Science & Sorcery in a Post-Pandemic World

By Robert Sweibel · April 7, 2021

“O brave new world, that has such people in’t”
—William Shakespeare, The Tempest

The Brief

I recently spent a balmy Saturday in Central Park. Strolled past the Shakespeare Garden. It was practically summer in late March. The arrival of spring feels more potent this year than any other that I can recall. Just after the anniversary of the pandemic lockdown, vaccine rollouts and state reopening guidelines tantalize our industry with the prospect of getting back to business as usual. And yet, if we return to normal as we knew it, we’ll have missed the moment. Covid-19 has changed our art form and our industry, but not necessarily our most important asset–our people. Who’s going to thrive on our forever-altered landscape?

The Big Picture

Anyone who’s worked with me knows my fundamental approach to marketing: maximize the science and master the sorcery. Easy peasy, right? This mysteriously simple distillation has informed my marketing philosophy across cities, companies, and art forms. Yet not until recently did I realize how much it has evolved over the years, even as the wording remains the same.

When I first began to articulate this idea, the information age was still in its infancy. The fax machine had yet to become the “game-changer” that had me standing, mouth agape with wonder, in the copy room. Yet I had already asserted my affinity for logical decision-making, long before “data-driven” became a buzzword. I was working in the Box Office of Chicago’s Wisdom Bridge Theatre when I first noticed that I could visualize a sheet of sales statistics as pictures, and interpret them as calls to action.

That data should drive our business decisions seemed elementary.

And yet… I also recognized that the work of performing arts marketing requires a strong natural capacity for what I call sorcery. Or magic. Fairy dust. Special sauce. Because, why wouldn’t the work of the marketing team be imbued with the same elusive quality as the art on stage?

At its best, this quality would manifest itself as inspiration or intuition. It brought an early and compelling element of personality to my work–the human touch. Many creative campaigns of which I’m rightfully proud. At its worst, though, my “sorcery” produced such questionable taglines as, “Save 50% on murder and mayhem!” (Someone had to challenge the assumptions behind group sales for Cymbeline!)

And so as I “graduated” into my 30’s I observed that maybe good marketing was less sorcery than I had previously thought.

Sure enough, today the industry is more science-driven than ever. Jaw-dropping technologies make the fax machine seem as dated as a ticket rack. Consider the abundance of data points! CRM tools, Google Analytics, all manner of surveys, demand-based pricing… And that’s merely the quantitative end of the spectrum. Consider also the evaluative techniques developed to improve our positioning, branding, design, and copywriting. The amount of information available to the 21st century arts marketer is simply staggering.

Now more than ever, arts marketers require deep knowledge across all matters conceptual and analytical in order to harness the power of data and transform it into insight, strategy, planning, and action.

The Big Idea

It turns out, so much of what I used to think was sorcery is just science that I didn’t yet understand. And the interesting thing isn’t that all this science has mitigated the need for sorcery. It hasn’t. What’s interesting is that my conception of sorcery itself has evolved.

It turns out, sorcery is an expression of character. As I guide my consulting clients through this period of turbulent change, my guiding principle remains: Work with the best people. And in my decades of experience, the best people are defined not by skills, which can be taught, but by character, which can’t.

A person’s character–that unquantifiable olio of intelligence, curiosity, creativity, openness, and other attributes–forms long before they find their way to us. Of course skills matter. Yet character is the most important determining factor in an individual’s effectiveness as part of a larger team. It’s the source of the sorcery, and it’s incumbent upon a marketing leader to draw it out of them for the betterment of all.

Do science and data drive our work? No. Science and data merely inspire our work. People drive. The distinction matters. Surround yourself with the right people. They’re the ones who’ll thrive in the brave new world we now inhabit, who’ll conjure up work that’s worthy of our artists’ talents, our audiences’ attention, and our colleagues’ pride.

I want those people around now more than over. And so do you.