Dear Arts Marketers…let’s stop counting occasionally

I’m an arts marketer. This means, among many other things, that I count things. Many things. Everything from website hits to YouTube views to people in the audience to number of times someone asks me “hey, have you ever thought of [insert marketing idea I’ve most definitely thought of]?”.

My job is to somehow quantify the unquantifiable. I’m not allowed to say “that felt like a big crowd,” or “seemed like folks saw our ad”. I’m supposed to have numbers to back it all up.

It’s hard sometimes to get those numbers. In truth, it’s hard most of the time, because once we get them, inevitably we want more and different numbers.

And there are times when this need to justify our existence via numbers puts us at odds with our artistic or education colleagues. It’s not PC to say it, but it’s true; sometimes we speak different languages, even though we’re on the same team.

That’s why I love moments like today. Here’s the setup in its briefest format.

A local public radio station puts on a festival called Cartoonfest. Basically, they play Bugs Bunny on the big screen in Boston’s Symphony Hall, and invite a bunch of local groups to play classical music in various rooms throughout the day. Kids get their faces painted and scavenge for stickers and otherwise run rampant in one of the most hallowed symphonic music halls in the country.

It’s cute. It’s fun. And today I realized that, despite my hopes otherwise, it’s a pretty lousy marketing/PR event for my little non-profit. See, the local radio station doesn’t carry our radio show, and there’s barely any time to try to collect emails or contact info from people in the audience. Half the time, people arrive 15 minutes into our 30 minute set and leave 10 minutes later. There’s no real way to count the audience.

Depressing, if all we care about is numbers. But I left our 30 minute set anything but depressed.

See, the young musicians we work with at From the Top are exceptional teenagers. There’s no other word for it. They are remarkable. And today, I watched a 15- and 17-year-old sister/brother cello/violin duo put on a 30 minute presentation that was more interesting and thoughtful than most chamber music concerts I’ve been to. They poked fun at each other like siblings do. They played Bach, Schubert, Shostakovich, and Piazzolla. They gave charming little intros to every piece of music they played. They THOUGHT about their audience and how to engage them. They were delightful and played like a million bucks. And did I mention they were 15 and 17?

I watched the crowd of kids as they played. A few were bored or squirmy. But more than a few sat rapt, knees pulled to their chests, completely attuned. I happened to catch this little moment with one of the youngest audience members:

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When was the last time you went to a concert and got that kind of connection with the musicians on stage?

I kept trying to count the audience as I was watching the show, until finally, I mentally threw up my hands and said, “No.” The number of people in the room did not even come close to representing the GOOD that came from this little 30 minutes of music. That two busy teenagers would give up hours of their time to write a script and practice together, and do it with such care and consideration, was worth more than any numbers.

That a few young audience members could see people their age, less than 10 feet away, playing with joy and passion and obvious respect for each other and their music, was entirely worth it. To think that even one kid in that audience might decide to keep playing music because they were inspired – that was enough.

For a few lovely moments today, I simply didn’t CARE what the quantifiable result of this performance was. I was just able to appreciate how making music is wonderful, how listening to music is wonderful, and how supporting young people in doing those things is one of the best jobs a person could have. And one of the most important, if we want our country to be the greatest in the world.

Sometimes, we have to stop counting and simply appreciate when good things are happening. When a few good people do something good. I’m glad I got to do that today.

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Mountaintop words

The other day, I wrote a blog post for work that used the word “awesome” three times in three paragraphs.

Blech.

I was grateful for the colleagues who pointed it out, ever so gently, even as I imagine they were gagging onto their keyboards. I was also fully willing to say “Yeah, that was BAD writing.”

But sometimes, I do good writing. Maybe 10% of that writing ever makes it into actual public circulation. After all, it has to be edited, approved, rewritten, and, more often than not, tempered so as not to offend anyone.

Usually, I can accept this as the nature of a job in non-profit marketing. I mean, if I couldn’t accept it, I’d have lost my mind a long time ago.

But once in a great while, I simply lose all ability to accept it, and I fantasize about saying, out loud, that editing the fun or hope or vision from my words kills a little piece of my soul.

Yeah, I know…melodramatic much?

I suspect my colleagues know I feel this way, and because their heads are cooler than mine, they are secure in the belief that my need to fun or hope or vision is trumped by the need to be safe.

Because safety, well, it’s not likely to get you hurt.

But it’s also not likely to get you to the top of the mountain, where the air is clearest and your heart beats faster and anything is possible.

Up there, the right words might just make a difference.

Trust your instincts…and call your parents

About 5 and 1/2 years ago, I began to lose faith in my gut. The metaphorical gut, you know, the one that is supposed to tell you what’s right, wrong, fishy, dangerous, or perfect. It had always served me well in my professional life (personal, well, that’s for another blog post). My instincts, combined with my experience and training, had generally kept me confident in my abilities and knowledge. They kept me moving forward.

Then, things changed. I started to doubt my gut, to believe that my instincts were going soft. Part of it can be traced to the rapidly changing world of media and digital marketing, which has quickly made my business school and on-the-job training a little obsolete. Part of it was being colossally wrong about a few pretty big things. Part of it is that, in marketing, your every decision and move is usually questioned, because well, let’s face it – you’re often telling people what they don’t want to hear, as in “No, I can’t get that story into the New York Times,” or “No, I wasn’t able to sell out every single ticket in the house.”

And a big part was, and still is, learning new industries. When I joined From the Top, a classical music organization, I harbored, and still do, quite a bit of concern that my lack of knowledge of the art form would make me bad at my job. And while I have learned a great deal about this wonderful genre, anyone who tells you that you can “learn” enough to hold your own with those who grew up obsessed with classical music is flat-out pulling your leg. There is so much lingo, so much history, so much judgment, so much ingrained culture. There are times when it’s exhilarating; at other times, it’s smothering.

