Thursday, July 25, 2013

Thoughts on Sponsor Relationships

I recently traveled back to my native California, and while I was there couldn’t help doing a bit of research. Arts funding is a whole different ballgame in the USA, where we don’t have anything like the Arts Council. Most mid-large scale theatre companies are 10% (or less) grant funded (as opposed to the norm of 50% or more in the UK). Independent productions and start up companies have even less of a chance, and tend to rely primarily on crowd funding and box office splits.

One of my favorite case studies is California Shakespeare Theatre, who produce four shows every summer in their outdoor theatre, and run a year-round education programme of community workshops. They have an operating budget of around $4 million, broken down as follows:

8%          Grant Funded (Foundation and Government)
47%        Earned income
27%        Individual Giving
3%          Corporate Sponsorship

Even though the corporate sponsorship is the smallest of those figures it is that which I’d like to focus on (and remember, 3% of 4million is still £120,000, so hardly a figure to be sniffed at!). They have a rather unique and highly effective way of taking advantage of that relationship and creating a community that keeps the sponsors coming back again and again.

At the start of every performance there is a curtain speech, usually given by the Artistic Director Jonathan Moscone.  After welcoming the audience and dealing with the obligatory health and safety notices he thanks the main corporate sponsors and points out any donors who happen to be in the audience. Regular sponsors include Bart (our local equivalent of the Underground), classical radio, and usually a couple hotels and airlines. But the best bit comes at the end.  He invites the audience to join in thanking ‘our longest standing sponsor.’ The regulars are well trained and a couple hundred voices chime in with “Peet’s Tea and Coffee!!!”

Is it tacky? Possibly. But is also builds a sense of community, and leads to a friendly chatter with a neighbour who may be new and have not picked up the name. It works in favour of all parties. Throughout the year I’m more likely to go to Peet’s than anywhere else, because I know they support my favorite local Shakespeare company. And when I go to Peet’s I inevitably think of Cal Shakes, and remember that I should buy my tickets soon. 

I have returned from the trip incredibly keen to see if this model can be replicated this side of the pond. There is not (yet) quite as strong a culture of corporate giving, but with cuts to ACE funding and a rise in the perceived importance of Corporate Social Responsibility (you can add ‘CSR’ to the ever-increasing list of acronyms you should know) it’s worth a shot. Here are some very basic tips for how to start a these relationships:

  • Identify sponsors that are relevant to you, whether because of locality or topical interest in your work.
  • Identify what they will get in return. Will you drive more customers to their business? Get more people to subscribe to their services? Raise awareness of their cause?
  • Have a clear action plan and let them know how you will achieve this (programme adds, speeches, offering coupons for their business… or more creative ways)
  • Offer exclusivity. Having both Costa and Starbucks as sponsors is probably a conflict of interest.
  • Keep in mind the scale of what you are doing. Depending on the size of your audience and the length of your run, you are probably reaching hundreds rather than thousands of people, and so think about a realistic return on investment. If they put £1000 in are they likely to get that much value back (either monetarily or through social cred)?
  • Remember to thank them! Let them know about the success of your production and what a difference the contribution made. Do this both personally and publicly. They are much more likely to give again. And thank them even if they say no (though maybe not publicly… that’ll just come across as sarcasm.)

The worst you can be told is no. And you probably will be told no a lot. The hard truth is that there are a lot of people out there looking for money. But persistence hopefully pays, so why not give it a try?

And let us know about your successes! Or let us know if you have an idea and want help putting it into practice!

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Up up and away... company launch and beyond

Our launch event on Friday went more smoothly than we had dared to hope. With a crowd of about 25 from a wide range of backgrounds we ate, drank, networked and, for the first time, I spoke about Narus to a group rather than through the one-on-one conversations I have previously been having. 

Asking the questions
This was both exciting and terrifying. I felt rather like a stage-mom sending my child our for her debut performance: hoping she'll remember her lines, hoping people will recognise her talent, or, at the very least, not laugh her off the stage.

At the end of my talk I put forward a number of questions. None of these questions are new, and yet we still ask them over and over again.

