Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Artists, Marketing, and Models

A break from Dances With Films for a bit of a rant. What good are blogs if not to blow off a little steam, hopefully in a Vishnuvian kind of way. My frustration at the moment is an old one – the Art vs. Business tension – specifically how the arts are sold these days.

In film, publishing, fashion, and just about any other art form that is sold to a mass audience, a new dynamic has come into play. When I say new, remember that I'm a Theatre Snob. Old to me is Ancient Greece, and they got their ideas from Egyptian religious ceremonies, which were brand new when Stonehenge was already an historic landmark. For the purposes of this discussion, let's say "new" is 1960's to the current day.

The dynamic I'm talking about is the idea that the creation of the art is separate from the marketing.

I propose that, like it or not, artists are trained marketeers.

No one is going to like this idea – not artists, not marketing executives. Artists like to think they are above all of that commercial stuff. They will talk about history, what they've done in the past, and who they've studied under. Marketing executives like to point to numbers, spreadsheets, focus groups, and their MBA's. There are exceptions, of course, but for the purpose of this discussion, we'll stick with the stereotypes.

What both sides have forgotten is that, when an artist of any sort sits down to work, they are marketing. They are packaging their idea in a marketable way. How many ways could Arthur Miller have told the story of Death of a Salesman? Michelangelo could have painted that ceiling a nice eggshell blue. He didn't. He also threw out the idea of painting the apostles like everyone else was doing. Why? Probably because it had been done – and artists have a deep distain for doing what's been done before. Why? Some will say it's their big egos, and they aren't entirely wrong, but it's also a bad sales idea.

Today, marketing executives almost insist on doing what's been done before. Their models and spreadsheets don't work for products that are new. They need to say to ... whoever they say things to ... "this will work because something just like it worked not too long ago."

Artists tend to say things like, "People love a blue sky... until they see a sunset." We are trained to learn from what worked in the past – that long past I talked about before – and use that knowledge to create something new.

Artists strive to create what has never been made before. Business has a hard time with breaking new ground.

So what's to be done? Do we as artists pocket our new ideas until we can make enough of a name with re-hashes to sell the good stuff off our names alone?

Some seem to think so, but that philosophy reminds me of teenage "nice guys" who see girls falling for the bad boys and thinking all they have to do to get-the-girl is act like a jerk. Ladies, has that ever worked? No.

We all have to be who we are. Artists have to create the product that their inner marketing departments tell them the world needs/wants to buy. For some, that will mean catering to pop culture, and that's fine. Culture that isn't popular isn't culture; it's just a bunch of stuff nobody knows about. Pop Art requires the same skills as Fine Art. It's just as hard to create and sell and no one should put it down – especially other artists.

So what about marketeers? Why should marketing give ground? Their models work, that's why they are models. Give them a product that is like another product and they call tell you within a few thousand dollars how much it will earn. Sales targets can be set up. P&L reports can be created with estimation and actual numbers. Stockholders can rest assured that their money is safe.

A business person who has raised their game to an art will balk at that word, safe. Safe means low returns. Safe means mediocrity. Safe means a tie game and that means no winners.

Show me a Businessperson who plays it safe, and I'll show you someone with a very nice cubicle. Nothing wrong with that. You've got kids to put through college. You've got retirement to think about. You're not in this to change the world, you just want to pay your bills and maybe have a nice vacation once a year. And for you, I say, great. No worries. No one is asking you to stick your neck out, but we who are trying to win would like it if you didn't get in our way.

Many an Artist has said this same thing. We've all ranted to destroy, that's easy, but to be like Vishnu, we must also create.

So how do the competitive Artists and Business People get together for the big win? How do we create a model for a new product?

First: we need mutual respect. Artists have to see the value of focus groups and spreadsheets and not dismiss them without consideration. Nine times out of ten, the old ways will work. Why do it the hard way? Business has to respect that the Artist has done a lion's share of the marketing already. Any work of art that has landed on the desk of a publisher, studio or fashion executive, etc. has gone 95 yards toward the goal line. Business's job is to get those last hardest yards and the best player is the one that got first ones.

Second: we need to make a place in the spreadsheets for products that don't fit the model. One win-oriented executive needs to be able to say to another one, "this is a gut feeling." Then, together, they can go to the cubicle-set and say, "that space we reserved for projects without models, this is it. Start a new model based on this project."

Third: sales staff needs to sell. There was a time when salespeople took pride in their ability to sell. It wasn't politically correct, but they'd say they could sell "rice in China," or "sand to an Arab." Now they say, "I can't sell that, so change it" or "get me something I can sell." When one of these gut-feeling projects hit their desk, then they need to step up to the challenge. Learn why the Artist created the piece in the first place. Figure out why an agent, an editor, and their boss got behind this new thing. Get excited about it and make your clients excited about it as well. Yes, that's all hard work, but you're the last link in a chain of people who have labored for years – sometimes all their lives – for you to sell what they have created. Don't tell them why you can't do it; tell them how you are going to do it. Get your butt out of a cubicle. Send your kids to a better college. Take that vacation you never could afford, and retire with stories about how you changed the world.

No risk, no reward.

Thanks for reading.


Alleged Author said...

I agree that artists are trained marketeers. How else can they provide ways for people to find their work accessible? When we make readers excited by our books then that equals buyers. Great post!

RSMellette said...

Thanks! :) Spread the word, maybe we can make a change in the business... even if it is a small one.