What Matisse Didn’t Cut Out

The best work is not the first work, as Henri Matisse’s constant revision of his cut-outs demonstrates

The Snail, a cutout by Matisse
Matisse Cut Outs at The Tate

One of the many fascinating aspects of the Matisse Cut-Outs exhibtion, which is at the Tate Modern until 7 September is the insight into how he worked.

Matisse first used cut out shapes as a way of trying out different compositions until he found the one he would ultimately paint. Eventually they became art in themselves but the technique remained the same. Even when he was old and frail, he would direct his assistants to move and re-pin cut-outs until he was finally happy with the relationship of the shapes and colours.

On one canvas, featuring perhaps a dozen cut-outs, researchers counted over a thousand pin marks. The lesson for all of us is that you can’t expect to get it right the first time. All great authors revise their work. So don’t expect your copy or press release or website design to be right at the first attempt. Go back to it. Try writing it again without reference to the original. Read it out loud. Let someone else read it to you. The best work is not the first work.

The author of this blog is Paul Lewis, owner of the Winchester based marketing consultancy Seven Experience. You can connect with him on Google+ and LinkedIn.


Just Because It’s Free Doesn’t Mean It’s Worthless

I was going to write about the rights and wrongs of Waitrose giving away cups of coffee but then I read about one of their free coffees poisoning a customer. It wasn’t the fact that cleaning fluid made its way into the cup, it was how Waitrose dealt with it.

As a company, how you deal with a bad customer experience makes all the difference. Many businesses make the mistake of thinking ‘so what? it’s just one lost customer’ without realising that the ramifications go in all directions. The customer tells people she meets, statistically far more than when she has a good experience, and she never shops with you again so you lose a potential lifetime of purchases. For example, I had a bad experience with Kuoni back in the 90s, I felt their response was inadequate and neither I nor any of my family have ever bought a holiday from them since- and we’ve been on a lot of holidays.

The good response is to apologise profusely, show that you’ve looked into the problem and made sure it won’t happen again, and compensate more generously than they are expecting. So, what did this particular Waitrose do when their customer was hospitalised? They sent her an insulting £25 voucher. They soon learnt how much that free coffee was worth when the customer’s husband took to the social media.

Surely an exception to the great John Lewis tradition of serving customers exceptionally well, you might think. Except. It reminded me of an experience we had at Waitrose in Salisbury a few weeks ago. We had found the staff in their cafe particularly inattentive to the point of not listening. Because we thought this was unusual and that the store would want to make sure this didn’t happen again, my wife wrote a ‘more in sorrow than in anger’ letter to the Manager by name.

We received back a hand written note from Customer Service Department Manager. This could be a good personal touch except for there being no apology, simply a terse ‘If you would like to discuss the matter further, please contact me’ and a phone number. My wife was pretty annoyed. She’s taken the trouble to write, now she was expected to take even more trouble to phone. Nevertheless she did, only to find the manager in question was away.

John Lewis and Waitrose have made a name for being better at customer service. That’s one of the points of their free coffee. It says, ‘We’re not just another supermarket, we’re a place where shopping is both relaxing and fulfilling. Of course, it will take more than a little bad service to stop us shopping with them because it has to be balanced against all the many occasions the service has been exceptional. Nevertheless, the halo slipped a bit.

I think their halo has slipped a bit over the matter of free coffee, as well. It may enhance their customers’ view of Waitrose as being that bit more civilised  but it will damage local coffee shops, just as their free newspapers will damage the local newsagent. I expect Costa, Starbucks and WH Smith will survive but I can see it being a problem for smaller independents. Maybe I’m worrying unnecessarily since a satisfactory cup of coffee in a supermarket doesn’t have the same value as a good coffee in pleasant surroundings, which is I guess why so many of us pay £2.50 for something that costs a few pennies to make.

This article was written by Paul Lewis, owner of the marketing consultancy Seven Experience and former Head of Marketing and Operations at The Mayflower Theatre. You can connect with him on Waitrose customer service response Waitrose customer service[/caption]


No Comment Says It All

Harriet Harman’s response or rather lack thereof to the Daily Mail’s stories about her connection to a paedophile organisation shows exactly what not to do when faced with a PR disaster.