The Eternal Questions: 
How do we connect isolated networks? 
What frustrates you most? 
Where are the training opportunities for disabled performers? 
How do we engage with new audiences? 
What new people can be drawn into the conversation? 
How do we build a financially sustainable theatre? 
What gets in the way of creating art? 
How do you sell yourself without selling out? 
What action can we take NOW?

One thing that came out of the event was a realisation that more networking and brainstorming events would be a positive thing. It was wonderful during the evening to see people not only very responsive to what we wanted to achieve, but to see them forming connections with each other, and that part of our role, in the true spirit of collaboration and social enterprise, can be to help facilitate those cross-disciplinary conversations. 

This will be a chance to continue asking questions, to propose answers to them, and to find actions we can take to bring about the changes we want to see. As I said on Friday we're at a turning point with the economic crisis bringing cuts in so many areas, both in the arts and in disability benefits. Difficult as times are this also brings with it an opportunity, not to fight to salvage old models, but to re-invent our sector (and society) as we would like to see it. And who better than creative people to lead the way? 

This is where I see an overlap in our work and the social model of disability. Arguable all barriers we face, whether physical, financial, intellectual or emotional, are the product of a society that tries to prescribe a certain mode of operation. If we as human beings have the power to construct these barriers we have equal power to tear them down. It may be easier said then done, working to change institutions with centuries of ingrained mentalities. It requires a balance between understanding current systems so we can access, infiltrate, and change. As Picasso said "learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist."

All of this might seem very philosophical. But philosophy underpins much of what we do. We just have to make sure we don't stop there. It is though translating philosophy to action that we achieve our goals. And getting together in real time to talk and mobalise will, we hope, lead to that action. A bit of wine and cake along the way certainly won't hurt the process either. 

Narus Lauch Cake
A cake to commemorate the event
We will be publishing our future events via social media, and have started a mailing list for any who would like to receive personal updates, which you can sign up to via our blog or website. 

In the mean time, we welcome responses to our questions (or any new questions you would like to add!) either here on our blog, by e-mail or through conversations in person. 

It is just the start of the journey for us, and we are deeply grateful to everyone who has supported us thus far.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

We Need to Talk About Personal Branding

We asked our master of marketing, Tricia Howey, to respond to Jessica Holland's article I Am Not A Brand  published on Ideas Tap. Here are her thoughts and some top tips...

There’s been a lot of talk in creative channels about the pitfalls of personal branding. “What is personal branding?” “What if I don’t want to be a brand?” “I’m a person, not a brand!” So on and so forth.

All of these are reasonable concerns. It makes sense that many creative professionals would hate to have the evil vultures of a corporate mentality, the big bad M-word (marketing, FYI), controlling and possibly limiting their creative flow. I am completely sympathetic; as an individual I am completely put off by the idea of having to present myself as a concept or a product. It feels wrong, and it feels unproductive. Yet this is where we should stop and make a clear distinction: defining your personal brand does not mean defining your person; the two are completely separate. Not making this distinction seems to cause many creative professionals to feel distressed.

To explain this further, I’ll use my own experiences to illustrate. I must admit, however, I do work for the dark side...the marketing side (though I’d like to think I use my powers for good).

I’ve been a marketing professional since the tender age of 7. I know, that’s pretty young, but we do it differently in the U-S-of-A. We are raised as miniature salespeople. As a child I was thrust into the capitalist world – first with school bake sales, next raffle-ticket hawking. Then I was thrown into the extreme universe of Girl Scout cookie selling, where timid young ladies are sent out into the mean streets (a.k.a. their parents’ workplace) and told to “SELL! SELL! SELL!”

My finest salesperson achievement came at 13 when I sold enough premade sandwiches to not only finance a 3-day school trip to northern Michigan/Canada, but even fund my frivolous spending whilst there (wish I still had my giant novelty Canada pencil). It was at times daunting for the shy child I was, but I now feel that it really helped instil an understanding of income, and respect for the process of sales and marketing.

