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Protecting frontline services – an oxymoron?

Blog 14 Steven Hadley was appointed CEO of Audiences NI in June 2007. He is a Board Member of the Arts Marketing Association and a Director of Audiences UK. He has over 15 years experience in arts marketing roles. Steven holds an MA (Distinction) in Media and Cultural Studies, an Advanced Diploma (Distinction) in Management Practice, is a member of the Chartered Management Institute and has an MBA (Distinction) from QUB.

In this blog post, Steven argues that the drive to ‘keep product on the stage’ could be the very thing that’s stopping many arts organisations from creative audience-building.

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As the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy told us in Television, the drug of the nation (their ’90s updating of Gil Scott Heron’s “The Revolution will not be Televised”), oxymoronic language like “fresh frozen”, “virtually spotless” and “military intelligence” has now become standard.

The arts are not alone among government departments and public sectors in being rallied to the cry of ‘protect frontline services, reduce wasteful back office costs’. Many in the sector are using ‘frontline’, as a proxy for the ‘art’ on the stage or the wall. But is ‘protecting frontline arts’, in this narrow sense, an oxymoron?

Fifteen or so years ago, many arts organisations were awakening to the brave new world of the internet and beginning to grapple with the resource (time, money, brainpower) implications and, let us not forget, amazing potential of the online world. Fifteen years on, and the explosion of the internet and social media has transformed our understanding of brand management, social interaction, value creation, audience engagement and so much more.

But one thing hasn’t changed; the need to resource this work. In fact, if anything, this engagement, this communication has grown exponentially. Part of the reason for this is that, rather than helping us adopt the mantra of ‘working smarter, not harder’, new technologies have simply been a factor in generating the need for more staff and budget. In many organisations, these increased needs have not been adequately resourced.

Instead, the battle weary, underpaid and oft-neglected arts marketer not only has to update the website, the Twitter feed, blog, Facebook/Myspace page, podcast etc but also undertake the duties which were previously sufficient for a full-time post such as the brochure(s), direct mail, data analysis, advertising and so on.

We know for sure that, for at least the next four years, we will see declining public funding, and the future for corporate sponsorship and income from trusts and foundations looks bleak. At the same time, we know that each year there are millions of pounds worth of unsold seats for performances across the land. Unless arts organisations really and truly begin to put audiences at the heart of what they do, they are (and, some would say, should be) doomed. And yet the potential to develop deep and meaningful relationships with customers is slowly being eroded away. Why?

We are now approaching a situation where sector development is beginning to resemble looking down the wrong end of a telescope. Thanks to the sterling work of the Arts Marketing Association, the audience development agencies who collectively form Audiences UK and a coterie of arts marketing consultants, we now have all the tools, baselines, case studies, reports and technology we need to effect significant and lasting change.

The arts and cultural sector has successfully adopted, adapted and developed the techniques of the private sector. We now have examples of how Customer Relationship Management (CRM) can increase retention and income, and how an optimal pricing policy can deliver increased revenue streams from ticketing. Brand management, customer lifetime value and the co-creation of value are topics at arts conferences and seminars. Unfortunately, those organisations developing this practice and providing these examples are more often the exception than the rule. We have the knowledge and tools. What the sector now lacks is capacity.

All too often we are seeing the ‘protect the art’ mantra resulting in the reduction or complete elimination of the marketing/audience development function in arts organisations where there is already an absence of a sponsorship and/or fundraising role. Supposed protection of frontline services is creating arts organisations which are less self-sufficient and thus more reliant on funding and less able to plan. Many have no capacity-building function and no opportunity to do anything other than run-to-stand-still, like sick patients kept alive by a slow but slowly diminishing drip feed of state monies.

Sectoral development bodies with the expertise to build capacity, deliver income and develop audiences, are seeing their funding cut or removed entirely in order to ‘keep product on the stage’. This is both short-sighted and self-defeating. Unless arts organisations are given the tools, knowledge and understanding to grow and develop their business and the resources to maximise this potential, then we will continue to slide backwards to a position of funding-as-entitlement. You don’t protect something by making it defenceless.

Perhaps, when we think we are protecting arts organisations from harm, we are actually harming them with protection.

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