It’s Time for Arts Execs to Zip It

It’s a time-honored custom in the arts to allow executive leaders to vet campaign ideas and select the content of the communications that will be used to market their organizations. Unfortunately, these leaders often have no academic background in communications and no meaningful experience with professional marketing practices, so their choices tend to be more about tradition, gut instinct, ego and personal opinion than they are about objective, external considerations.

The problem with this, of course, is that objective, external considerations are the only worthwhile considerations. The expert opinions of under-educated, inexperienced arts executives are of extremely limited value and the process of letting the highest-paid person set marketing strategy – whether or not that person arrived in the position with sufficient expertise – is outdated, amateurish and increasingly counterproductive.

This will be painful news for arts leaders who believe that rendering opinions on marketing is an important part of their jobs, but the arts can’t afford to let that happen anymore. With arts organizations closing their doors from coast to coast, it’s time for senior arts execs to stifle their subjective marketing impulses, keep their opinions to themselves and start letting objective market data tell them what to do.

The only way to understand the potential effectiveness of a communications strategy is to determine if it promises to satisfy the needs, wants and desires of its target audience. And the only way to do that is to know exactly what the target audience needs, wants or desires. If you’re an executive leader, your job when vetting marketing materials is not to insert your personal opinion into the process, it’s to make sure your marketing staff can answer these questions:

  • Who are we targeting?
  • What have our target audiences told us they want?
  • How do we know that? Have we guessed or have we gathered reliable information?
  • Have we established motivating connections between what the target has told us they want and what’s true about our products?
  • Is this the most effective way to convince target audiences that our products will satisfy their yearnings?
  • Does this message strategy appeal to old audiences and new audiences alike? How?
  • Does this message strategy compete effectively for their attention and interest? Are the attention getters and enhancements consistent with the strategy?

As for considerations that the arts normally use to evaluate materials – How did we do it last time? What do other arts organizations do? Will the artistic director freak if we don’t use his photo? What will my industry peers think? Wouldn’t it be easier to do what we’ve always done? How will the board chair react? Shouldn’t the Arts Council credit be larger? I like the one that tells the world how wonderful I am we are. Shouldn’t we be mentioning the education program? Will the foundations be pissed if we do something they don’t understand? Can’t we slip in a funding pitch on the last page? I just know it would be prettier in blue. Will people think we’re tacky if it looks too salesy? Why’s the logo so small? Isn’t the logo the brand? I thought the logo was the brand. What if they find out I don’t really know that much about marketing? – You can use them if you want, but arts leaders who are genuinely concerned about the fiscal health of their organizations would be well advised to set aside self-centered concerns and begin approaching marketing strategy from the perspective of the people who matter most.

Effective marketing starts with the audience – not with a group of insiders sitting in a conference room filtering spontaneous creative inspiration through a gauze of tradition, subjectivity and dubious expertise. The senior executive’s role in this process is to keep the focus on the customer and make certain that strategic communications are developed in response to reliable, external market intelligence. I’m well aware that this is a radical departure from accepted practice and that professional, audience-centric marketing is not part of our culture, but audiences have been disappearing for several decades now and there’s no excuse for perpetuating amateur methods that fail to prevent – or perhaps even hasten – their departure.

If you’re an arts administrator who’d like to give professional marketing strategies a try, the simplest and perhaps best first step is to do this: No matter who you are, how high you are in the food chain or how much you think you know, when it comes to marketing, if you’re inclined to start a sentence with “I think…, say “We know…” instead.

If you can’t finish the sentence because you don’t know, find out.


1 thought on “It’s Time for Arts Execs to Zip It

  1. I had to laugh out loud Trevor because it is sooooooooooooooooooooooooo true … and you sound as grumpy as I did when I had to endure those tortuous, hubris-laden, self-interested, myopic ‘nuggets of wisdom’ from those at the top table. But whose fault is it really – because (like a naughty child) perhaps we ought to blame it on the parents.; in this case, the dominant culture that worships at the altar of ‘the gifted’ and allows and even encourages such preposterous conversations to happen in the first place.

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