Sunday, January 31, 2010

How Marketing Directors Kill New Work

As I only post when something catches my attention, my posting habits are a little sporadic. Sometimes I will write a couple of posts in a week, and other times I will only post once a month. I have been feeling pretty guilty lately about not posting more, but nothing really jumped out at me until very recently.

In the past couple of weeks, two things have impacted my work as a marketer--I was extraordinarily fortunate to attend a convening of Black playwrights as part of the American Voices New Play Institute at Arena Stage, and I finally got around to reading Outrageous Fortune, the new report put out by TDF about new play development. Via both contexts, I heard numerous complaints about how institutional theaters market new work.

It became clear to me that marketing directors, in some cases, have the ability to kill new work. In Outrageous Fortune, one playwright contends that institutional theaters are "about a certain kind of system...when plays come in, they want to systematically find a way to market them." Another playwright states that new play production "comes down to marketing. Some say we love this play; we can't find the audience for it. It pisses me off, because a lot of people in marketing don't know how to find new audiences." It is easy for marketers to take offense, however we should admit that at too many institutions, this is the case. Marketing directors are like anyone else; we are creatures of habit. If we have been in the job for awhile, we start to develop systems for marketing products. We know how to market musicals, new plays, African-American work, political satire, etc. But what happens when the Artistic Director brings us something that we can't pigeon hole? Well, I guess that depends on the person sitting in the marketing director's chair. Some of us get excited as it presents an opportunity to learn and grow, and a chance to build our audience base. Others might be daunted, and instead of facing the challenge, they retreat to the comfort of the known. But let's be clear--whether we accept the responsibility or not, it is our job to find an audience. The audience for more challenging, esoteric work might be smaller than a crowd-pleaser, but either way it is our duty to go into the community and find those people to support the work. In thinking about this issue, I am reminded of a piece of advice my mentor gave me in graduate school. She said a producer's job is to find ways to say yes.

While reading Outrageous Fortune, I had an interesting interaction with a playwright. When questioned why a play hadn't made a commercial transfer despite being critically acclaimed, the playwright said the producer had a difficult time projecting revenue due to the late buying habits of the audience. To all those on the outside, it was almost impossible for us to understand why a commercial production would not be forthcoming. If it was indeed a case of projecting revenue, then the marketing director has failed this extraordinary new play. Just because our jobs become difficult doesn't mean we have the luxury of being able to choose to carry out our responsibilities. Revenue forecasting is incredibly difficult, especially in light of the current economic crisis. However, who better to forecast revenue than those with the tools to do so?

Are these cases of marketing directors behaving badly? It sure looks that way. We got into our jobs knowing the territory. We are tasked with developing new audiences, supporting the mission of the institution, forecasting revenue, promoting all types of work, etc. If you don't like any of those tasks, then you should move on. Maybe the job isn't for you. Don't jeopardize the livelihoods of playwrights, or the advancement of our craft, because you don't want to take on a tough task.

That being said, before I finish this post, I wanted to mention that there are two major sources of revenue at non-profit institutions--earned revenue and contributed revenue. If marketing objectives have the ability to sacrifice your institution's mission, then I would argue that you have become too reliant upon box office revenue. For-profit companies focus on one thing: building a product that has audience appeal sufficient enough to make the most possible profit. Non-profits as well have a singular focus: fulfilling their mission. At no point can marketing objectives jeopardize an organization's ability to fulfill its mission. If you get to that point, you might as well become a for-profit entity.


Seema Sueko said...

Thank you so much for this post.

This is Seema Sueko. I serve as Artistic Director of Mo`olelo Performing Arts Company in San Diego. We take a community organizing / consensus organizing approach to our work (you can read about it here: It has allowed us to do works that some dominant organizations won't touch. And though we are a small Company, we've achieved 90-95% overall capacity over the past few years and created long-term relationships with a diversity of new audiences.

I think the primary difference between marketing and community organizing is that in marketing the relationship is one-way. Someone sells something to someone else. But in community and consensus organizing the arrows go both ways and the relationship is symbiotic. Consensus organizing allows the organizer to be flexible and adapt to the needs of each community.

Anonymous said...

Great food for thought, Chad--thanks! To add another (somewhat complementary) perspective: at some organizations, Marketing Directors are forced into the kind of narrow behavior that you describe by having Executive Directors or boards that are focused first and foremost on the bottom line. At the end of the day, the number-one metric by which these Marketing Directors are measured is dollars earned, and they're rewarded or punished based on whether they make their budgeted goals. And at the companies I know, these same Marketing Directors are woefully under-resourced, both in terms of marketing dollars and the staff needed to do some of the innovative audience development work necessary to properly build an audience for a new work.