It is of course tempting to ignore adverse publicity or a complaint and hope it goes away. This can work. If there isn’t really a story in the first place, a reporter may float it just to provoke a response and if no-one rises to the bait, there is no conflict and the story dies. I’ve been on both ends of this.

On one occasion a publicly funded body began providing services in competition with one of my clients, a private commercial company. I doubted much could be done to stop them but I thought there was a chance of some publicity for my client so I persuaded them to write a complaint to the local newspaper. It was printed but my hope that the other party would defend itself and we could garner further publicity was dashed. Perhaps we would have been more successful if we’d talked to a reporter about our grievance.

More recently a subsidised organisation with which I’m associated was attacked in a letter in the local press. I was all for responding, on the grounds that it gave us an opportunity to counter the criticisms and  talk about all the good things we do.  I was outvoted and we reacted with dignified silence. I appreciate that it can be a case of ‘least said, soonest mended’ but I still worry that, since we didn’t deny it, some readers will think what was said was true.

You can understand why Ms Harman or her advisors might have thought that the Mail was simply trying to smear her and any comment was only going to keep the smear going. She may have thought that the chance of persuading Daily Mail readers that she was right and the Mail was wrong were remote.

The trouble is, the Mail was confident it was on to something and Ms Harman’s lack of response i.e. apology became the story. In my experience, unless you are absolutely sure your silence will kill a story before it gets into the public domain, you must respond. That response must acknowledge any mistakes or wrongdoing, apologise if necessary, then swiftly move on to a positive story about the changes that have been made and the good work now being carried out.

In Ms Harman’s case, she could count on the support of other media, who hate the Mail more than they hate her. She could explain how these vile people came to be affiliated with the organisation she worked for, regret that they were ever able to do so, show that she was not in any way sympathetic to paedophiles and go on to speak of the good work both of Liberty and herself in combatting child abuse.

I’ve always liked a complaint or a bad news story because it gives a great opportunity to talk about all the positive aspects of your organisation. Yes, it may bring attention to a complaint that some people might have missed but, in these days of social media spreading every little rumour let alone genuine bad news, that’s a forlorn hope. At least when you respond to stories, letters and tweets, you are retaking control of your brand image.

This blog was written by Paul Lewis, owner of the marketing consultancy The Lewis Experience based at Hampshire Workspace, and former Head of Marketing and Operations at The Mayflower Theatre. You can connect with him on Google+ and LinkedIn.


Do Yourself A Favour- Avoid Bribery

Do you offer your theatre reviewers a free drink at the interval? Do you buy the local paper’s arts editor a meal every so often when you want to chat about the new season?  I know it’s yet more red tape for small organisations but you need to consider the implications of the new Bribery Act. It clearly states that it is illegal to offer hospitality with the expectation of favourable treatment. Of course it’s debatable whether one could prove a financial advantage from favourable media coverage but, since it’s our job to get good press, it will do no harm to make clear that we are not expecting any coverage let alone a positive article when we buy them a drink or a meal.

Your company should have a clear policy on bribery in any case because there are other more obvious areas where bribery could come into effect- someone offering you a bribe to use them as the printer of your brochures even if they’re not the best value; someone in your organisation offering a party booker cash in his pocket to bring customers to your theatre. Regarding theatre critics, the Ministry of Justice guidance suggests a policy that states ‘any hospitality should reflect a desire to cement good relations and show appreciation… promotional expenditure should seek to improve the image of the company (and) to better present its products or services, or establish cordial relations… the recipient should not be given the impression that they are under an obligation to confer any business advantage or that the recipient’s independence will be affected.’ the key seems to be that you need to show in writing that you’ve thought about how to prevent bribery and told  your staff and suppliers.

Going back to reviewers, I think it is a good idea to make clear to journalists that you expect them to write what they think and not be afraid of offending you. I know it’s galling when, in addition to drinks and tickets on the night, you’ve spent a lot with their paper on advertising but never complain about a poor review by saying ‘After all we’ve done for you.’  I remember one venue manager a few years ago stopping advertising in the local paper because he didn’t like the critical reviews. I suspect that wouldn’t go down well under the new Act. I have always taken the view that there’s no such thing as bad publicity- at least they think your show or venue is important  enough to write about. When it comes to meals, avoid paying for purely social meetings- only provide some hospitality when you are doing a media briefing.

