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7th August 2018 Jemma Green

(in) Discipline & Devotion: The Power of Play at AMA Conference 2018

Bryony Bell, Marketing and Communications Manager, Chetham’s School of Music

“People think I’m disciplined. It is not discipline. It is devotion. There is a great difference.” — Luciano Pavarotti

This quote was used by Jo Taylor of Morris Hargreaves McIntyre in the Big Marketing Challenge session at the AMA conference, 2018. It summed up both my work at Chetham’s School of Music – where 300 of the world’s finest young musicians create music together, spending up to four hours a day in rehearsals, individual lessons, choir and music theory lessons – even before they get to maths, English, individual practice and the business of being a child or teenager. Yet for these passionate young players – and some of them are very young, joining us from the age of 8 upwards – this isn’t a question of discipline; it’s one of devotion. At Chetham’s they find a place where they can immerse themselves in the thing they love, share it with like-minded friends, and learn and grow through those relationships – both from the discipline of practice and individual lessons, and the freedom of jazz improvisation and musical play.

The quote also sums up the attitude of most of my colleagues across the world of arts marketing. We’re artists and arts audiences before we’re marketers; we’d be as out of place in a used car showroom as we might be in a desert. We’re marketers because we’re devoted to our product, our venues, our organisations, our art, and we want to share it with others. The process of sharing it effectively takes discipline – discipline to follow up every contact, to find time for every audience member, to find and maintain and grow those fickle ticket buyers into loyal partners. But sometimes, to find ways to share things differently, to rephrase our stories and connect with new communities, it takes a little indiscipline – space to improvise solutions, to dream and to explore. That was the message at the heart of the Power of Play – that sometimes it takes a little mischief to manage marketing well.

For my team, the timing couldn’t be better. It’s almost 18 months since we opened a chamber music venue, The Stoller Hall, at Chetham’s. We spent the first tempestuous year, learning with every concert, facing new challenges every day, and emerged weary and a little stunned. Somewhere in that year of endless days and rolling to-do lists, we lost a little of the power of play, and the vision that made the concert hall happen to begin with got buried under data, evacuations plans and Box Office training. Now with a whole new team starting in the autumn, alongside a new season, new leadership and space to breathe, we’re ready to rediscover the space to play, to dig out the games from a former life as a drama practitioner and to open new dialogues across and between colleagues.

So what will we do? We’ll leave the office. We’ll take conversations to coffee shops, to benches in the sun. We could follow Emma Rice’s advice and get a ball, but the best thing about running a concert hall in a school is, perhaps, that we already have swings. We definitely won’t get a karaoke machine. We’ll have fewer meetings but make them more meaningful, we’ll brainstorm the longer term as well as planning weekly jobs, we’ll talk more often in between. We won’t just talk – we’ll get up, sketch, walk, imagine what we’re doing from an audience member’s perspective. We’ll start with our Atrium. Since opening, we’ve had just two recurring complaints; the hand dryers are too low in the ladies, and the Atrium is lacking ambience. I’m not sure play will raise the level of the dryers, but for our ‘Atrium Ambience Sub Committee’ (please don’t judge us, the name was ironic even before the conference), I’ll be learning from Lisa Baxter of the Experience Business, who brought playdough, felt tips and Snoopy to help us reimagine the visitor experience. I’ll ask colleagues to step outside, imagining themselves as specific members of our audience, and walk into the building in their shoes. We’ll identify snag points, places that work, easy fixes, and we’ll imagine bigger wins, that draw people in to spend time and money before each show begins.

Then we’ll invite our audiences to play. They’re the ones who’ve raised the problem; so we’ll look at our fledgling Membership scheme, and subscribers to our classical or piano series, and we’ll invite them to spend time with us, to share their thoughts, and to help us solve it. We talked extensively about the power of our systems to help personalise communications, to build memberships and loyalty through discounts and invitations, and turn visitors into supporters. We heard great examples and statistics from Christina Hill of TRG Arts and Liam Evans-Ford of Theatr Clywd. We started two years ago without an audience or data; now it’s time to change our approach from a wide-armed invitation to all comers, to focussing our resources on those we’ve already engaged. We’ll be addressing people on our lists who haven’t yet made a visit, people who’ve visited once and haven’t yet been back, people who’ve been many times  who could become our best friends. And for those more committed supporters, particularly, we’ll be inviting them to come and play with us – to get to know us, and let us get to know them, and to involve them meaningfully in the conversation as we improve the experience for everyone who enters our doors. That way we’ll use the full power of our networks – as Renska Verbeek reminded us from her experience in the Netherlands, every individual knows 1500 others. In an audience of 400, that’s 600,000 connections. If every one of those 400 people leaves us feeling special – feeling that they’ve been welcome, that they’ve had fun, that they understand what we’re trying to achieve – they’ll want to share that with their friends.

It won’t happen overnight. It won’t be as easy as it sounds. But what harm can it do? As Emma Rice said: if it isn’t going to kill you, why not give it a try? The bursary from the Arts Marketing Association allowed me to do just that with this year’s conference, and that trial was enough for us to prioritise it in next year’s budgets. As arts marketers we all need our own place to pause in our day to day work, to play with our peers, to learn new games and rewrite the rules. Roll on NewcastleGateshead!