Source: Melissa Hodgson

Future Leaders with Shona McCarthy

By Patrick O'Brien

For the final Future Leaders event of 2023, we gathered as LS Productions’ offices in Leith to hear from Shona McCarthy, Chief Executive of Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society.

Shona joined the Festival Society as Chief Executive seven years ago. Prior to this, she headed up Belfast’s bid to be European Capital of Culture before leading Derry-Londonderry's transformative year as UK City of Culture in 2013.

This Future Leaders talk revolved around three key principles to which Shona related her personal experiences. These were:

  • Resilience in the industry
  • Brand flexibility
  • Personal resilience

Shona shared her experience in adopting these characteristics and how they can help us overcome adversity.

Resilience in the Industry

As custodian of the world’s largest performance arts festival, what do you do when it is curtailed due to a global pandemic? It was an existential threat that that required resilience.

This is what Shona experienced in 2020. The 2019 Edinburgh Festival was the biggest to date with 3.1 million tickets sold and 50,000 performances. Covid, was an unprecedented challenge for the festival and the team looked to her for leadership.

Without context, “resilience” seems like a nebulous term. Shona discussed resilience in this situation. How the festival adapted and the framework they used for adaptation.

Brand flexibility

As marketers, we are prone to seeing brand identity and guidelines as intransigent. Shona however talked about the importance of brand flexibility and how to use it effectively. This was especially important when she led Derry/Londonderry’s programme as UK City of Culture.

The recurring theme from Shona’s talk was her unerring belief that the arts are for everyone. Engaging everyone can be more difficult. In a city like Derry-Londonderry, even the title as the UK’s City of Culture proved to be divisive.

Shona demonstrated how brand flexibility can work. For Derry-Londonderry, UK City of Culture and City of Culture were used interchangeably. Logos were available in English and Irish. These are just small examples that acknowledge Northern Ireland’s unique position.

Shona summarised the Fringe’s vision as: “to give anyone a stage and everyone a seat”. She highlighted the importance of brand flexibility if everyone is to have a seat.

Personal resilience

Personal resilience was the final touchstone of Shona’s talk. From leading Belfast’s bid for European Capital of Culture, to leading the Festival Society through, and out of the pandemic, Shona demonstrated that disappointments and setbacks are inevitable. Personal resilience was therefore an integral part of leadership.

Underpinning Shona’s personal resilience is her passion for the arts. This passion, and the takeaway from Shona’s talk can be summed up neatly in this quote:

“You can do great things if you don’t care who gets the credit”

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