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Let’s play – what I learnt at this year’s AMA conference

27 July 2018

This year’s Arts Marketing Association conference saw hundreds of art marketers from across the UK converge in Liverpool for two days. The theme for this year was ‘The Power of Play’. As someone who loves to use games and play in team building and decision making, I was looking forward to hearing stories from across the sector on how people are using play to drive change forwards and experiment with new ideas.

One key theme everyone kept coming back to was how quickly we forget how to play as adults, and how the fear of failure becomes a blocker to playing, having fun and experimenting.

Why playful work cultures are great

The closing keynote on day one was presented by Emma Rice, Artistic Director at Wise Children. Emma spoke about how she uses play to build trust and confidence in her teams. By getting the cast and production team together to play ball, take a moment to clear the mind with yoga and come together to sing before rehearsals, Emma’s teams become more confident and she can get to know them better. This time is well spent and crucial for Emma to get the very best out of her team.

Day two opened with a keynote from Tom Rainsford, Founder at giffgaff. Tom’s keynote, titled ‘Putting Play at the Heart of Your Brand’ looked at how you can innovate and engage people with a playful approach. But, more than putting play at the heart of a brand, Tom spoke about the importance of putting play at the heart of your organisation’s culture – you can’t have a playful brand if your team hate working there.

Both Tom and Emma spoke about the responsibility leaders have at their organisations to embrace play and encourage experimentation. This means giving people the space and time to have fun, and celebrating when new ideas are tried out, even if they don’t work out at first.

You can’t experiment and innovate without being playful

The link between experimentation, innovation, creativity and play was spoken about throughout the conference. Tom Rainsford told us that ‘children are smart!’ When playing they find ways to navigate the rules and quickly change tactics to get the best outcome. This ability to adapt to changes, be open to trying new things and experiment is a key skill we learn in game play.

During her talk on Liverpool Philharmonic’s Leap Into Live Music programme, Elizabeth Heague told us how being open to change and experimentation was vital to the success of the project, which works with various communities in Liverpool to introduce new people to classical music. The project began with a five year plan, but changes and adaptations had to be made along the way to ensure its success. Elizabeth used data to inform the change, but the openness to change is what ensured the project could move forward successfully.

Take play seriously

Kenneth Olumuyiwa Tharp (Director, Africa Centre) spoke about taking play seriously during the opening keynote, reminding us that even children take their games seriously (don’t try to interrupt a child mid game!). Kenneth spoke of his time working with young dancers and how they learnt key skills such as creativity, motivation, critical thinking and resilience through learning to play with purpose.

Play was certainly taken seriously by Paul Kaynes, Chief Executive at National Dance Company Wales. In his session ‘Roots, Robots and Riots – revolutionising dance across Wales’, Paul spoke about how they were using data and audience development goals to inform how they played with new ideas. It was great to hear how playing with ideas was becoming part of the organisation's culture, from giving the dancers freedom to be playful and share their fun on the NDCWales social media accounts, to using play to inform new work – including their production of a 1917 piece called Parade. And whilst Paul was honest about things that hadn’t worked (some work wasn’t attracting new audiences), embracing play and experimentation was transforming the culture within the organisation and helping bring new audiences to the company’s work.

So what did I learn?

Although it’s unlikely we’ll be setting up a Supercool Choir anytime soon, I came away from this year’s AMA Conference inspired to be a bit more playful and not be so scared of failing. Whilst losing a game of Monopoly to your little brother is annoying, it certainly doesn’t stop you starting a game and we should all take this approach to giving things a go at work. It’s when we give things a go we truly tap into our creativity and innovation can happen. As Tatiana Oliveira Simonian said in her closing keynote – ‘give that hobby you think you might suck at a go, and suck at it’. We can only find the things we’re good at, and the brilliant new ideas by giving stuff a go. You never know, maybe you won’t suck at that new hobby!

Of course, as well as all the great sessions, the AMA had the usual social events and plenty of time to catch up with old friends and make a few new ones. Next year’s conference at NewcastleGateshead is already in the diary – see you there!

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