All along the way I picked up the importance of “the brand.” For the most part, Girl Scout cookies sold themselves. But the sandwiches, well, I had to make my case to sell those not-so-tasty treats. The brand was me. When it came down to it, little 13-year-old Tricia had to develop a Unique Selling Position, or USP; I had to reflect to my buyers, my supporters, just why they should buy from me and how well they’d be spending their money  – what I could offer them that nobody else could. I was very much selling them my personal brand, but this brand didn’t represent me outside of my petite saleswoman shoes. The brand was just a tool I used to help accomplish my sales goals. Admittedly I had some help from friends along the way, but that’s where I’m going here.

In the world of marketing, there’s a very famous line: “Don’t try to do everything yourself. Find a horse to ride.” In 1981 this nugget of wisdom was in response to the newly invented concept of personal branding, created by Al Ries and Jack Trout in the book Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind.  It’s a great concept: success doesn’t come from trying hard, but rather from planning hard and utilising the tools available to you (it’s not what you know, but who you know, right?).

I was fortunate to learn the most valuable lessons of personal branding at an early age: defining my goals, what I represented, and using the resources (in my case, connections) available to me.

I appreciate that my experiences haven’t been the case for everyone. And I do respect that as a creative professional these things can still seem off-putting and commercial. So I’d like to suggest a change in approach and offer this: Defining a personal brand does not need to become some big corporate-level problem. On the contrary, consider it as a way to outline your objectives: it is simply you having control over how the world views you and your work.

Good story, but what can I do to define my personal brand?

One of the biggest resources, or shall we say “horses,” we use these days are social media. We’ve become instant PR people. The ability to self-promote is endless. It’s a great tool, but as we all know it can be taken too far and become detrimental to our work or lives. Self-promotion has been mixed up and perceived as the one way to personally brand yourself/your business. But that’s simply not the case. Personal branding should be considered a process, and self-promotion is merely one tool used to help build that process.

If you’re feeling daunted by the task of defining your personal brand, don’t worry! In reality, most people haven’t come anywhere near working this out. What they, and possibly you, have done is nailed the self-promotion aspect. 

So let me suggest this: with a little forethought, you can have better control over your work and its promotion. Before you worry about having to “label” yourself, consider these steps to starting to define your personal brand with the goal of being a better professional communicator:
1)   Define your goal: what do you want to achieve through your creativity?
·       Perhaps think, what do you/your work stand for?
2)   How are you going to reach that goal?
·       Yes, we could say “What’s your USP?” but that’s marketing talk. I think that phrase is creatively limiting. So instead, focus on how you envision yourself coming off to the public, what you want them to know about you.
·       How you can make you/your work stand out? Think of what you’re trying to offer, how you feel it provides value to others.
3)   Plan your attack, lay out your strategy!
·       Define the language and tone you’re going to use for your business as this may be separate from your personal tone. Keep this mindset when you’re in work mode.
·       Remember, it’s not about what you say, but how you say it, so be thoughtful! Don’t publish every thought that immediately comes to mind.
·       For example: good practice might be to pre-write your tweets or Facebook posts in advance. Set specific times each day to use the networks and communicate with your audience. Give yourself time to thoughtfully perform these promotional/admin type tasks, but then get back to the creative work.

If all of this is still leaving a bad taste in your mouth, and you perhaps feel like your work speaks for itself and doesn’t need to be branded, consider this: personal branding is organisation - organisation to help you be more successful. Don’t overthink it, just consider it necessary housekeeping to ultimately furthering your creativity whilst ensuring that your audience perceives your creative output in the way YOU intended.

Good luck!


Tricia Howey is a Coordinator for Narus Productions. In addition to her childhood exploits, she has many years experience in marketing and PR in the creative industries.

Friday, April 12, 2013

The Creative Entrepreneur: Combining art and business

This is the story of how and why Narus came to be. It is a rather personal story, but an important one in understanding why the company functions the way it does, and, in the spirit of our people-centred approach I feel it is worth sharing. 

It all started with the concept of Entrepreneurship. 

