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What everyone wants

This was first published at the Tessitura Conference in Chicago in the summer of 2019 – happy pre-Covid days. But lots remains relevant…

I’ve listened to subsidised arts charities, festivals, commercial theatre networks, producers and agencies. Venues and touring companies, museums, galleries and arts centres. Universities and funders, local authorities, housing and education not-for-profits, and private grant-makers. I’ve heard from Marketing heads, Chief Execs, and Trustees. All scales and sizes. Rich and poor. Creative and frustrated.

And pretty much everyone has the same concerns. So, here’s my useful summary of the top five. Let me know if you spot anything familiar:

1. Don’t mention the ‘B’ word.

(Not ‘Boris’, not ‘Brexit’, but ‘brand’.) Brand is a hugely under-resourced area, sometimes regarded as the domain of the CEO and Trustees, but still frequently reduced to the logo. There are so many unasked questions about vision and focus. It’s hard for teams in disparate silos (see more below, and pic above) to rally around a central purpose if it is slippery or poorly defined. At times of change (like, er, always) it’s even harder. Those who have been through a brand review worry about consistent implementation, and how to evidence their values convincingly every day. Many are not sure even where to begin, and can’t easily identify the benefits to investing time and energy.

But big brands don’t need to cost big money…

Set aside time for diagnosis. Ask why you *really* matter, what sets you apart, and what you can promise to change. Resource these aspirations, and align your values with job descriptions and appraisals. Ensure they are at the core when on-boarding new staff and Trustees (again, see more below). Combine with everyday messaging full of inspiring content across relevant channels, and you’ve taken the first simple steps.

2. ‘Why can’t we just be more commercial?’

Concerns about funding, alternative revenue streams and future sustainability hoover up time. This clearly reduces the will to take risks. And there are worries that pushing commerciality could deter audiences or somehow taint funded charities, placing the arts further out of reach. Quite a few organisations have engaged expensive retail consultants who have promised all the answers without taking time to work out the challenge, causing resentment and confusion.

But there are opportunities for small wins everywhere…

As one shrewd venue boss commented to me, “who notices half a percent on the booking fee, or a little less chicken in the panini?” The really strong venue-producer partnerships are setting aside hierarchies and working together on incentive deals that benefit both parties fairly. Losses from discounting to new or under-represented audiences are being off-set through inventive fundraising. And more promoters are questioning the need to discount ‘addicts’ (Friends, subscribers) as being the main value-driven reward for loyalty.

3. ‘How can I make evaluation really work for me?’

This is an area full of pain, and ‘analysis paralysis’ is everywhere. Few are sure for certain what they are learning from some quite complicated and slow-moving processes. And fewer still are implementing confident change to decision-making or delivery as a consequence. Some brutal feedback from one festival was that the organisation’s survey process was the most unfriendly ever encountered, and actively deterred several newcomers from bothering in future. As consumers ourselves we’re all overloaded by surveys lacking in creativity, so putting some distance between immediate ‘operational satisfaction’ (preferably instant feedback whilst it’s fresh) and considered ‘attitudinal motivation’ (after a bit of time to digest the experience) is going to help.

But built-in from the start, an evaluation framework can be a spring-board not a straitjacket…

Beyond the essential reporting everyone is obliged to do, try to think like a grant-maker and establish your own iterative and brand-relevant criteria. Without getting lost in KPI misery, it is possible to score new ideas in inventive and brand-focused ways. Align targets with the correct objectives and outputs, and evaluation can fuel everything. The best equipped leader I spoke to has just six daily statistics he relies on to keep his finger on the pulse and spot any important drift. What would your six be?

4. Silos still dominate.

In some instances, especially with rapidly growing organisations or where systems are rarely reviewed, KPI obsessions appear to set teams against each other with a corrosive tension. To paraphrase one frustrated voice: “we’ve constructed something that actively enables new ideas to fall between the cracks.” It’s worryingly common to find Finance always angry with Programming, who think Marketing don’t understand them; whilst Fundraising are still waiting for clarity from Education; and the Technical team are the last to know; …and how come the Social Media team have all the fun?

People just want the chance to do their best…

It’s well known in our industry that the pressure to deliver on minimal budgets because ‘the show must go on’ leads to all sorts of poor practices and significant stress. Mindfulness is very much on the agenda, and rightly so. But alongside it, a gradual, regular and persistent review of business processes would lift the weight for lots of hard-pressed teams and individuals. (It seemed appropriate to feature the American silo pic above, as the debate in Chicago at Tessitura’s Global Conference this week has focused on teamwork: “I am, only because we are” being the rallying call of Miami’s Arsht Center.)

5. ‘Why don’t we make more use of our Trustees?’

It’s easy to spot a good Trustee — they ask great questions. The happiest and most productive organisations I have met express a lot of trust in their Boards. But sadly these organisations are rare. The master-servant / parent-child dynamic is sometimes very strong, and between scheduled meetings there are some worryingly quiet periods. Most Trustees are busy, clever people but they can’t all be expected to understand the complexities of the arts world. Some I’ve spoken to have felt poorly informed as to how artistic investment decisions are made and find them difficult to challenge. Others can’t readily articulate any brand values. Many feel their own skills are under-utilised or their contribution potential misunderstood, whilst senior teams often feel pressure only to present good news.

But working as a team, keeping brand-focused, and playing to strengths gets results.

Beyond essential standard reporting, some enlightened organisations use Board meetings to focus primarily on the difficult stuff, the bits they cannot do alone. And in these instances clarity on brand vision and values matters more than anything else.

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Photo by Jim Witkowski on Unsplash