An Industry Reckoning: Who’s Going to Meet the Moment?

By Robert Sweibel · February 1, 2021

The Brief 

I recently hosted an Arts Marketing Roundtable for 50-or-so leaders from performing arts organizations around the country. The focus was the future of marketing staffing. As our industry continues to endure the forced suspension of our primary mission, executive and marketing leaders around the world must contend with the prospect of tighter budgets, increased demand on smaller staffs, and the near-certainty of having to deliver digital offerings alongside in-person programming. Following that conversation, I’m inspired to share my own perspective.

The Big Picture

The successful marketing department delivers a positive brand experience that engenders support and advances the company across a variety of executions: fundraising imperatives, educational offerings, and any other mission-driven initiatives. It’s not just about selling tickets.

The shifting consumer landscape of recent decades has put great stress on arts marketing. The work has become much more sophisticated. Even as organizations have outsourced marketing functions, the demands of in-house have only increased.

And then came the pandemic and stay-at-home orders. Organizations around the country have scrambled to launch stopgap digital offerings, move galas and other fundraisers online, and in every way demonstrate their continued relevance, all while relying on limited resources available to smaller staffs. Companies of every discipline have furloughed or laid off staff. Those who remain are working way outside of their job descriptions. A prime example: marketing departments run production for digital events, interfacing directly with artists and creating systems to replicate the live theatrical experience over Zoom for audiences at home. What does this mean for the industry?

The Big Idea

I don’t expect this boundary-blurring staffing to change as we safely re-open our doors. While no one’s clear of what they’re being restored to, one thing seems apparent—smaller organizations with smaller staffs, tighter budgets, and evolving business models that rely on some form of virtual programming alongside in-person production.

With all this, there is one certainty: the workload will increase even more! All with greater demands and fewer hands, at least at first, to get the job done.

So what skills sets do the marketing teams of 2021 and beyond need to meet the challenge? Minimally:

  1. A range of highly specialized skills to execute technology-driven initiatives including digital content creation, production, and distribution; audio; immersive; UX; VR; data management and analysis… The list goes on.
  2. More jacks-of-all-trades with duplicative skill sets who can move fluidly between functional areas (I know, contrary to #1, but life is complicated).

And how do arts organizations at this critical industry juncture determine how best to staff? A modified SWOT analysis for the times can help chart the course:

  • Strengths: What does your organization do well? What activities must continue? What can and must be undertaken in-house?
  • Weaknesses: What does it do least well? Which unproductive initiatives can be discontinued?
  • Opportunities: For what is this moment in history calling out?
  • Threats: How might the organization avoid the pitfalls of understaffing?

And here we are, thinking strategically. Those who know me are aware that strategic planning is pretty much my favorite subject. 

To thrive beyond COVID-19, organizational strategy–a holistic vision and operational plan that drives people-centric marketing strategies–is going to be more critical than ever before.. Ours is an industry facing a reckoning. Who’s going to meet the moment?