Entrepreneur is a pretty hot word these days. I don’t think I even knew what it was a couple of years ago, but now I see it everywhere. It seems to be the hope for the future in my generation graduating from university into a time when jobs and funding are being cut left right and centre. We are the ray of light in the doom and gloom of the job crisis. 

On finishing my MA back in September I happen to have lucked into a new scheme known as the Graduate Entrepreneur Visa. It replaces the post-study work visa which allowed graduates from UK Higher education institutions to stay in the country for two years and work, which was was cut in April 2012. 

The Entrepreneur visa is meant, I suppose, to weed out the brightest and best. It is for:
graduates who have been identified by UK Higher Education Institutions as having developed world class innovative ideas or entrepreneurial skills, to extend their stay in the UK after graduation to establish one or more businesses in the UK.
I often describe it as being a bit like some twisted reality tv show, minus the potential for public shame or glory. Angels Den meets Survivor. You have one year to build a successful business or get voted off the island.

But given that I wanted to stay in England and had no immediate marriage prospects, I had few other options. Having been endowed by nature with more than my due share of stubbornness I set about playing their game.  This meant I had about four weeks to come up with this world-class innovative business plan.

Floundering around for an idea I started attending conferences and expos and quickly learned that rule number one of Entrepreneurship is that “problems” become “opportunities.” At first I was somewhat resistant to this opportunity, but have eventually realised that it is a rather valuable viewpoint to hold. 

Now, it is worth saying that there are many flavours of Entrepreneurs. At their lowest they seek not only to capitalise on but to perpetuate problems, and thus guarantee themselves endless profit. Then they start making even more money by selling you a book or a seminar on how to get rich (but the meta-wealth market is a whole rant I had best not begin.) People who in one breath extoll the power of unselling by showing you slides of the extra features their Ferrari, and in the next extoll the virtues of outsourcing your secretaries from the Philippines because you can pay them a fraction of the cost. 

At the other end of the spectrum are those who genuinely want to make the world a better place. Who take a problem, and don't just patch it over but come up with a creative new solution. You are less likely to see this sort of person standing onstage at Entrepreneurs 2013 (though there may be a few that slip in), but these are the people who truly make a difference across all levels of society. 

The idea of Narus was first cemented when I was at a rather soul-destroying trade show listening to pitch after pitch on the values of social media marketing,  SEO (that's search engine optimisation... or in lay persons terms, where you show up in google) and how to convert all that traffic into sales. I'm afraid these pitches were aimed much more at the former type of Entrepreneur, more concerned with their own profit than in giving people something they actually need. 

But a thought struck me... why can't we more actively use these techniques and tools to promote really worthwhile things? 

In the course of my MA I worked with many theatre companies (and spoke to even more) who struggled to bring in audiences. Many of these companies have website thrown up sometime in the early 2000's that hadn't been touched since, and who simply didn't have the time and energy (let alone the expertise) to run an e-mail marketing campaign. Their directors sometimes serve quadruple duty as production manager, marketing, and accountant. 

I also started thinking about my favorite London theatre company, Graeae. From the very beginning its founder Nabil Shaban was out there promoting the company (before they even had a show in fact... you can read his fascinating article on the early history of Graeae here.) That grounding in addition to the strong artistic team is part of what had enabled Graeae to become the force for change and world class and innovative that it is today. 

The business and the arts world are often so completely separate from one another, but maybe it's time for that to change. Time to move beyond the cliché of the struggling actor or director, and the expectation that people should be satisfied to be scraping through by the skin of their teeth. I firmly believe that this can be done without sacrificing quality of work, and that it will build a more sustainable arts sector. 

However, business is not the strength of every artist, nor should it have to be. That is why we collaborate. This was the problem-turned-opportunity that Narus was created to capitalise on. As we say in our tagline, we want to facilitate creativity; to provide creative people the support to do what they do best without having to constantly worry about whether their next grant will come through.

We may not yet have the perfect solution but we are committed to trying, and our business model is such that it is in our interest for everyone to succeed (not least so they can pay us for our services!)