So what do they do? They fall back on tried-and-true formulas, pushing the standard rep--the things they know they can make money on--and devoting fewer resources to the works with less potential to sell. It's a calculated but short-term cost-benefit decision. If they flipped this formula, they risk flopping on their "sure-fire hits" and they risk flopping on those riskier new works too. It's a systemic problem, a vicious cycle which I think is only broken when Marketing Directors are truly held accountable for more than just the butts in seats and dollars raised, and perhaps when the boards/EDs are willing to accept more modest income goals for new works. I'm willing to bet that many of these Marketing Directors would welcome the challenge of audience building for new works, if they didn't think it could come at the expense of their jobs.

Of course, this seems most feasible at healthy arts organizations that are financially stable. Unfortunately, there aren't too many out there right now. It's easier to take artistic risks and marketing risks, and to broaden one's view of a successful marketing campaign, when failure doesn't mean closing one's doors.

Chad M. Bauman said...


Excellent point and I am very glad you made it. Honestly speaking, I never thought of the issue you speak of because I have been lucky enough to work at institutions that take their missions very seriously. That being said, the current economic woes have pushed everyone out of their comfort zone. Leadership (from the board and executives) is key.

DeusEx said...

Anonymous shows us there are many angles to the issue. What about when a play is just bad; and producers use financial and marketing excuses to soften the blow to a playwright’s ego? But marketing directors behaving badly? Gee, you think??? It is always frustrating to point out corporate America being creative, when our field is not, but here goes. What about Google’s 20% time? Imagine marketing directors given 20% time to work on their own projects, pursuing efforts outside executive boundaries, and being able to reach new markets? Everybody wins. 1. The marketing director has time to pursue the projects he enjoys and thinks will help the organization. 2. New marketing directions are pursued and tested. 3. The organization gets a much better picture of the marketing director’s work ethic and effectiveness.

Unknown said...

Thanks Chad. I don't disagree with your main point but I do think the issue is more complex than you portray in this post. As you stated last summer in your blog, audience retention is a huge responsibility and a thankless one in many theatres. While audience development is essential and garners far more attention and funding than building audience loyalty, that fact of the matter is we must do BOTH and that's a hard thing to accomplish in any economic climate. Characterizing your colleagues as worn out professionals resistant to change seems unfair and inaccurate.

"If I had a quarter for every time I have been asked in my career how I planned on attracting new audiences to an organization, I would be a rich man. On the flip side, I am almost never asked about customer loyalty or retention. The quickest way for an organization to get in trouble from a marketing perspective is to ignore audience retention problems in favor of attracting new audiences."

Chad M. Bauman said...

I think the important thing here is that marketing directors are tasked with both audience development and retention. Ignoring one for the other shouldn't be an option. I agree that it is more common to see audience retention ignored, but even in times of economic woe, we can't forget that we are also charged with audience development.

To DuesEx's point, I do believe that the artistic product can be so poor that audience development efforts will have no effect. Similarly, I believe that great plays have been underserved by marketing professionals. In the words of Michael Kaiser, it only works when you have "great art marketed well."

Lauren Bracey said...

In my experience, it's the old warhorses that are the most effective at drawing new audiences into our theater - not new works. We rely on well-known, big-name productions to build our audience and show new attendees that the theater can be enjoyable and engaging. Then we go back to those new audience members with other offerings, and guess what? They return!

So at least for some companies - companies for whom developing new work isn't part of the mission - it can be the other way around: new works, riskier works, more envelope-pushing works satisfy existing, already-comfortable-with-theater audiences, not new audiences.

Now, the above is based on using 95% traditional media, and I think traditional media is dying a slow, painful death (albeit not fast enough that we can stop using it all together, unfortunately). When it comes to new media, there's a different challenge: new media requires the entire company, not just the marketing staff, to contribute. I can't make a compelling video to educate unfamiliar audiences about a show without the input and participation of the artistic/programming staff! I think that new media will expose the lack of collaboration between departments at many companies - Seema's looks like a very interesting model! I think she's exactly right that we'll all need to shift more to "marketing as community organizing" rather than "marketing as selling" to survive in the new media landscape.

Oh, we'll ALL need to make sure that the art we're producing is relevant to the audiences we're trying to reach. No biggie. :)

Chad M. Bauman said...

I completely agree about a new relationship between artistic and communications. I wrote on that topic almost a year ago in my post "Institutions as Media Outlets." Check it out:

Unknown said...

Talking to the marketing directors in the Los Angeles area, the key seems to be in integration of the marketing department with the artistic planning process.

Too often, artistic directors, managing directors and boards decide on a season or on show offerings, decide on all the aspects of the shows, and then toss the whole ball of wax to the publicist and marketing director and say "Now go fill all the seats - oh, and do it with 1/2 the funds and staff you've requested."

When the season is planned with all voices at the table and equally considered, and where all departments are getting the support they need, it's much easier to set realistic goals and accomplish them. This works much better than putting up the show and then blaming the marketing folks when the audiences are low.

It also helps if the artistic direction team has a clear message they're sending with their play selection and/or whole season. Without a clear message that the theatre is trying to send, even if it's "Come laugh with us", the marketing folks are hamstrung. And if the marketing folks invent a message, to get people in the door, but the shows don't support the message, it's a double-cross, which is even worse.