Part of Supercool's Arts + Culture In Lockdown series
Abby Corfan – Director of Marketing, Donmar Warehouse
Handy career tip – try to avoid starting a new job in the middle of a global pandemic…
As I excitedly got off the tube at Covent Garden for my first day as Director of Marketing at the Donmar Warehouse on Monday 9 March 2020, I had no idea that the following week I would be drafting a statement to close the theatre, saying goodbye to new colleagues I had only just met, and setting up a temporary desk at home.
Since then my team have been furloughed so I’ve become a one-woman department and the whole arts and cultural sector is facing an uncertain future. All of which has been combinations of exhausting, heartbreaking, and sometimes strangely joyful.
Here’s what I’ve learnt so far, during what it’s fair to say has been the most eventful period of my career:
Audiences miss us as much as we miss them
The Donmar’s members and audiences have responded so positively – donating the value of their tickets when they can, and sending so many tweets and emails to say how much they miss the theatre and can’t wait to come back. It lifts the spirits and offers a glimpse of the excitement we’ll all have when we can reopen.
It’s good to get back to the basics
The reality of being in a senior role is you do less of the kind of work you started out doing. So it’s been a while since I built an email campaign, or pulled a data list from Tessitura, processed a customer refund or drafted a series of tweets. Although I’m missing having our brilliant marketing and Box Office team to work with, I’ve tried to relish the chance to get truly stuck in with some ‘proper’ marketing tasks and it’s given me a renewed appreciation for the skills and expertise required to do it well.
It is possible to make something new during the lockdown
I am proud that the Donmar team were able to produce a new digital production, the first of its kind for the organisation. Our Artistic Director Michael Longhurst directed a new version of Midnight Your Time, a play written for Diana Quick, filmed entirely remotely via webcam under lockdown conditions.
We streamed it as a YouTube premiere, with over 1,000 people watching live, and then had views of over 29k for the following 2 weeks it was available. It was thrilling to be announcing something new (after a period of announcing cancellations and ‘undoing’ existing work) and also a lovely reminder that stories can still be told to connect us when we are apart.
I've learnt new skills
Although I have worked with digital content for marketing purposes many times, it was a new challenge to promote a piece of 'digital art' (especially on a budget of zero). I’ve learnt both tactical and strategic things which I hope I can take with me for future projects. If you’d like to hear me waffle on a bit more about this project in particular I have recorded an episode of the Digital Works podcast with Ash Mann which will be out in the coming weeks
It’s been a chance to build new partnerships and learn from others
After Midnight Your Time I moved onto the broadcast of the Donmar’s production of Coriolanus as part of the National Theatre at Home series. It was fantastic to work with the NT team, and be part of such a big project with its own processes and campaign structure. Another learning opportunity! And also a real moment to celebrate the heritage and strength of the Donmar’s previous work.
I think it’s vital to ask for help if you need it, and to pay it forward by sharing your experiences – especially when many of us are doing new things or working with much reduced teams.
It’s so important to lean on your networks
As a proud board member of the Arts Marketing Association I’ve always been a big advocate for sharing knowledge. As well as the AMA during this period I’ve had support and guidance from the other Marketing Directors in the London Theatre Consortium, Morris Hargreaves Macintyre, Tessitura, Indigo, the Arts Council’s Digital Culture Network and the lovely Chris Unitt (his full name). I think it’s vital to ask for help if you need it, and to pay it forward by sharing your experiences – especially when many of us are doing new things or working with much reduced teams.
There are a lot of opinions out there
Sometimes keeping up with the flood of webinars and thought pieces about the future of the arts feels like a full time job in itself, but I have found it valuable to dip into what the sector is talking about, and try to understand the bigger picture and possibilities for life post-Covid. If you haven’t already discovered the AMA’s free resources, the MHM Audience Matters Slack channel or the Ticketing Professionals webinar series I highly recommend taking a break from the day job to have a read/watch.
It’s a long road ahead
We know there is a huge amount of uncertainty for the arts and cultural sector and that tragically some organisations may not survive the financial impact of a long closure. Like many of my peers I’ve had some really wobbly moments. But I also know that the sector is full of talented, creative and resourceful people. I have been so encouraged by the inventiveness and resilience displayed so far in the face of an unbelievable set of circumstances. I sincerely hope proper government support is made available to get us through this difficult period intact, so we can all go back to doing what we do best. But perhaps bringing a little of what we’ve learnt during this time along with us...
For me, I’m looking forward to reacquainting myself with the office desk I had just settled into, to be in the same place as the brilliant Donmar team I have since got to know via Zoom, and most importantly, to sit in the theatre surrounded by an audience, excited for the start of the show.
Part of Supercool's Arts + Culture In Lockdown series