Of course you wouldn’t give or accept a bribe but the new Bribery Act requires that you prove yourself to be above suspicion.

On the matter of accepting gifts or hospitality from your suppliers, my rule of thumb was to always return the compliment. In other words, if they take you out for a meal, make sure you take them out next time. Don’t give gifts at Christmas and if you’re given one, declare it and put it into a staff raffle.

I’m not a lawyer so don’t take this as legal advice. My point is, you will need a policy on bribery and you do need to think about all the occasions when you offer or accept gifts or hospitality.

How To Sell A Million Pound Panto

Very few things are certain in the world of show business but one is the profit to be made on panto. Or so I used to think until I heard that a major regional theatre actually lost money on a panto a couple of years ago. So it’s clear that you still need a good product and you need to market it well. Otherwise it shall end in tears. As someone who has sold some of the most profitable and best attended pantomimes in the last twenty five years, I can help you avoid the humiliation of a trip to the Boardroom.

Pricing is often not the responsibility of the marketing department which is unfortunate because it can make or break a show. Price too high and no-one will buy a ticket, too low and you don’t make the margin you need. Pantomime is about numbers so it is better to keep the price down as low as is profitable and concentrate on selling high volume. As always, offer at least five prices (three if you have a small venue) to appeal to all pockets and attitudes. Plan discounts for early birds, last minute buyers, groups and less popular performances.

It’s Behind You

The golden rule for promotion is, as with panto itself, it must be over the top. The first thing is to be first. Get the news out as early as possible. Party bookers are the foundation of a successful panto and they start thinking about their Christmas outing in January. Remember, yours won’t be the only show in town, or if not your town certainly somewhere within reach of a 55 seater. You want the others to be behind you so email or write to them in January. And write to them again. And phone them. And invite them to the press launch. And… you get the picture.

As to PR, since the first wave of individual ticket buyers comes quite early, I recommend a major media launch before it goes quiet for the summer. Then a series of individual visits by the stars through the autumn. If you have no stars, you can still feed stories about the director planning unbelievable theatrical magic, the writer researching the true story behind the fairy tale or an actor overcoming a fear of heights to climb a beanstalk.

Media coverage through PR is more important than ever because traditional print or broadcast advertising is far less cost effective than it used to be but the online alternatives have yet to deliver the numbers you need. Panto is particularly problematic in this respect because it appeals to an audience much greater than your usual customer base so they can’t be reached only through your email, SMS or postal mailing list.

You will need to advertise but do it sparingly and with a bang. Don’t throw your limited budget in every direction. Don’t even start until October when the main booking period begins. Do use only the paid for papers that cover your town- free and fringe media won’t deliver the numbers. Take only a few ads but make them big so they can’t be missed and because they say to the reader this is a major show worth seeing.

Otherwise use the proliferation of media that’s out there to best advantage. Make sure you have masses of photos, interviews and short videos freely and easily available for download to the huge number of websites, social networks, magazines and newspapers that want to cover your panto.

Oh Yes It Is

With such a massive choice of channels, you need help. So use your strongest supporters to spread the word. Get the word out to supporters on Facebook and Twitter but also get everyone else involved in the show- cast, creatives, producers and your own staff- to do the same.

Your website has a key role to play so make sure you’re pushing that panto as hard as possible on the home page from the moment it goes on sale. Keep updating your entry with new photos (cast in costume, set designs) and, if at all possible, upload short video interviews.

And let’s not forget that there are many people who still get their information from a season brochure or a flier. Get it in the spring brochure, even if you don’t have much information. By the time of the autumn brochure you’ll need a double page spread. Get those fliers everywhere- bulk distributed, included in mailings of tickets, handed out at shows.

As always, try to learn from what you do. The Panto Villain just spends money without knowing what works. The Principal Boy constantly experiments and monitors to find out what’s most cost effective.