On a personal note I have an extra drive to succeed. If i don't I could well get chucked out of the country. If that isn't motivation, then I don't know what is! 

But have no fear... this will not taint my morals or my commitment to building a good society as well as a good business. I would much rather go back to California than become the next Simon Coulson. 

My commitment to our clients, staff, audiences, and anyone else I come into contact with is to do my utmost to make the world a better place through collaboration and creative solutions.



Wednesday, March 27, 2013

A noble cause?

Our website will tell you the practical nuts and bolts of what we do, but there is a second level to the work, and that is a specific desire to support artist working in the field of what might be broadly termed ‘Disability Arts’.
There are a number or reasons for our interest in supporting this fairly niche category of artists, which will be explored over the next few weeks. As a starting point however it seems prudent to tackle some common misconceptions about this field, which extend to misconceptions about what Narus, as a company, is trying to accomplish.

Do-gooding vs. doing good

If I had a penny for every time someone has told me how ‘good-hearted’ or ‘generous’ I am for the field I want to work in, I would be financially secure for the next year at least.  It is one of the most common responses to the mention of the word ‘disability.’

Of course, I like to flatter myself that I am both of those things, and a generally fabulous person, but that is a whole separate matter.   

My interest in disability arts is not about helping the ‘less fortunate’ or ‘helpless.’ Applying any of those terms to most of the artists I know is a completely laughable matter. No, my interest started with an admiration for the creativity inspired by different ways of accessing information and navigating the world; the visual music of sign language, the vivid pictures of audio description.

Once captivated, I discovered that th ere was an intensely political side to this world as well. The fire and determination that drove many of the artists I met appealed to my radical-California-girl side. Acceptance of difference ought to be a matter of common human decency, not a position of angelic superiority.

As a non-disabled advocate, one of my greatest fears is being taken for what Nabil Shaban (founder of Graeae Theatre Company) would refer to as ‘an able-bodied careerist  "do-gooder." I have been involved with the disability arts community too long to imagine anyone would stand for that.

Disability Arts isn’t Dramatherapy

A second common assumption when ‘disability’ is mentioned is that the work will be amateur or therapeutic… more focused on process than product or on keeping people who have nothing else to do entertained for a day.

While drama therapy as a field in itself is certainly a useful field it is quite separate area in which Narus primarily works.

We are, first and foremost, about supporting people who are, or are aspiring to be, professional artists who produce quality work and make a living doing so. This includes professional performances in traditional and non-traditional venues, community projects or educational programmes which use theatre practice.

There may be a therapeutic or cathartic element to the work, but that might be equally true of arts engagement on any subject.  The work may be directly about the experience of disability or completely unrelated, but it is usually about entertaining, informing, or challenging an audience rather than just giving the participants something to do.

What’s in a name?

In some ways perhaps ‘disability arts’ is the wrong term for what we want to support. Even words like ‘inclusive’ can sometimes retain the connotation of making a concession for someone who is somehow sub-standard. Perhaps ‘diverse’ is a better term.

Because of individual preference, talking around the subject can be a linguistic landmine, and we must try our best not to get bogged down in it, to listen as best we can, and hope that we are forgiven when we get in wrong.
In reviewing our website, some have commented that, given our target market, it is odd that disability is so seldom mentioned. This was a purposeful move on our part, as we consider that we focus on artists first and disabilities second.

In addition to providing what is hopefully a very practical service, we want to provoke dialogue and start to consider new ways of forming networks and reaching wider audiences. To support work to the point that venues will no longer think that having a ‘disability slot’ once a month on a Wednesday afternoon (and not marketed properly) is acceptable practice.

We see a need for a dialogue that reaches beyond what has traditionally been the disability arts community.  In many ways, the very people who make assumptions about do-gooding and dramatherapy are the ones that we most need to draw in and start to engage in conversations if we want a real shift in social consciousness.

Do talk to us, question us, support us, challenge us, let us know what you think! We’re on Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, and of course here on Blogspot, so there is no shortage of ways to reach us! 

Happy spring (such as it is) to all!