Ellen Burgin, Chris Grady, Dan McGarry, Alice Massey, Alister Lownie, Benji and others (apologies if I didn’t catch or remember names!)

This was a sprawling session which included some really great contributions from theatre marketers (or former theatre marketers). This is a summary of my key insights – no claims made as to how the conversation took place “objectively”.

After the fact, I propose distinguishing two possible approaches to this question:

1. The Philosophical approach: i.e. what are ethics of theatre marketing? and what are the base assumptions about what marketing is FOR? This then shapes…
2. The Practical approach: how to DO marketing better, how to BE better marketers, or LEAD marketers in a more effective, respectful, creative way.
I wanted to focus on #1 first – as with many D&D issues, it felt pertinent to tear a lot of stuff down and dream a bit, before figuring out the practical steps needed for rebuilding. But, of course, the practical issues were unavoidable in qualifying why we make philosophical value judgements. And naturally, we ended up with way more questions than we started with. (We also didn’t explore angles to do with neoliberal capitalism and consumerism but that was a very optimistic expectation…)


Is marketing just lying?

• Sometimes it feels like it is. Some form of white-lying/spin is UNAVOIDABLE if your work involves marketing - as a producer or marketer, if you’re trying to sell a show (especially on someone else’s behalf) that you KNOW is bad, it makes your job very very difficult.
• If a show is selling well, the art is praised, but if a show is selling badly, the marketer is blamed!
• The privilege of being able to walk away from selling something you don’t believe in is a luxury/privilege few people can afford, especially if you’re part of a team and not part of the artistic/programming decision-making processes.
• Lying to audiences was agreed to be morally objectionable, not to mention impractical for building healthy relationships (see “Trust” below), but where to draw the line (i.e. what is an acceptable amount of “spin”, what is a “lie”) is difficult to pin down. Ultimately, it’s down to the organisation/institution and its leaders to decide what is morally acceptable.
• Do we have a MORAL responsibility to our audiences to let them know NOT to come and see something we think is bad? The group (I think) ultimately agreed that audiences could surprise you – it is worth keeping an open mind about audiences and their tastes. They could absolutely love something that you, as an Enlightened Theatre Maker, dislike.
• Even if it’s one of the worst things ever made, it’s worth bearing in mind that most shows/projects will have something valuable – some angle or some aspect – which is worth experiencing (and selling). Think about whether you’re selling it to the right audience! Maybe you’ve misunderstood who the work has value for…? (Although sometimes the work is just BAD and that’s the unavoidable reality).
• Marketing something that you think is bad is also part of giving art space to fail (and maybe fail better) – important and I feel like the relationship between marketing and failure requires MORE EXPLORATION (see below).
• There was also briefly a discussion about the ethics of using social media for advertising – targeting using algorithms feels necessary for finding new audiences, but also is benefiting off of breaches to privacy. I feel it’s important to acknowledge and be aware of how the integrity of the work may be compromised by the tools/methods used to sell it. More to think about…


• Marketing feels like it’s fundamentally based on trust (as a social dynamic, but also as a “currency” or tool) – trust can be built or eroded between audiences, artists, producers, companies and venues.
• Improving or building trust entails (re-examining) how a bunch of different relationships work – the one that feels most present for this conversation is about the trust between audiences and people presenting shows (i.e. artists/producers/venues).
• We are increasingly canny and suspicious consumers. If audiences feel “tricked” into coming or are caught up in “overhype” (e.g. by marketing or branding which sells something, which ends up being completely different), they will grow to distrust whoever is selling them things and might not come back.
• One way to combat may be to promote “authenticity” in marketing… but what does this mean? Is TRANSPARENCY (i.e. being brutally honest when our artistic efforts fail or otherwise are Things you shouldn’t waste money on) the same as being authentic?
• Some people said that they tried to do that and would appreciate it if other companies did the same – there is something refreshing about someone saying “Yep, we fucked up.” At the same time, is this only possible if you’re not going to be CRUSHED by the failure? Is this only for powerful/influential parties? Can emerging/independent/unsupported artists afford to be this honest?

