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 no professional marketing expertise. Unlike artists, who at the top of their professions work for nonprofit arts organizations, the world’s top marketers work well outside the cultural sector in successful businesses, corporations and political campaigns where strategic communications are far, 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’s fascinating 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 promotions used by just about any struggling arts organization 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, mind-numbing 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 persuasive content 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. This is 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? This I seriously doubt. Comprehensive change would have to originate with leaders who understand how professional marketing works, who know where to find external help and who 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 absence of legitimate marketing expertise among industry leaders, 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. This is 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. Professional marketers would 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?