The Art Fund interview
Elen Lewis speaks with Dr Stephen Deuchar, director of The Art Fund and Lawrence Green, founding partner, 101 about the The Art Fund campaign, winner of the long-term marketing excellence prize at The Marketing Society Awards 2017
What is the most valuable lesson from the long-term success of The Art Fund’s campaign?
Stephen Deuchar: It wasn’t just a marketing campaign, it was about the identity of The Art Fund as an organisation, about gripping it and reimagining it for the present and future as oppose to something which had evolved gradually since 1903. The Art Fund is big on tradition and our longevity is a strength but when I arrived in 2010, it was an institution that was a bit hamstrung by its fantastic history. It was important for us to be pushed by individuals [at 101] who would challenge us to look at ourselves. We came up with this idea of putting the focus on recruiting members, not on the worthiness of becoming a member but on the attractiveness of buying a cool product.
Laurence Green: Part of the reason The Art Fund wins awards, aside from being aesthetically pleasing and its open and shut sales case, is that it was marketing as the orientation of an organisation around the customer. This is the dictionary definition of marketing – not as the message you send out, but as the sensibility of the organisation.
SD: Soon after I arrived, we had the idea of flipping the proposition. I describe it in terms of the shop window – it used to have the worthy cause in it, then you got some fringe benefits which was a member card with discounts. It was about flipping that and putting the membership card in the window. It’s very easy to have ideas like that, what’s hard is the way you formulate them.
The card has two sides, on one side it’s the transactional side, the small print. We deliberately made it look official. I insisted on the word ‘national’, which is an old-fashioned word. Like getting your bus pass, it had a transactional value. On the other side was a dreamy work of art – “never without art” – as a vehicle for helping establish what The National Art Pass might do. That duality – something very transactional and on the other hand, something that spoke of this promise. It is like a passport that has a desert island on the back page. We always felt that having it in your pocket, officially said to you, ‘wherever you go, you’ve got potential for a bigger experience’. I think selling The National Art Pass from the word go as something beyond the transaction was really brilliant.
LG: There is something implicit here– a human lesson, not a grand strategy lesson, which is – having people you trust, having long-term plans not short term. Enjoying and maybe even craving consistency… when so many people chop and change… The dogs that bark at every passing car is a brilliant description of a lot of modern marketing today. But, you’ve been our client since day one, Caroline’s been our CMO since day one, I’ve been here, Mark’s been here. All since 2011.
Now that you have this swathe of new, younger members has it changed the decisions you make or influenced future strategy?
SD: We knew we had an unhealthy high average age of members. The biggest change is a mixed blessing. By placing emphasis on benefits we sell in areas where the benefits can be taken up, which is London and the Southeast. So there has been a shift in our demographic. However, for a UK-wide organisation keen to distribute our grants in all corners that is a slight issue. Our new members are active consumers of culture and I would say that chimes nicely with the changing needs and wishes of museums in relation to their own collection. Our older members might ask us why we invest in so much contemporary art and the answer is that museums want more contemporary art. Part of the shift I’ve felt was the importance for us to move away from being an organisation that had a list of things it wanted to do in the world into becoming a super server. Whatever museums want we will try and give it to them, whatever your audiences want we will try and serve it to you. It’s a very positive, can-do but supportive frame of mind. One unexpected but important side effect is that we’re a more admired brand than we were and therefore a more attractive employer. We had 900 applications for a junior job in London, they all knew what The Art Fund was and they liked the look of us.
Is it a challenge that your stakeholders are so different?
SD: There must be a lot of businesses who’ve been around for a while who struggle, if struggle is the right word for having loyal customers –getting new customers and young people to keep eating Weetabix. You have to get your products working for your old world as well as the new and I’m not sure it’s any tougher for us than it is for anyone else. I suppose the answer is – if you make it really attractive then the old ones will keep consuming and the young ones will follow.
LG: There is this beautiful harmonious relationship between the art pass owner and museum owners, an ecosystem – the pass makes that relationship more tangible. Beyond The Art Fund’s own needs – the museums and galleries are craving a new cohort of visitors.
And does tremendous growth lead to its own set of challenges?
SD: There is a fundamental change that I feel very keenly. We sold a product with a lot of promise and the promise of the ad campaign is that this card will change your life, it’s about stirring the soul and going to a better place. The biggest fear is to oversell, and we’ve had to invest constantly in making what we do across the UK really great. We have hundreds of relationships with museums and if an Art Fund customer walks into the gallery at Hull, we don’t want the risk that the guy behind the till says, ‘What’s this?’ when he sees The Art Pass. We’ve had to invest really heavily in what goes behind the card. We’ve got to send our customers to the right place, we’ve got to make sure they’ve got the right information in terms of opening hours, we’ve got to make sure they’ve got a free information service. People enjoying art has become as much a charitable objective as museums buying art and that is a consequence of the success of The Art Pass. It first emerged when we created an app in the early days. We knew it would be people enjoying the works of art that we helped people buy and that was great, but it has now become a major secondary or parallel charity objective at our very heart.
We put a lot of resource into running our relationships with museums because we feel responsibility to the people who we’re sending there. It’s mortifying when an Art Pass is produced and not recognised by everyone. We do have to run those relationships quite carefully. That’s the responsibility when you make a specific promise.
LG: It’s a promise made to customers that is delivered by others. It’s quite unusual.
SD: That is the magic of the art pass. We sell the product and someone else provides the service. The payback is not simply the provision of visitors that we send them but the grants that we subsequently provide. That’s the key thing. Another consequence of The Art Pass, is that our constituency of museums has grown hugely. It used to be the people we had relationships with who applied for grants. Now we have relationships with any museums who want to be with us. For example, The Hayward gallery approached us and wanted to become part of it – they would never get a grant but said they didn’t care about that, but wanted to be part of the network.
Why might a corporate art pass be beneficial to organisations?
LG: This is the next wave, we’ve not mopped up all of our individual members but we are looking at corporates. At a brand level everything I read talks about how creativity in business will be a critical futureproofing skill. A recent McKinsey paper links creativity to superior business performance – companies who are creative are better at business innovation which is consequential to financial success. We also know that people in the workforce who are creative and imaginative are good for business. Similarly, there’s a lot of work on the importance of mental wellness in your workforce. If you give Art Passes to your people it says something about your employment brand.
What advice do you give to someone looking at a picture for the first time in an art gallery? How do we look?
SD: Relax, anything goes. One of the best things I did at Tate Britain was commissioning a piece from Martin Creed where we had someone run every 30 seconds through the galleries for four months. We had 300 runners. There was something inherently brilliant about this rush of air as these athletes raced through. I spoke to him about where the idea came from. He was visiting Pompei with friends and it was closing in 45 minutes. Rather than see a small amount they decided to see the whole lot by running through – history, drama, tragedy all rushed passed. And there was power in the speed of it. It’s a reminder that you can get your spiritual experience by staring at a solitary work for an hour or walk relaxed until something catches your eye. Follow your instincts, you don’t have to know what you’re looking at. Most of the time when I’m visiting an artist’s studio I don’t know what I’m looking at and I don’t even know if I like it or not. I sometimes look at a work of art solely and carefully and other times I hardly look but realise later it’s made an impression. There is no single way to view art.
This article originally appeared in our September issue of Market Leader