Arts Leaders’ Egos and Bad Arts Marketing

In my last post a reader took issue with my having suggested that executive arts leaders’ egos might have something to do with bad arts marketing.

Please allow me to be more direct.

The egos of executive arts leaders have everything to do with bad arts marketing. Arts marketing sucks because so much of it is developed to feed the egos of executive arts leaders.

The reason arts marketing is overwhelmingly self-centered, self-important and self-aggrandizing is that executive arts leaders with healthy egos and little professional marketing expertise make all the final marketing decisions. Asking an arts executive to approve a brochure filled with shameless self-flattery is like handing a loaded pipe to a crack addict. They can’t help themselves. They don’t really know what professional, customer-centered marketing should look like, and since there’s no one to stop them, they’ll approve the marketing they believe is the best reflection of their organization’s worth. And since the reflection of their organization’s worth is also a reflection of its leaders’ abilities, they will inevitably go for the content they find most flattering.

In the real world, effective marketing strategy begins with the customers and is designed in response to their desires and expectations. Professional marketers develop their strategies to leverage those dispositions, which means keeping their focus on the customers. And executive leaders who manage these marketers know their role is to approve the methods and materials that do this most effectively. Smart business leaders may have personal opinions about marketing, and they may think their products are worth crowing about, but they understand that their job is to let objective market intelligence and rational, customer-centered methods take priority.

In the arts, meanwhile, marketing begins with the products and what organizations want to tell the world about their merits. After various promotional ideas have been mocked up, arts leaders use their professional discernment (a.k.a. personal opinions) to choose what they they think looks best or feels most appropriate or fits best with industry norms and traditions. And since industry norms and traditions consist primarily of inexpert arts leaders choosing the best reflections of their organizations’ worth, self-flattery will always win the day. This dynamic is so much a part of the culture of culture that we as an industry accept narcissistic marketing unquestioningly, as if it’s a given. “Why wouldn’t we boast about ourselves? We’re wonderful! People should know that. And the more wonderful we tell them we are, the more likely they’ll be to want to buy tickets.”

Makes a great dating strategy, too!

This is the point where the executive leaders I’m talking about say,

“Well of course he’s not talking about me. I’m a respected arts executive. I’m too wise, perceptive and accomplished to make such poor decisions. Why, I’m the boss of a big city arts institution; I oversee the marketers so I am automatically a marketing expert. My thoughts on audience development have even been published in the Sunday newspaper! Besides, I’ve been vetting promotional materials for years and doing a damn fine job of it. This chronic decline in audiences has nothing to do with me. Now if you’ll excuse me I have a budget crisis to deal with and artists’ salaries to cut.”

If you’re an executive arts leader who’s in a position to govern your organization’s marketing choices, and you learned what you know about marketing on your way up through the nonprofit arts, it is highly unlikely that you have sufficient professional expertise to save an organization that’s losing audiences. The nonprofit arts are a terrible place to learn marketing and you have undoubtedly learned an outdated, idiosyncratic, mid-twentieth century brand of “promotional” marketing that doesn’t work anymore. Arts marketing is a quirky, tradition-bound, quasi-professional endeavor that bears little resemblance to the full-on professional marketing that successful leaders will need to master keep their organizations alive.

Poor old Ian Campbell thought he was making wise marketing decisions right up until he scuttled the San Diego Opera – for lack of audiences. Leaders at the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra thought they were making wise choices when they approved this bizarre brochure – just before locking out their musicians. And the leaders at the Minneapolis Orchestra no doubt believed their monumentally self-adulatory brochure was the best of all possible choices – to spring back from the brink of disaster. All executive leaders of struggling arts organizations think they’re making the best possible marketing choices – even when they’re woefully underprepared to make those choices and their organizations are falling apart around them.

There was a time when the marketplace was so full of people who wanted what the arts had to sell that we could be as self-centered and boastful as we wanted and people would beat a path to our doors. But the world has changed; there are far fewer avid arts fans out there who find our overly generous self-assessments appealing. Every arts leader has heard this admonition a thousand times, but at some point it has to actually influence behavior: IT’S NOT ABOUT US ANYMORE. You can’t just nod in agreement when people say this at industry conferences and then come home and publish marketing materials that are all about you; you actually have to make it about them.

