What did we do next?
Looking at 2020 from 2023
This week I came across a deck that I presented in May 2020.
The talk was part of a series of online sessions, which was the Ticketing Professionals Conference’s response to not being able to hold an in-person event.
The first half of 2020 was an interesting time. Cultural organisations had realised that digital activity offered a way for them to maintain a connection with audiences, and to remain somewhat relevant and useful.
For people like me who have been banging on about the usefulness and importance of digital for almost two decades it was exciting to see so many organisations trying to do way more digital stuff than they had ever done before.
The quality, thoughtfulness, suitability, impact, and success of this work was extremely patchy.
But it felt like an important moment.
Across 60+ slides I talked about the nature of digital work, unbundling, thinking like a TV scheduler, the importance of your brand, understanding digital audiences, measuring (and understanding) success, service design, collaboration, user experience, digitally-literate leadership, and more.
On reflection I was probably overambitious in what I tried to cover...
But over the next 18 months more cultural organisations than ever seemed to be asking questions about these types of things.
Which was exciting.
So. Much. Experimenting
The cultural sector threw the kitchen sink at digital. Old stuff was dug out and repurposed, new stuff was commissioned.
Organisations played with platforms, formats, pricing and funding models. New artistic relationships were formed, new audiences (to some degree) were reached.
Interactive, ‘born digital’ and educational experiences were really popular. Sad digital facsimiles of physical stuff, less so.
Things for families were gratefully received by home-schooling parents.
Some organisations managed to pivot initially-free offerings into longer term, commercially viable projects.
After years of lots of talk but not much action, there were meaningful, tangible experiments happening all over the place.
Sadly this shift does not seem to be sticking.
As pandemic restrictions started to lift and organisations were able to go back to ‘business as usual’ there has been a real rush to resume many of the things they were doing at the end of 2019.
This also means they have stopped doing many of the new (often digital) things they started doing during the pandemic.
There are lots of very good reasons for why this has happened.
The pandemic was a totally unique set of circumstances that meant ‘business as usual’ wasn’t even an option. As people were furloughed, new working relationships had to be formed - often between people or departments who wouldn’t usually work together, and this meant new possibilities emerged.
Much of this has now stopped.
There are also some very real operational realities. Not least the talent drain that the cultural sector has suffered over the past few years (and the difficulties in hiring new people to fill those roles), and the worsening situation around the sector’s finances due to funding reductions, changes in audience behaviour, energy prices and the cost of living pressures.
We also saw a lot of the unhelpful thinking in the ways that those pandemic experiments were evaluated.
Many organisations who were delivering meaningful digital experiences for the first time were then judging whether or not they should continue that work based on whether the direct revenue from that activity had generated a profit.
While revenue generation is of course an important focus and opportunity for (some of) this type of activity, it feels wildly unrealistic that anyone expected to turn a profit on a totally new type of activity that they had never done before, on their first go.
I still don’t think we’ve arrived at any real, sector-wide clarity on what the financial models for this type of work should be in terms of investment or returns.
Many people are still trying to apply ‘offline’ models to this new digital way of working, which doesn’t feel like it’s going to work. You will rarely, if ever, be able to charge the same ‘sticker price’ for your digital work as you do your in-person work.
I also think we need to shift our understanding of value for this work. Digital work is likely to be more accessible than work delivered in buildings in any number of ways. Indeed, research has shown this was the case through the pandemic, and is an area that has gone backwards since the relaxing of restrictions and the return to focusing mostly on in-person attendance,
Digital assets are also far more commercially exploitable and flexible than their analog equivalents. The opportunity to build long-term relationships with new audiences and partners around this work means we should be evolving our understanding of value from a one-off, transactional mindset to instead thinking about how cumulative, lifetime value can be achieved and thinking about value in new ways.
Widening the stage
One of the opportunities (or threats, depending on your point of view) that digital opens up is the chance to re-evaluate what ‘the thing’ actually is.
Rather than just focusing on ‘the exhibition’ or ‘the play’, digital offers many different ways into and through an experience. In a digital context the agency for how that experience is enjoyed is almost wholly the audience member’s.
Award-winning Artistic Director, Annette Mees has an effective way of talking about this. She talks about ‘constellations of experience’. In this model there is not just ‘one sun’, there are instead countless ‘stars’ and potential ways for an audience to enjoy a programme of work.
