De-snarkified Advice for Arts Marketing Hopefuls

In my last post I offered some unvarnished advice for young arts marketing hopefuls that some folks found painful. Today I’d like to reframe that advice a bit and suggest three excellent reasons why arts administration students should think about marketing.

Only marketing can save the arts.

Survival for most traditional arts organizations will mean persuading enough new audiences to replace diminishing old audiences and marketing is the only way to do that. Now more than ever the industry needs well-trained, enthusiastic young administrators who can introduce smart, businesslike marketing practices, bold new sales initiatives and meaningful audience engagement strategies that will stop chronic audience attrition and build a healthy foundation for growth and sustainability. Marketing has long played second fiddle to fundraising, management and art, but today marketing is the way forward. If you’re looking for a path to executive leadership, feel free to choose the path that leads to the most prosperous future and leadership rewards will naturally follow.

The potential is astonishing.

If there’s something good to be said about marketing that hasn’t changed much in forty years, it’s that simple, sensible changes can bring about extraordinary results. New arts audiences abound, but they differ significantly from traditional audiences so they require different approaches. If you’re a young, aspiring arts administrator with fresh vision who understands what it will take to get your generation into theatres, concert halls and museums, now is the time to make it happen. Change won’t be easy – the cultural sector guards its traditions with fervent, sometimes suicidal, zeal – but introducing and managing change is a hell of a lot more exciting than repeating decades-old methods that no longer work. So take that entry-level marketing position, question EVERYTHING you learn, and if you can make a solid case for smart, sensible change, make it. Then do it. And if tradition-bound leaders stand in your way, take your innovative ideas where they’ll be valued and put to productive use.

Data will give you the edge. 

Your decision to embrace arts marketing comes at a time of monumental change in the way organizations think about finding and persuading audiences. For decades arts organizations made intuitive, creative, gut-level decisions using what Rick Lester has called the ‘HIPPO’ or ‘Highest Paid Person’s Opinion’ method where executive leaders had the final say no matter what their level of marketing experience or expertise. But as data rises in importance, numbers will make the final decisions and marketing will be driven by external intelligence rather than by internal guesswork. If you’re a young, tech-savvy marketer who can help your organization gather and interpret data, your leadership position begins the day you walk through the doors.

As for last week’s advice, I still stand by it – especially the part about stepping out of our offices and conference rooms to connect more meaningfully with ordinary arts participants – and that part about sales, which is the same thing only with more specific bottom line expectations. The idea of large, centralized institutions run by aloof insiders is a relatively recent phenomenon and somewhat of an aberration in the arc of Western cultural history. It reached its zenith in the middle of the last century and probably won’t come back again for a very long time.

picture-25Is arts marketing a good career choice? Who knows? I’ve always been a big fan of Joseph Campbell who advocated finding the thing that makes you blissful, doing it and trusting that success will follow. But I’m also a big fan of my dad who said when I went off to study theatre, “Make sure you have something to fall back on.” The good thing about marketing is that it’s a pretty useful skill wherever you go. And now that the arts are working to catch up with commercial marketers, it’ll be a more valuable skill than ever.

So, yes, be an arts marketer, but don’t be a follower. Many of your predecessors will happily lead you down the wrong path. My advice is to find the right path and make a point of leading anyone who’s prepared to come with you.

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