"Producer's Corner"
by Bruce Lazarus

Be A Nice Boss -
Give Your Show A Promotion

Recently our guest was Broadway marketing maven Margery Singer, who has worked on the promotional campaigns for the recent Broadway productions of  The Secret Garden, How to  Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Once Upon a Mattress and The King and I, and is currently promoting High Society, 1776, and Titanic on Broadway, as well as the upcoming musical of Footloose.  Margery discussed advanced promotional campaigns for commercial theatre, and why she plans a promotional campaign without waiting for good reviews that may not happen.

The marketing of a show, Margery explained, consists of, among other things: advertising, which the producer controls and pays for through the advertising agency; public relations, which consists of the reviews, feature stories, interviews, listings and other “free publicity” coordinated by the press agent; group sales, solicited and sold by a specially hired group sales expert; and promotions, which is her area of expertise.  In other words, she explained, marketing is anything that reminds people that you are performing and puts them in your seats.

Margery usually begins her association with a production about 6 months before the first performance.  At this point, she and the producer and other key players discuss the marketing plan for the show.  They determine what elements of the show are going to sell tickets, keeping in mind that there is never any guarantee that any show will get good reviews, and therefore they have to be armed with an “arsenal” of marketing plans well before the reviews are in print.  There may be a star in the leading role, or the show itself may be the attraction, as in the case of The Lion King and Titanic.  Next, Margery and the producers may work with the advertising agency to do a “focus group.” An outside expert comes in and asks a specially chosen group of approximately 20 people who have something in common - this is the “focus group” - specific questions relating to the show they have planned.  These people, for example, may be 20 single working women between the ages of 30 and 40,  or 20 married women between the ages of 30 and 40 who stay at home with their children.  Margery and others watch the reactions of the focus group from behind a one-way mirror, and the answers and reactions are later analyzed to help the production plan its marketing campaign.  It was through a focus group that Margery discovered that people associate Footloose not with Kevin Bacon or the movie but with the music.  Armed with this knowledge, she and her team will spend 80% of their marketing budget on radio advertising and promotion.

Margery has developed relationships with approximately 30 major corporations who she will then approach with promotional ideas.  For example, she has often worked with A&P grocery stores.  She will develop an idea for a sweepstakes or other kind of contest with them, and the name of her show will then appear in A&P’s advertising for the contest, at A&P’s cost.  The production will donate tickets as prizes in exchange.  Customers will have to enter the contest at an A&P, which brings people into A&P’s stores and at the same time keeps A&P shoppers and others who see the A&P ads aware of her show.  Other promotional ideas might include direct mailings (discussed in a previous Producer’s Corner); in-store cast appearances at a department store, perhaps in conjunction with an in-store sweepstakes; the offer of priority tickets (the best seats in the house, offered before they go on sale to the general public) or discount tickets to the customers of the promotional partner; or a 3-way promotional tie-in, such as when Matthew Broderick opened a new Citibank while How to Succeed was on Broadway, and Time Warner Cable co-sponsored and advertised the event.  For a drama with a serious theme, such as The Diary of Anne Frank, she would work with bookstores on promotional ideas, and also work with the institutions in New York that coordinate educational outreach programs for Broadway shows, such as events for students and study guides.

This relationship began fortuitously when A&P took over the Times Square billboard that housed a Guys & Dolls ad when that show was running on Broadway a few years ago.  A&P wanted to use the billboard to advertise its 8:00 Coffee, and How to Succeed featured a song called “Coffee Break.”  Margery made the connection and negotiated a promotional arrangement that involved getting the show’s name on the billboard in exchange for showing the 8:00 Coffee logo on the blimp that is featured in the show.  Normally, Margery does not offer her promotional partners such actual product placement in a show, but in this situation the “signage” did not compromise the artistic integrity of the show.  The King and I was featured on the billboard, and now her current Broadway project, High Society, is featured.

In addition to discussing ideas with her usual promotional partners, Margery approaches new potential partners for each show she promotes.  She explained that she looks at the New York Times every day and scours magazines to determine what companies are spending the most advertising dollars, because those are the companies that will be amenable to including her show in their advertising when they develop a cross-promotional campaign, and they are the companies that will give her show the most exposure.  Then, she discerns what products might be a good match for her new show.  For example, she will be approaching sneaker companies for promotional tie-ins for Footloose, and for Once Upon a Mattress she developed a promotion with Dial-A-Mattress.

As mentioned above, if the reviews for a show are mixed or negative, the affect they have on the box office can be minimized by a preplanned marketing campaign.  By the time the reviews for High Society came out, which were mixed with a negative review in the New York Times, Margery had already set up a High Society contest with People magazine and Time Warner Cable wherein the winner will win a luxurious vacation in Paris.  High Society will thus be prominently featured in People and on a cable commercial without paying a penny in advertising fees.  Margery also arranged to have the display windows at Saks Fifth Avenue dressed as a High Society promotion. Priceless!

Margery recommends being both persistent and discriminating in setting up your promotional campaign.  6 to 8 weeks before you would like to hold a promotional event or contest with a promotional partner, call that company and make sure you find out who the correct person is to approach about a promotional idea.  Either call that person right away or send them a letter regarding your idea, and follow the letter up with a phone call.  Also, limit your efforts to finding promotional partners whose customers have something in common with your potential audience, and who you know spend advertising dollars.  Margery has already decided that she is going to choose only one promotional partner to offer discount tickets to Footloose, so she can offer valuable exclusivity to that partner.  She is also going to focus on radio promotion for that show, so the New Yorkers who listen to popular radio on their way to work and on their way home know they can hear the songs they love from Footloose live on stage.

When you are setting up your promotional campaign for your show and getting ready to approach potential partners, Margery suggested, ask yourself what the objectives are of those potential partners, so you can structure your ideas around their objectives.  Supermarkets and department stores want people to come into their stores, soft drinks and snacks want people to sample their products, and radio stations want listeners who will not stray across the dial.  Your objective is to sell tickets and get people to start talking about your show.

That’s show biz

Bruce Lazarus the former Director of Business and Legal Affairs for Walt Disney Theatrical Productions and producer of the current off-Broadway show Shakespeare's "R&J."

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