Which makes moments like the one I’m about to describe even more wonderful.

I have this colleague in my current job. He is a self-appointed music man, a talented composer who is always making sure that we, as an organization, respect classical music in the way that we should in our work. It’s not easy. Many of us didn’t grow up playing instruments; many of us are theater people and administrators. Our hearts are in the right place, but there’s so much we don’t know, and he helps keep us on track. I love this about him, because he manages to do it in a kind and collaborative way. He helps rookies like me understand what I need to know, and doesn’t make me feel stupid while doing it.

So yesterday, I was eager to talk to him. You see, we’d recently commissioned a new work from a young composer. I’d listened to it, and I was smitten; I thought it was fantastic. In that “holy crap, I think I just listened to something that is going to be played by orchestras a hundred years from now” way, I was giddy with delight.

But then, I stopped myself. After all, I know nothing really, about what makes a “good” concerto. I often think things are good that others dismiss as fluff. I mean, I like disaster movies, for heaven’s sake, so that alone should call my taste into question. Anyway, I wanted to talk to this colleague, to see if what I thought I’d heard in that music was indeed “right.”

The next day, after a meeting, I tracked him down. He look exhausted, beaten down in a way I hadn’t seen before; clearly the last thing he wanted to do was talk to me. But I had knocked on the door, he was too nice to send me away, and when I said “I thought the piece was fantastic,” he nodded, and said “Yep. It’s good.”

“I wasn’t sure if I had it right,” I said.

“You have instincts,” he replied, almost, but not quite, cracking a smile. “You should trust them, they’re good.” I walked away smiling, more than a little lighter in my step, and warmer in my heart. What a wonderful thing to say to a colleague, I thought.

I pondered blogging about that moment, but it didn’t really seem like a big enough deal. To me, sure, but to the rest of you?

Then I found out why he hadn’t cracked a smile. It turns out that his father had died earlier that week. So yeah, now it’s blog worthy.

To be so sad, and so generous…just…wow.

I now find myself thinking of his dad, whom I never met. By all accounts, he was a wonderful man. He would have to be, I think, to teach his son to be that kind of human.

6 tips for working with marketing people

This post is for all of y’all out there who have the dubious distinction of working with marketing people. That is most of you, I realize, so listen up.

We marketing folks are strange. We somehow thought it would be fun to make a living at trying to convince over-stimulated and under-paid humans to do what we think they should do. We also thought it would be totally awesome to work in a field that is always short-changed in the budget cycle, where the metrics change daily if they ever existed at all, and where every single thing we do or say is up for interpretation or criticism.

Sounds fun, right?

It can be. Especially when you have great colleagues who understand these 6 things about working with marketing people:

6. More often than not, you’re the messenger. We get that.

We promise we won’t shoot you. Unless we’re jerks, and if we are, well, all bets are off. Give us hell.

5. We really do want your feedback. Really. Even if we start weeping into our desk when you give it.

True marketing people know that we don’t have all the answers. Consequently, neither do you, but more often than not, your feedback will make our work better. Even if it stings. So never, never hesitate to give it to us.

4. When we cry “WHY?????” after you say “This doesn’t work for me”, we really do want to know, and we are expecting you to give us real reasons. Even if it sounded like we’re begging a higher being for mercy. 

This is what’s happening in our heads, all in the space of about 3 seconds:

“Oh, God, they have the proof, they’re gonna say they love it. No, moron, they’re not. They’re gonna hate it. Quit it, loser, they will probably like some of it…oh god. They hate that line. They are SO WRONG. It’s perfect. Why can’t they see it’s perfect? They’re just being difficult. Damn it, why can’t I find a job where people understand my brilliance?”

2 seconds later: “Oh, Jeez. I’m useless. I’m terrible at this. How have I managed to fool everyone into thinking I know what I’m doing? Maybe I haven’t. Maybe they just humor me because they feel bad…”

1 second later: “Dammit, they’re probably right. It’s not right yet. Dammit. Now I have to try to figure out what’s missing and fix it.”

This will run on a repetitive cycle in our heads for a moment or two, so just move on to #3.

3. Don’t let our initial hostility to the feedback freak you out.

We try really, really hard to take all feedback with graciousness, but sometimes, after all our work and a lifetime of people saying “have you thought of this?”, it’s not possible. Today, I had a colleague tell me that the words I had AGONIZED over weren’t right. It hurt. It stung. This colleague was super-wonderful and said “Well, why don’t you think about it overnight?” and I snapped back, “I don’t want to think about it. It’s good enough as it is.” Luckily, this colleague is also my friend, is awesome, and she knew I was just being pissy (at least I hope she knew). She let me rant, and then we settled down to figuring out a better solution.

2. When we say “It’s good enough” – we don’t really mean it. 

It’s a blow to the ego when you put what you think is your best work into something and it’s not good enough. But if we are worth our salary, we will come around. We will brainstorm and nitpick and brainstorm some more and we’ll come up with another idea, another phrase, another concept. Granted, they all might not be good. They might be so bad that we start laughing and can’t stop, and that will make it all better. Eventually, we’ll sober up, put on our big girl panties, and get it done.

1. Even when we all think we’ve got it absolutely, totally, finally, at last, completely right, someone out there will give it a fleeting glance and tell us it’s wrong. 

Sometimes, we’ll start over. And sometimes, we’ll ask that you trust us.

And that, folks, is what it’s all about.