When Dubious Arts Leaders Nix Innovation

For several years now young arts marketers have been complaining to me that their bosses won’t let them make changes. They’re prepared to introduce more professional methods, but the leaders they work for are committed to the status quo.

“My boss thinks the answer to declining audiences is to hammer the market over the head with more of the same marketing. The fewer tickets we sell, the harder he says we have to hit.”

“When my boss wants to avoid approving something new, she gets her cronies on the board to back her up: “I showed this to Ginny Underbridge and she said it just wasn’t us.””

“When I presented new ideas to my boss, he actually sent me into the marketing archives to learn how to produce the marketing he was prepared to approve.”

Marketing is a mysterious process for most arts leaders. Few have studied marketing formally, few came to their positions with professional marketing expertise, and few have had the time or inclination to enhance their knowledge through professional development. Most learned what they know about marketing on their way up through the nonprofit arts – which, as I’ve often said, is a terrible place to learn marketing – and most aren’t secure enough in their knowledge to screw around with a process they don’t understand.

This is why young arts administrators who do understand marketing find themselves banging their heads against a wall. Their bosses are painfully dependent on tradition to hide their incapacities and, even though innovation is the only clear path to survival, most older leaders will stick with what they know rather than risk doing something unfamiliar.

If you’re a young marketer who has the knowledge and training to bring your organization’s marketing up to a more professional standard, and your boss has a way of making sure that nothing changes, here’s a recommendation that will give you some useful leverage.

Make a Rock-Solid Case

In the arts, most marketing policy is driven by opinion, and the highest paid person’s opinion usually carries the day. If you want to elevate your organization’s marketing process to a professional level, come to your meetings armed with an abundance of authoritative, unimpeachable, objective evidence to support your proposals. Your colleagues will offer up all manner of spontaneous, top-of-the-head insights, which is what they’re accustomed to doing, but very little of what they contribute will have legitimate strategic value. You, meanwhile, will have come with a folder full of relevant facts that will raise the standard of acceptable discourse and neutralize the well-intentioned but squishy contributions of your peers.

Whatever you do, never express an opinion you can’t back up with an air-tight, rational argument that’s built on a foundation of cold, hard evidence. The minute you state an unsupportable opinion, you’ll have abandoned the professional high ground and descended to the level of your inexpert colleagues. And the contributions you make from then on will have no more authority than those of your boss or the intern who started last week.

Arts administrators have long believed that marketing is a creative, intuitive enterprise to which creative people are unusually well suited, but this is a suicidal delusion. Marketing is about numbers and empirical data. Marketing is a process of applying rational methodologies to facts in order to deliver predictable outcomes. And marketing is a science that’s getting more sophisticated every day (anyone following the Cambridge Analytica scandal should know this). Creativity is important to some extent, but only after the data have been analyzed and the appropriate methodologies have been applied.

Introducing a fact-based approach to arts marketing may not be easy, especially when it comes to content (arts marketing content is where opinion-driven amateurism rises to the level of absurdity), but empirical evidence and rational methods will give you a firm foundation on which to build, and a dependable roadmap for skeptical co-workers to follow as you lead them into uncharted territory.

 

 

 

 

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