The Case for Uglier Arts Marketing

The best graphic designer I ever worked with was a self-taught journeyman who produced some of the most inartistic, practical, workhorse sales materials you’d ever want to see. Together, we moved a hell of a lot of tickets.

His designs worked because he knew that his job wasn’t about being pretty, it was about rendering sales messages in the most strategic, audience-centric manner. Some of my more cultured colleagues bristled at the thought of being represented by such inelegant imagery, but we weren’t trying to make art, we were trying to sell art, and understanding the distinction made all the difference in the world.

Sadly, it’s a distinction that’s lost on most arts professionals. In the arts, when given a choice between unattractive marketing that sells and pretty marketing that doesn’t sell, executive arts leaders will choose pretty every time. It’s built in. For most arts leaders, marketing isn’t about selling tickets, it’s about designing and disseminating pretty marketing materials. The sales that result – or fail to result as the case may be – are just byproducts of an accepted and largely unquestioned industry tradition.

Why would we opt for pretty but ineffective marketing when so many arts organizations are struggling to attract audiences? A part of the answer has to do with history. Back in the old days when there were a lot of people who wanted what we had to sell, being pretty worked. It didn’t matter much what marketing materials looked like as long as we got the messages in front of the right people.

Unfortunately, the rest of the answer has to do with inept leadership. Now that there are fewer people who want what we have to sell, we need to use more professional forms of strategic communication and arts leaders don’t know what that means. Ian Campbell didn’t know what that meant, which is why San Diego Opera published such lovely but impotent marketing materials to promote what ended up being its last season. There are few things more painfully poignant than dead arts organizations leaving behind archives full of beautiful but ineffective promotional materials.

In the arts, executive leaders get to decide which marketing materials their organizations will use even though most arrive in their positions with no professional marketing expertise. Arts leaders tend to rise up through the ranks of the cultural sector where marketing is a quirky, insular, quasi-professional, third- or fourth-priority administrative function driven by tradition, habit and the subjective opinions of the people at the top. The widespread ineptitude is only coming to light now because the marketplace no longer contains enough people who want to respond to the outdated materials arts leaders prefer to approve.

Pretty ArtArts executives who lack professional marketing expertise will always opt for the choice that looks nicest or that’s most familiar – or that flatters them or puts forward what they believe is the most attractive representation of their products or organizations. But in more professional settings, the process is quite different. Serious marketers choose marketing content that was crafted in response to objective market data and that was designed to achieve predictable results – irrespective of the highest-paid person’s personal tastes and opinions. While arts executives rely on subjective discernment to guide their choices, real marketers allow rational, external considerations to lead them toward choices that have the best chance of delivering expected returns.

Suppose for a minute that your research demonstrated that new audiences are looking for leisure entertainment opportunities they can share with friends. Armed with such data, professional marketers would naturally populate their materials with images of target audiences having a great time with friends in their venues. But given a choice between a brochure that features audiences having a great time in the venue and one that features photos of tuxedo-clad conductors (or any other self-flattering marketing cliché), most executive leaders will go with the conductor. They just don’t know or care enough about marketing to understand that the research-driven, audience-centered approach will sell more tickets.

Does effective marketing have to be ugly? No. Of course not. But marketing content that looks beautiful to a veteran arts pro who’s devoted his entire life to a certain art form can differ dramatically from that which appeals to a 28-year-old woman who’s looking for an entertaining way to spend an evening out with friends. The 28-year-old woman’s preferences should determine what shows up in the marketing content, but it’s almost always the arts executive’s preferences that appear there instead.

The answer to the arts’ audience crisis is heartbreakingly simple: Learn what new audiences want and then speak to them in words and images that resonate with their yearnings. But for this to happen, somebody’s going to have to tell the GMs, EDs and CEOs – all the future Ian Campbells out there – to remove themselves and their well-meaning but counterproductive personal opinions from the marketing process.


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