If you want to sell something to somebody, you have to tell them how it will satisfy their desires. It’s one of the oldest truths known to humankind. But in the arts, we don’t really know who our new audiences are, we refuse to learn what they want, and without knowing what they want, we can’t tell them how our products will satisfy their desires. So instead we blather on endlessly about how wonderful we are – or how wonderful people should think we are – and hope that young, culturally diverse people will somehow magically find us as appealing as traditional audiences once did.

I’m well aware that I’m just pissing in the wind here. Executive arts leaders won’t read this because they just don’t pay much attention to marketing. In my experience they show little interest in learning how to do it well because they’re perfectly comfortable with what they think they already know. (I’ve never seen an executive arts leader at a marketing conference, have you?) You’d think that leaders of an industry that’s facing a catastrophic decline in customers would be rushing out to get marketing MBAs, but no. It’s easier to complain about how poorly the rest of the world is being educated than it is to get the education they need to solve their own problems.

The answer to the arts’ audience crisis is heartbreakingly simple: know your new audiences well enough to understand what they want, and then speak to them humbly and honestly, in a language they understand, about how your products will make them happy. Out-of-touch arts administrators who hole up in conference rooms filling brochures and emails with canned, amateurish, self-congratulatory bombast, and then spraying them at the world in hopes of hitting like-minded fans, simply aren’t going to survive.


6 thoughts on “Arts Leaders’ Egos and Bad Arts Marketing

  1. Substitute “fundraising” for “marketing” (not that they’re that different if done well) and you’re singing my song. The one I’ve been singing for a long time. It’s true beyond the arts as well. If you run a nonprofit, quit trying to dazzle people with how marvelous you are. Show them what THEY can do through you instead.

    I’ve been saying that we need signs for our offices that say “It’s not about you”.

    I hope this gets read widely. It’s right on.

  2. Hi, Mary,

    Thanks for commenting. These posts do get significant traffic, but they’re not going to do much good. The last thing executive arts leaders want to hear is, “there’s a better way to do this,” because it implies that they weren’t smart enough to figure it out themselves. If someone suggests a new way of doing things, even if it’s the right way, what they hear is, “You’ve been doing it the wrong way all this time.”

    I’ve seen the dynamic play out repeatedly. Few things will cause executive arts leaders to shut down faster than asking them to change something they think they do well. Especially marketing, which is something most executive leaders assume is common sense. Add the insecurities that come with having no professional training or experience in real world marketing and we’re talking about denial on an industrywide scale.

    Executive arts leaders will go to astonishing lengths to avoid being told they’re making bad marketing decisions. Most will double down on the bad decisions, defend them vigorously by pointing to tradition or what everyone else is doing (“But, but, but that’s the way we’ve always done it!”), then blame the world around them for their problems rather than admit fallibility. This is why arts marketing content is so shamelessly self-centered and oblivious to external realities. I suspect that it’s a defense mechanism that allows older arts pros to cope with the diminished status of their art forms: If we squint our eyes shut real hard, put our hands over our ears, and shout as loud as we can about how wonderful we are, we won’t have to face the fact that folks don’t think we’re quite so wonderful anymore.

    I agree about those “It’s no about you.” signs, but I’m not so sure the decision makers possess the humility it takes to heed them.

    • Wow. You have summarized the last 9 years of my professional career. I also agree with Mary, this leadership failure extends across the board to things like management and infrastructure. It is the low self esteem non-profit model: “I don’t want to do anything. My artistic vision is the most important thing. Even if I am an Executive Director that is supposed to be begging for money, providing administrative support, making key organizational decisions; ultimately I just want to be valued as an artistic visionary.” THANKS FOR THE POST. IT MADE MY WEEK.

  3. Nicely put, Trevor. Wish the problem were confined to the arts. In fundraising, the customer is the donor. And top-down ignorance of how to handle “customer” (i.e., donor) relations costs charities unfathomable amounts of potential revenue annually.

  4. The one thing I think you should add Trevor is that not only are Arts Leaders egos getting in the way of good marketing, but the Artists themselves are getting in the way. I’ve worked on a few campaigns that were derailed by the Artists pushing the over-flowery language on the marketers. At some point, leadership should have stepped in, but since the language was from the artists there was a reluctance to overrule them.

    In the end, you are right actual marketers using actual data mined for the specific purpose of selling things should create the content and products to do just that. But Leadership *and* Artists step in to make sure the content is about them.

  5. Thanks, GB. You are absolutely right. Arts execs who have legitimate professional marketing expertise would never allow artists (and this includes the artistic directors) to derail sensible marketing strategies. The fact that such derailments are commonplace in the arts is tragic.

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