to many in the cultural sector, but marketing is a complex professional discipline that’s every bit as difficult to learn and master as other professions such as journalism, education, arts administration and painting or playing the violin. Those who do marketing well have often studied communication theory and practice in depth in college or grad school and then have gone on to apply their knowledge in professional settings where they hone skills, gain experience, develop insight, rise through the ranks and, ultimately, garner expertise. And as is true in any discipline, having earned seniority and expertise confers certain privileges, such as the authority to engage credibly in public discourse on the field.

But in the cultural sector, for some reason, folks who have no such earned expertise feel perfectly free to offer up opinions as if mere observation, proximity or having obtained a leadership position through a parallel channel is enough to propel them to the top of a profession in which they have no specialized knowledge or hands-on experience. Imagine someone saying, “I’ve never played the violin, but I’d like to offer up some observations on violin pedagogy that I think will be a huge improvement to the field,” and you begin to get a sense of the presumption that underlies this discourse.

I don’t question the sincerity or the intentions of folks who allow their realm of expertise to overlap so freely into the marketing field. Marketing in the arts isn’t anywhere near as disciplined, structured or professional as it is in other more bottom-line driven enterprises so it’s easy to see why people don’t recognize it as a legitimate independent endeavor. But I do think that our industry’s reluctance to respect marketing and demand that it adhere to more businesslike standards is a serious flaw in the nonprofit arts business model. I also think that our less than professional attitude toward marketing contributes more to declining audiences than anyone in the cultural sector realizes.

So as a long-time marketer who knows a little bit about this, I’d like to suggest that those who are not marketers, but who are tempted to offer up marketing opinions, instead try to solicit and convey information from legitimate experts. Those who do so will strengthen their own credibility as observer/reporters, contribute more accurately to the discourse and help to professionalize the industry’s approach to a business function that has long been ill-defined and undervalued.


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