Julie Aldridge takes the bait thrown down by Trevor O’Donnell’s dismissal of arts marketing as ‘amateur’ and in response urges closer collaboration between artistic leaders and arts marketers.

An orchestra performing in a small venue with a large crowd
The Night Shift: "Organisations such as the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (OAE) have been experimenting with ways to enable audiences to experience art differently."

While I wholeheartedly agree that arts marketers should continuously seek to evaluate and improve their practice, Trevor O’Donnell’s condemnation of arts marketing as “amateurish, outdated and self-absorbed”, is harsh to say the least. Some arts organisations don’t get it, but there are many that really do. From the V&A’s multi-channel campaign for ‘David Bowie Is’ selling three times the advance sales of any other V&A exhibition; to the Science Museum’s game ‘Ouch’ which attracted crowds of young people within the museum to explore the challenging topic of the science of pain; to the carefully nurtured online and offline word-of-mouth campaigns that have doubled festival attenders for the JustSoFestival in Cheshire; we can see that many cultural organisations are inspiring the imaginations of their target audiences, often using just a fraction of the budgets spent in the commercial sector.

I fear that O’Donnell’s well-meaning and impassioned plea for the sector to raise its game may have the opposite effect of that intended. Will those who undervalue the role of arts marketing now take it more seriously? Or will they nod in agreement that arts marketers don’t know how to ‘promote’ the work? He argues that we need to fix arts marketing before we fix the art. I’d urge us to stop seeing these two things in isolation and consider how we might develop both art and audience together, with those in artistic leadership positions working collaboratively with those leading arts marketing for the benefit of both art and audiences.

Organisations such as the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (OAE) have been experimenting with ways to enable audiences to experience art differently. ‘The Night Shift’ takes existing elements of their programme conceived through the OAE’s player-led structure into surprise venues, creating mini events in bars and pubs. This initiative was led by the Communications Team but with input from across the organisation, and independent evaluators have highlighted its success in reversing all negative preconceptions of live classical music concerts: “in the course of an hour or so attenders moved from expectations that the experience will be expensive, formal, long, middle aged, proper, strict and stuffy to an understanding that it can be accessible, comfortable, inclusive, informal, laid back, relaxing, spontaneous and studenty.”

For our cultural organisation to thrive, the art has to take centre stage.

The Marketing Department at the British Museum has shown similar initiative with the recent exhibition, ‘Grayson Perry: The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman’. Early research showed that the main audiences for this exhibition were not primarily going to be traditional ‘British Museum’ attenders. They adopted a phased approach of attracting influencers and opinion formers via digital and viral marketing techniques, providing tools to make it easier for people to share opinions and invite others, and listening and responding to supporters, detractors and neutrals to maximise the impact of the buzz and word of mouth created from the campaign. Importantly, the curation and the marketing were developed in unison. Grayson Perry was involved from the start of the campaign and the British Museum consulted with him as both curator and artist, and this informed the overall marketing strategy.

For our cultural organisation to thrive, the art has to take centre stage. We need our artistic directors and cultural leaders to provide strong artistic leadership and this vision needs to be held throughout the organisation. Equally, though, we need to have a focus on the audience across every department. To use a much touted, but rarely implemented phrase, we need to be ‘vision-led and audience-focused’. As Andy McKim, Artistic Director at Theatre Passe Muraille, puts it: “... we need a sea-change in institutional culture if we expect to have any meaningful impact on issues of engagement. You, as marketers, are best suited to lead that change because you recognise its necessity. However, this responsibility cannot lie solely with the marketing staff... You need everyone in your organisation to value engagement as much as you do.”

O’Donnell is right to point out that marketers need to focus on customer-centred communications informed by market intelligence and rational methodologies. Too many of us are guilty of producing print which speaks only to the converted, or sending out emails with, as he puts it, “cutesy wordplay” and “off-putting stereotypes”. We also need to be careful that we don’t ignore the vast majority of the population who are neither frequent attenders nor hostile to attend, but who are open to persuasion – those who want the arts to have a presence in their towns and communities, even though it wouldn’t cross their minds to attend themselves, unless someone invites them.

Marketing in the arts sector has moved on significantly since the days of posters and direct mail.

As for comparing ourselves with others outside the arts, O’Donnell says that “the standards the cultural sector sets for marketing fall so far short of the standards upheld by the marketing profession in general.” This is clearly a generalisation, as demonstrated by some of the examples above.  I doubt any of us would disagree that we should expect our marketing staff to perform at the same level of professionalism as our artists, and while it’s a fallacy that in ‘professional’ marketing there is never ineffective practice, there is clearly a need for arts marketers to apply the same level of skill, knowledge and aptitude as those in other industries. To help arts marketers to continue to raise standards and have a greater impact, the Arts Marketing Association (AMA) has contextualised the marketing national occupational standards (NOS) – which were developed in the commercial sector – specifically for the arts. For the first time, this gives a clear indication of what’s expected at every level within arts marketing from assistant to director of department, and means that the standards that arts marketers work towards are on a par with those in other industries. I’d urge arts marketers and employers to take a look at the skills toolkit that accompanies these standards. These simple online questionnaires have been created to help people to identify and build on their strengths, to review their skills gaps in light of their current role, and to consider their training needs in line with their future ambitions.

Marketing in the arts sector has moved on significantly since the days of posters and direct mail. In the 20 years that the Arts Marketing Association has been running we’ve seen a move from simple ‘publicity’ to the establishment of marketing departments; from the introduction of box office systems to an embracing of a diverse range of digital and social media platforms; from the introduction of customer relationship management to an emphasis on using sophisticated data analysis to create evidence driven campaigns; and we’re now seeing the development of much deeper, sector-wide understanding of what motivates people to become arts attenders, enabling arts marketers to have insight to create more targeted, personalised strategies and campaigns. Whatever Trevor O’Donnell may think, for many the practice of arts marketing is delivering value to arts organisations and audiences, and is continuing to improve and develop – and the tools are all in place to keep the momentum going.

Julie Aldridge is Executive Director at the Arts Marketing Association.


AMA in partnership with The Audience Agency has developed CultureHive, part of Arts Council England's Audience Focus programme, supported by Lottery funding, this includes www.culturehive.co.uk a free website full of articles, case studies and reports which share good practice across every area of the arts marketing standards – including those examples mentioned throughout this article.

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Julie Aldridge