“Everything is programming”
Unfortunately it still doesn’t feel as though we have seen much of a shift in this direction.
Nothing has changed? Everything has changed
But whilst we might yearn for ‘normal’, too much has changed for us to use 2019 as a reference point to try and recreate.
Everything that I tried to cover in the presentation I mentioned at the start of this article is still relevant.
In the 3 years since I gave the presentation, lots of organisations have stepped into the space(s) opened up by Covid. This means that the gap that already existed in the cultural sector between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ has widened, and increases to do so. Organisations that are now more confident with their digital actively are increasing this type of work, so those that aren’t, or who have slowed down, are being left behind.
And even if that wasn’t the case, audience behaviours have fundamentally shifted as a result of the change and trauma they experienced during the pandemic. Through choice or necessity more people are spending more of their time online, enjoying increasingly effective and sophisticated experiences.
The genie is out of the bottle. The toothpaste is out of the tube. The train is leaving the station.
We need to react.
How to imagine the future when the present is so hard
I recognise that many cultural organisations find it challenging to imagine what they might do differently, particularly in a new realm like digital. The pace and pressure of the day-to-day expectations are significant.
But I am worried that the sector is going to busy itself to death trying to maintain a status quo that is no longer relevant, sustainable, or necessary. All while ignoring new opportunities that may offer ways to do things differently and better.
I’ve talked elsewhere about the importance of innovation, and cultivating curiosity.
These two things feel related and essential.
But being curious and innovative is inefficient, it’s messy, and it’s uncertain. I can see why you would shy away from these things, especially when everything you know how to do is already so hard.
But encouraging some level of experimentation needs to become a sustained part of how the cultural sector operates.
Did we learn anything?
The organisations that seem to have taken positive lessons from the whirl of digital activity that happened during the pandemic are doing some or all of the following things:
New structures: whether it was introducing new roles, such as product managers, intended to aid inter-departmental digital working. Or new groups such as digital boards, content governance groups, or mixed teams focused on innovation, the organisations that seem to be sustaining their digital work have recognised that they need new structures for this work to keep happening. The way that cultural organisations are traditionally structured is no longer fit for purpose.
Leadership interest and buy-in: you don’t necessarily need a Chief Digital or Chief Experience Officer, but the organisations that are doing digital stuff most successfully, and repeatably have buy-in from the top of the organisation. They aren’t having to endlessly make the case for why this stuff is important and needs focus. And whilst the leaders in these organisations aren’t necessarily digital experts (more often than not they aren’t), they are curious about digital stuff and interested in its potential.
Access to senior digital expertise: these organisations don’t necessarily have this expertise in-house, but when they don’t have it in-house they do have ongoing relationships with external expertise that they can readily tap into. Through the pandemic we saw far too much pressure being placed on often very junior members of staff to try and come up with and deliver digital programmes on their own. The organisations that are working sustainably and successfully around digital do not do this, they understand that programmes of effective digital change needs the thought, consideration and advocacy that comes with experience.
Clear priorities and alignment across the organisation: cultural organisations seem addicted to saying yes to things. One newly in post cultural CEO that I spoke to remarked “if we can get funding for something it seems we’ll do it regardless of how relevant it is”. Organisations that make time and space to focus on (relevant) new initiatives seem to be those that are clear about what they do do, and why, but are equally ruthless about defining what they should not be spending time on. This clarity usually runs across the whole organisation, and this alignment creates a level of efficiency and impact that makes it more possible to work out exactly what new ways of working they could or should be exploring.
Comfortable with uncertainty: this last observation is maybe the most important. The organisations that seem to be finding a useful way into digital activity are those who are comfortable with not knowing the answers. Most organisations are not like this and seem to require a level of almost total certainty in what the outcome(s) will be before they invest resources into any of this stuff. That is going to lead to paralysis and inaction.
I’m excited by some of the change that has happened over the last three years, especially as it has taken place within the context of numerous significant challenges for the sector.
The fact that experimentation and progress has happened at all is admirable.
But that change has not been widespread and, in many places, it hasn’t ‘stuck’.
I think there are things that cultural organisations could do to create the conditions for that change to both be more likely to happen, and for it to be able to be sustained.
Thanks for reading Ash Mann's Substack! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.