Can Amateur Marketing Rescue Professional Art Forms?

History may 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 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 no particular expertise. Unlike artists who at the top of their professions work for nonprofit arts organizations, marketers at the top of their profession work 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, trained, experienced, technically proficient arts professionals who do marketing, but the standards the cultural sector expects from 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 might be doing – or bother to ask if we should expect our communications 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 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 and presenting classical concert music, theatre, dance, opera, fine art, etc.

Take a look at the promotional language used by just about any troubled orchestra that’s making news 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 and a cavalier, if not arrogant, disregard for the perspectives of persuadable but skeptical outsiders. Seldom will you find customer-centered messages that were 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 obscenely expensive and unnecessary building projects that saddle arts organizations with massive long-term overhead, but can’t scrounge up enough 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 any passionate intern can learn, 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. This is a simple 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 educate new audiences when it takes a generation to see returns. We can’t engage new audiences by constantly telling people how wonderful we are. We can’t get new audiences to come by doing what we’ve always done and hoping for better results (which appears to be 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? This I’m not so sure about. Comprehensive change would have to originate with leaders who understand the issues, know where to find help and have enough influence to move the industry quickly and decisively away from counterproductive traditions and toward more productive business practices. Given the cultural sector’s preoccupation with fundraising and public policy, however, and the notable scarcity of qualified marketers on industry leadership rosters, such change is unlikely to occur any time soon.

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. This is not the case, of course, but it appears that somebody forgot to tell the people who approve all the emails, press releases, banners and brochures.

Professional marketers wouldn’t let their organizations talk endlessly – and almost exclusively – about how wonderful and important they were unless they had plenty of objective, external 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 believe is wonderful and important – in their realities and on their terms – and 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 for many traditional arts organizations is the only thing standing between survival and obsolescence, shouldn’t we at least give professional marketing a try?


3 thoughts on “Can Amateur Marketing Rescue Professional Art Forms?

  1. I think the situation is more complex than your post implies.

    Firstly, how can one justify to a Board of Directors spending 4 or 5 times as much on a Marketing Director as we currently spend? Keep in mind, that offering enough to hire and keep a top-level marketer would mean they would be getting paid FAR more than their peers in other departments (like fundraising, sales, programs, education, etc), and very possibly more than the CEO of the organization itself. What about the higher-level professionals in those other fields? If we could afford to pay top dollar for top talent across the board, we’d already be doing it.

    Secondly, in my experience, the “top-level professional” marketers often get things very wrong themselves, and they don’t typically show an understanding of how an arts organization works. I don’t deny that I am often horrified at the digital marketing efforts of local arts organizations here in Atlanta, but I’m also often horrified at the efforts of for-profit companies as well.

  2. Great points, Rachel, and thanks for chiming in.

    For me the question is this: If a multi-million-dollar arts institution is on the verge of failing and we can save it with better – albeit more expensive – marketing, should we? Or should we accept failure as a part of what it means to operate within our current nonprofit business framework?

    As for competing to attract good marketers – not to mention ones that can function in nonprofit cultures – I agree that it’s a tall order. The best ones will be well employed elsewhere.

  3. Thank you Trevor, delighted by this post.
    Regarding how to justify securing or retaining good (expensive) marketers, I wish Management and Boards would consider the numbers: pay me $100,000 more, and insist I sell (at least) an extra 2,000 $50 tickets. But no – regardless of what I’ve done in 25 years of NFP arts marketing, the rewards are the same: eg “Thanks for increasing ticket income by another $100,000, unfortunately due to the deficit we can’t afford to give everyone salary increases this year, so we can’t give you one. But we will approve that $250 training course in digital marketing – we have to have an App!”

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