The marketer’s autonomy

• We must all (re)iterate and push the importance of marketing in an organisation’s/venue’s activities. One participant said: “Marketing is too important to be left to the marketing department” – acknowledging how vital marketing is to audience development, marketing and artistic programming should be far more integrated than they are at present.
• This means restructuring the hierarchy between marketers and programmers – there is a very prevalent view of ART FIRST, SELL SECOND. Instead, they should be two sides of the same coin and should work in tandem to construct an artistic programme. Crucially, the marketer cannot be playing second fiddle to “artistic vision” – they must be part of it. This calls for much closer relationships (and much greater levels of trust) between teams in charge of programming and teams in charge of marketing; let’s do away with atomising these responsibilities.
• Similarly, marketers must be given AUTONOMY to develop deep relationships with audiences and reject/veto work which they feel like audiences would have no interest in seeing (with the important caveat that they must always be prepared to be surprised by their audiences).
• Marketing departments are more often than not massively overstretched and under-resourced. Yet even in smaller, less-resourced organisations, it’s a question of PRIORITY with expending resources. Again, this goes back to reiterating the importance of marketing. Additionally, we should be thinking far more broadly about the responsibilities marketing entails – it’s not just about drafting tweet copy, it’s about connecting with audiences and crafting a connected story through the art. If possible/appropriate, let marketers leave the office, see the work, just stand in the foyer, meet and talk to audiences, explore communities! (Marketers, you could be doing these things or pushing for them)
o I’m acknowledging that the REALITY of a marketing officer/manager’s work makes this very difficult, especially if you work for a venue that has loads of different work coming through the door and it’s a delicate balancing act. But it should be a mindset that is adopted by leadership as well, and explicit efforts should be made to carve out appropriate space for marketing departments to not just make “valuable social media content” , but also do some valuable socialising IRL.
o Also for touring, this is surely very difficult and not something that can be solved within one company. See also everything else that’s already been said about the broken touring model.
Finding audiences
• Data (“data, data, data!”) is important in establishing the baseline. Data can tell you who is coming and how you’re getting their bums on seats, but crucially can tell you who isn’t there.
• There were mixed feelings about the use of segmentation. It feels like a good and appropriate use of available data to attract bums on seats, but also feels like putting audiences into inflexible boxes, pre-judging them and not allowing for deviation (vicious cycle). If I’m targeting segment A and segment A turns up, that’s good but means I can’t be surprised by audiences I’ve neglected. Conversely, if segment A doesn’t turn up, that’s bad and I’m still also neglecting audiences…?

(Re)defining “success” in marketing

• Can we reimagine what marketing efforts look like? How can marketing efforts be more organically integrated with the artistic work, so that they are PART OF THE ART? So often, marketing feels like a completely separate activity that is done after the art is made. Yet when we think about reach (especially through social media), your marketing efforts are likely to reach a much larger audience than your show/project. Are we squandering the potential for these to expand the impact of the art beyond the confines of a single venue or space? How can we, as an ostensibly CREATIVE sector, ACTUALLY BE CREATIVE about our marketing? Not flash mobs or gimmicks – we might be able to use all the same tools we currently use – but thinking far more carefully about WHAT and WHO the work is for, and letting that shape the way its marketed. No easy answers here, just provocations as per.
• Marketing gurus talk about marketing as storytelling – are we as committed and empowered to tell stories in marketing departments as in the rehearsal room or on stage?
• Other ways of characterising success in marketing efforts:
o Recognition of artistic labour
o Coherent and consistent story through branding and company identity
o Wellbeing of marketing team
o Quality work being recognised
o Critical recognition
o Long-term success and achievement of artistic visions

Models/examples (only a few were mentioned)

• Middle Child
• Eclipse (getting volunteers from the community to help sell the show “hyper-locally” – engineering word of mouth.

Other tips and solutions…?

• Build (much) stronger relationships between programming and marketing
• Recognise the co-dependence between marketing, programming and audience developing
• Work together to set realistic targets
• Work to give marketing departments longer lead in times
• One of the more controversial suggestions: Fire marketing departments who don’t care about theatre!
• Reimagine how marketing teams are structured – for venues, Chris floated a strategy which distributes marketing person-hours across more people i.e. 10 people working 10 hours a week, instead of 3 people working full time. Each team member is then assigned hyper-local areas/communities to engage with and are in a much better position to advise what shows work for which audiences. (They also need the chance to VETO marketing efforts for their communities!)
• Marketers and producers (and other typically office-based folk) need to do FIELDWORK.
• There is a lot to be gained by being positive, rather than negative, about the potential of marketing.
• Let yourself fail, but fail better. Let artists fail, but fail better.
• Flyers might be kind of pointless EXCEPT as business cards and in Edinburgh.