An Arts Marketing Civil War (and the South might just win!)

Metropolitan Opera (Lincoln Center), auditorium

Metropolitan Opera (Lincoln Center), auditorium (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I just got back from a trip to Kentucky and I’ve got to tell you,  I’m shocked at the amount of arts advocacy I saw in the mainstream public forum in this past week. It seems things are a bit different than when I left the Bluegrass State four years ago to study in New York City. It left me to wonder, how come the “leading” arts institutions in the Northeast aren’t as proactive about vying for the public’s awareness?

In my sister’s college graduation ceremony at the University of Kentucky (shout out to Sara-Elizabeth Bush, I’m so proud!), President Capilouto’s address to the graduating class of 2013 mentioned the importance of the performing arts multiple times. The pre-ceremony videos featured Reggie Smith Jr., a student graduating from the UK opera program and entering the world as an emerging artist with major performance engagements coming up in the near future.

The Lexington Airport featured ads for classical music events on well designed billboards throughout the airport. That wasn’t the only advertising I saw to support classical music either– the mall at Opry Mills in Nashville featured large artwork of orchestral instruments and I also ran across mainstream advertisements for classical music events in the Nashville airport.  The impact of these small awareness campaigns is much greater than the sum of their parts. Where is all this chatter and advertisement in the Northeast?

The one exception that immediately comes to mind is the Metropolitan Opera. Their photography and advertising campaign is, in my opinion, the best classical marketing effort I’ve seen in the past 5 years. New York’s WQXR radio station comes in at a close second place with their “Obey Beethoven” campaign that flooded subway ads for time in 2011.  But that’s two notable campaigns in the last 5 years— just two. Where are all the other “big” organizations? Or for that matter, where are advertisements for individual classical artists the way Gaga covered the 7 train with vinyl wrap ads?

Advertising is expensive– but what is the more costly: a long term decline in audience growth, an inability to be seen as relevant by the public, or worse— the public simply not knowing your organization exists at all? Advertising must be a centerpiece in sustainability plans for arts organizations. Even though online advertising may reach more views than traditional print, seeing traditional ads lends a credibility to branding and also helps bring your organization and its work into the general public’s eye. If you want to catch salmon, fish in a stream. If you want to catch everything possible, go fish in the ocean. That’s what traditional advertising does. It can help bring traffic to your (hopefully by now awesome) online presence where new audience members can acces lots of information about what you do and why you do it.

This is an opportunity to be innovative. Photography is not as off-limits as it was 10 years ago and you no longer have to hire a Don Draper marketing firm to handle your organization’s image. With some basic graphic design skills you can create the image yourself and focus on increased distribution rather than increased cost to produce it. When was the last time you saw a bill board alongside the interstate for an orchestra? A massive subway campaign that was hip and cool which featured the orchestras in a comical or memorable way? Or (OHMYGAWD) a TV commercial? The Met puts commercials in movie theaters. Why have so few caught onto this?

I can’t tell you how proud I was to see arts organizations in the South promoting themselves and raising the public’s awareness of their work. It was so refreshing because there was not a drop of elitism to be found anywhere, just a genuine southern invitation to come and see for yourself the great work these organizations did. The ads I saw came off like a warm southern smile, telling you to come spend time with them and experience the art they had to offer. That’s a great way to put it–they advertised experiences, not events. They put potential audience members at ease. They sparked interest, and they unobtrusively entered the public’s field of awareness. It was brilliant.

I want to know your thoughts on arts marketing. What ideas do you have to help performing arts organizations connect with the public?

I’ll stay tuned to hear from you,

John-Morgan

2 comments

  1. Becky Bush

    The article was wonderful and written so well. It is a honor and a pleasure to know someone who is so talented and such a advocate for the arts. Also, one who is willing to express and appreciate their love for family and their heritage in the south. We are proud to call you our own! Please continue your work and share the heartfelt meaning of the arts to all no matter where your travels may take you.

  2. Joe Tackett

    John, the market in the northeast for ad buys is significantly different then in the south. To buy ads in the Philly market (of which my organization would fall into for TV) is cost prohibitive. When only 2-5% of any given population wants to attend a live music event (Americans For The Arts, 2009), it makes sense to target this population. It is not sexy, or fun, but you go to a water source to fish, not throw your fishing net into the air assuming you will land a flying fish.

    Your ideas and thoughts continue to be great, but the reality of major ad buys for cash strapped orchestras is difficult. We have been somewhat successful in establishing partnerships with local billboard and (one) TV station that airs ads in exchange for tickets for clients, but it is an uphill battle.

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