Skip to main content

Brand Works: from opera to Google via actionable insight

Just before Covid arrived in March 2020, we held our first Brand Works seminar, kindly hosted by the Royal Albert Hall in their opulent Prince of Wales Room. Our first guest was Lucy Sinclair, now at Google, whose previous arts marketing career saw her lead great change at the Royal Opera House and at the BBC. 

“Perception-shifting requires attention-grabbing”

Lucy Sinclair has a CV to die for, from her time at the BBC (on the original iPlayer team, even choosing its famous pink), through her Royal Opera House (ROH) days, to her recent promotion to Google. She’s easily one of the best marketing brains in the sector.

I’ve been lucky enough to know her since we co-presented at the 2017 Tessitura Conference at Cardiff WMC when Lucy spoke about refocusing ROH marketing and digital teams to eliminate silos, and I explained how Birmingham Hippodrome was embedding brand values after an award-winning relaunch.

At the ROH, Lucy’s segmentation of ‘enthusiasts’, ‘fresh fans’, ‘culture vultures’, ‘experience seekers’ and their ‘learning and participation’ groups highlighted wasteful budget application and questioned accepted practice. How, for example, can an arts organisation claim it’s serious about new audiences when the main focus remains so fixed on a relatively small core of enthusiasts? Re-deploying budgets was risky but led to a major reworking of the overall approach, including a move away from input-heavy repetition, focusing on sales results alone, to a deeper analysis of what really worked (or didn’t) how and why. The data-driven decisions to simplify messaging when targeting detached ‘experience-seekers’ made a big cost-saving difference.

Now at Google as Director of Market Insight (or MI), she enjoys the small task of overseeing the EMEA region of 130 countries with a population of two billion. Lucy’s territory contributes one-third of the search giant’s ad revenue. She talked about how research is nothing without actionable insight and how, early on, she agreed a new focus with her 30-strong team:

“Actionable insight that puts the user in their context
at the heart of business decisions.”

Lucy explained how some recent MI projects:

  • identify useful trends to improve customer orientation,
  • work out rankings for performance variance in the media mix,
  • and assess the boundary between helpfulness and ‘creepiness’ in future product development.

The ‘business question’ that triggers this comes from a specific brief completed by engineers and marketers. The process had echoes of some Hippodrome evaluation toolkits, ensuring creative teams put the beneficiaries at the core of planning instead of presenting comms and fundraising colleagues with last-minute ‘random and repetitive’ projects. In fact, Lucy admitted that the move from arts into super-tech was not that different: aside from the mind-blowing scale, the engineers are essentially the artistic directors.

Google’s own measurement tools dwarf those of any normal business, but they still encourage a ‘hand-made’ perspective, which they refer to quite sweetly as ‘artisanal’. These quick sketches help to agree basic understanding and put a little human ‘gut-feeling’ back in the frame.

So: what do we all want? Convenience, reassurance, value, inspiration and like-minded pals.

Grappling with millions of search terms generates extraordinary visualisations, like colossal intergalactic star-charts, or maybe micro-cellular neurons. These graphics representing changing motivations from general trends to niche interests are so revealing, and recent UK highlights include an increased desire for:

  • convenience (search: ‘near me’)
  • reassurance (search: ‘best’)
  • a redefinition of value based on informed financial decisions (search: ‘promo codes’ or ‘self assessment’)
  • a yearning for new inspiration (search: ‘things to do’)
  • and shared experiences with our tribes (search: ‘how to…’).

The culture of culture.

Lucy acknowledged that well-managed brands drive organisational culture with positive impact on teams (galvanising colleagues around a common purpose, and attracting new diverse talent); on audience-focus (enabling brand differentiation by clarifying messaging); and on the financial health of our businesses (attracting investment and enabling brands to save, raise and earn more money).

However, in many arts charities, our HR teams invest far less on brand values than they might. Conversely, from way before day one and through extensive assessments and leadership training, Google reinforces ‘on-brand behaviour’ with a considerable degree of intensity. Yet their processes are something we could all easily employ using their simple headlines: ‘Drive Amazing Work’, ‘Lift Your People’ and ‘Lead With Respect’.

Lucy highlighted Google’s emphasis on ‘followership’ (nicely demonstrated in this video) as particularly thought-provoking, and really at the core of audience-building. Leaders can set the direction but the first follower often stimulates momentum, an overlooked but valuable quality.