Horrifying News for Arts Organizations: Sales is the New Marketing


This is not going to go over well…

Turns out that Seattle Symphony Orchestra is having great success with its new outside sales initiative.

SSO’s “Corporate and Concierge Accounts Manager,” Gerry Kunkel, has been reaching out to corporations, hotels, condominiums and apartment buildings where he’s signed up about 70 companies, 30 residential buildings, and most downtown hotels, bringing in ticket sales of $177,000 – more than enough to justify his salary. (Read more about it here.) 

Yes, dear friends, sales – the most abhorrent practice in arts administration – has reared its ugly head as an effective way to build audiences. This gruesome turn of events suggests that arts organizations that have sensibly eschewed sales in favor of the more genteel “audience development” will now have to hire actual sales professionals and send them out into the marketplace to engage with resellers, influencers, destination partners and other third-party businesses in their communities.

Now, this isn’t some low-level hold-your-nose-and-pretend-it-doesn’t-exist sales like telemarketing or group sales. This is real, executive-level sales where mature, professional, fully empowered representatives of the organization will go out into the business world (just like development execs are supposed to do), meet with key figures in real-estate, human resources, hospitality, tourism and destination management, and work out ways to cut mutually beneficial ticket sales deals.

And if that’s not scary enough, sales is going to become a senior management function. We’re going to have to give these people offices, pass them in the hallways and let them come to staff meetings. Staff meetings! They’re going to sit there and talk about sales right in front of us and expect us to listen as if sales is a perfectly normal thing for arts organizations to be doing. Can you imagine? Might as well put used cars in the lobby and let them talk about selling those, too.

But it gets even worse. These sales people are going to ask us to change the way we do business. We sell directly to patrons – which is only fitting and proper – but they’re going to want us to sell to businesses that resell to other people and this is a nightmare. These third-party business buyers aren’t like us; they’re in it for the money. They’re going to want a cut of the take and they’re going to ask for direct access to quality ticket inventory. Try telling your ticketing system developers you need to manage third-party reseller accounts with wholesale rates, back-end commissions and the ability to sell out of live inventory from remote desktop box offices and their heads will explode. Trust me. Trying to find new ways to sell tickets is the last thing your ticketing software provider wants your arts organization to be doing. It is far, far easier not to sell tickets than it is to change ticketing systems to accommodate new ways of selling tickets.

But the most horrific part of this whole mess is that these sales people will be spending an awful lot of time out in the community talking to common people, listening to their needs and desires and trying to gain insight into their thoughts, feelings and motivations. Then they’re going to waltz back in to our conference rooms and tell us we need to be more tuned in to what people on the outside care about – like we don’t already know what those people are supposed to care about. It’s our job to tell them what’s valuable and important; they don’t tell us.

If you’re like most arts professionals, you understand intuitively that sales is beneath us. That it threatens our elevated status. That the work we do is too valuable and important to have to be sold. Sales brings us down to the level of the customers and we don’t belong there. We’re better than they are. Our job is to beckon from on high, champion our superior artistic and organizational attributes and pull as many people up to our level as possible. The entire history of arts communications is an expression of this model.

Accepting sales is the same thing as admitting that we’re somehow dependent on customers – that our value, relevance and sustainability is somehow tied to our communities. It’s almost like saying that we need these people, which is, of course, ridiculous. Everyone knows they need us. They just don’t know it. The only reason we need them is to keep the doors open so we can continue trying to satisfy needs they don’t know they have.

I don’t know about you, but I’m inclined to think that filling theaters, concert halls and galleries with new paying audiences is an awfully high price to pay just to keep us from going out of business.

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