A Posting with the Posters
When the word ‘marketing’ is mentioned in relation to theatre, the first image that tends to come to mind is of a bright, colourful poster for an upcoming show, featuring big, bold titles and a pithy tagline. Plastered over buses, peering out of bus-stops, adorned proudly on the huge glass windows which welcome the audiences in to Dundee Rep, these posters are precision designed to capture the public’s attention and light the first sparks which may later fire their interest in the season’s performances. It is thought on occasion that a marketing campaign starts and ends with these posters, but in reality, as I discovered when backstage at the Rep’s marketing department, they are only one small part of a greater task: to act as the outward face of the theatre company for all-comers, including audience, press and collaborators. It takes more to sell a show – indeed, to sell the idea of an entire theatre – than a pretty picture and the name of a big star above the title, and in this blog, I discover why.
At the entrance to the great corridor of wonders that comprises the backstage of the Rep, I am met by Head of Marketing Graham King, who shows me into the department office. Compared to many of the other offices I have seen backstage at the Rep, this room is positively Spartan in its décor, despite the production images, graphs and calenders bedecked in every little corner of the space. There is a sense of order here, a sense that every little piece of paper, every small item, is in just its right place. Except, curiously, the staff, who are conspicuous by their absence. Graham is manning the office on his own today, a daunting task considering the staff reshuffle coming to the department, including the hiring of an on-site designer (the Rep productions are often reliant on bringing in off-site designers for their shows). So it makes sense for the two of us to settle into a more formal discussion of the purpose and importance of marketing. Given the lack of staff and activity today, it would be strange to have me simply observe and report for the blog, given that there would be very little to see.
Or so I think. Immediately as we sit down to chat, the phone rings and Graham is called away, rushing out of the office to welcome an expected visitor. When he returns, he tells me that, because marketing works largely cross-department, it is concerned enormously with people, and so the activity that comes from liaising with so many people can become somewhat frantic, even on less busy days such as this. Indeed, it is not just the audience with whom the marketing department must keep in constant contact: it is imperative that good relations are maintained with other outside sources such as advertisers (in the case of the Rep, DC Thomson) or the press. They aid just as much in the promotion of an upcoming show as a poster, thanks to reviews, production images and advance hype, so it helps to have them on side.
As we settle into our discussion, the reasons for this become clear: the job of marketing a show is to make EVERY performance seem accessible and interesting, even if their content is unusual or non-commercial. A theatre such as the Rep may be funded to produce exciting new theatre, resonant and artful as it is entertaining, but it also needs to make its money back, and this does inevitably mean having to make concessions to mainstream populism. Indeed, Graham tells me that any marketing campaign is created with the intention of costing less than 15% of the performance’s overall gross. Therefore, revenue is just as important in the dictation of the marketing process as creativity, and as such, part of the Rep’s business plan is for thrillingly theatrical new shows such as Further Than The Furthest Thing and the National Theatre of Scotland collaboration Let The Right One In to be balances alongside resoundingly popular crowd-pleasers such as The Mill-Lavvies and Sunshine on Leith. Art and commerce sit comfortably side by side at the Rep, with the big earners providing commercial and financial support for the riskier ventures.
With this in mind, our conversation turns to how a marketing campaign works to bring in large audiences for every show. The trick, I am told, is to campaign with the intention of appealing to everyone, from theatre aficionados to casual visitors. Therefore, a campaign needs to communicate effectively to a wide range of patrons across an even wider set of platforms, which the explosion of social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter has made all the easier. To begin, the language which is used to describe a show – either in seasonal leaflets, newspaper articles or social media postings – must be warm, inviting and understandable: ‘magazine style’, in Graham’s words. An image that both succinctly sums up the purpose and spirit of the performance is also required to both hook in audiences and ensure they do not feel cheated. Sometimes, the title alone is enough: if it is a well-known or popular performance, an enormous, bold interpretation of the title will be all that is needed to attract a large viewer base already familiar with the material. Still, for lesser known shows, images are powerful, too. New shows need indelible new images to stand them in immediate good stead with the public as enticing and exciting new properties that will be worth their time.
Which is more important, I ask: title or image? Such a consideration is based on so many factors, Graham replies. The show itself, the audience, the creators bringing it to life. Whatever will both portray the show effectively and at the same time bring in the audiences. Does image truly matter that much? Yes, says Graham. Should it? A pause. Probably not. Theatres, for all the great art they are capable of producing, need to make money, like any other business. And the marketing department is the tip of the spear for ensuring that this money is made. With that, I depart from the marketing offices, my head full of questions and considerations about the nature of art, commercialism, and audience perception. Who would have thought that my blogging adventure would take such an intellectual turn so quickly?