Digital leadership in the arts

Back in February 2015, the Warwick Commission on Cultural Value published the results of their year-long investigation. Will Perrin spoke to them about digital issues in the British cultural scene and philanthropy and produced an evidence paper back in Jan 2014 that I’ve only recently got round to reading.

I’m glad I finally did, though. This post is a summary of that paper with some of my own thoughts thrown in.

Will’s conclusion is that:

I am struck that the arts seems to be sleep walking along in the comfort zone of an analogue world, guided by boards of people at the end of their professional careers who are not of a digital generation. To stay relevant arts leadership needs a revolutionary approach to digital issues, particularly leadership – their slow pace of evolution risks them being left behind.

There are quite a few good quotes in the piece, with references to some good sources. It’s not often I recommend reading the minutes of a meeting, but those from the ACE National Council Meeting (the one with all the top dogs) on 14 November 2013 but there you go. Will says that they “don’t show any sense of urgency to embrace digital media”.

GDS for the arts?

One of the things Will spoke about was how Martha Lane-Fox’s Directgov 2010 and beyond report, and Francis Maude’s adoption of it, led to the creation of:

a new team, Government Digital Service with the right talent, the right bureaucratic levers and, critically, buy-in from bureaucratic leaders too. Martha and Francis clearly and demonstrably put digital leadership front and centre in the government’s reform programme and made it vital to the future of government services and administration, going well beyond ‘digital corner’.

Will says that he “can’t quite see an analog to this process in the cultural sector”. Me neither, and I don’t think such a thing could exist in quite the same way. After all, the Cabinet Office had the authority to set up GDS and was given a remit to effect some far-reaching changes, with cost-savings estimated to be in the billions (which provided a nice imperative).

In contrast, neither ACE, DCMS, nor any of the other funders are in a position to create an ‘Arts Digital Service’ and have that team centralise the approach to digital activity for large swathes of the arts organisations in its portfolio. Those funders are important, but they’re not in a position of ownership, and portfolio funding isn’t a given – it could be taken away at any point,

Still, it’s worth thinking about the lessons that can be taken from things like GDS. Let’s take the three things Will picks out as being important to GDS’s success:

1. the right talent

I take this to refer to two things:

  • digital talent at board level
  • digital talent at executive level

First up, ‘digital’ people on arts boards. I wonder if someone’s investigated this and seen how much change it enables/catalyses.  I know that at least a few of the orgs I’ve worked with have people from big tech (mostly software, gaming and online retail) companies on their boards, but I don’t know how common that is. I suspect not very.

At this point, I should bring in Will’s take on all of this:

A cursory examination of boards that govern arts institutions at all levels shows few clearly digital people. And Antony Lilley deserves a knighthood for the number of times he is wheeled out at events as a friendly digital person. From a tech sector perspective, the heavy reliance on the broadcasters as founts of digital wisdom seems odd – their technologies are inappropriate for the vast majority of arts organisations.

He’s bang on with the broadcasters thing. And remember that Building Digital Capacity in the Arts thing with the BBC Academy? The next partners working with ACE will be the BBC, Channel 4, the BFI, The Knowledge Transfer Network, Technology Strategy Board, and Google, with all sorts of talk about film making and cinema distribution. Which is fine, but… hmm, I’m at risk of going off on one here.

The second thing is talent working within the organisations. I’m not sure what I want to say about this, other than to say that there’s not a lot to go round. The bigger organisations are able to employ good people to fill digital-focussed roles, although hanging on to them seems to be an emerging issue. On the other hand, in medium and smaller organisations, digital is much more likely to be incidental to other roles (and not in a good way). They tend to be junior roles, too. I realise here that I’m just thinking about back-office functions. There’s a whole other question about the artistic side of things.

2. the right bureaucratic levers

To some extent this goes back to what I was saying about arts funders not being able to magic up a GDS. However, there are levers that can be pulled. Thing is, as things stand, I don’t think support and funding (to name two of those levers) are being pulled in entirely the right directions.

Also worth referring back to the minutes from the ACE National Council Meeting Will pointed out.

3. buy-in from bureaucratic leaders

We hear plenty of nice words, and money is being spent in the direction of digital stuff (the R&D Fund, The Space, Canvas), but I do wonder how much the people in charge of those levers see an urgent issue that needs addressing. Is it even their job? Should it be?

Maybe the issue is that few people see a problem in need of fixing. As I said with GDS, there was a clear financial imperative and a recognition that the user experience needed to be fixed. Nobody’s claiming that queuing at the Post Office to pay your car tax is the true, authentic experience.

On the other hand, it’s not so clear that digital transformation is either going to significantly reduce costs or bring in untold riches. The only thing that’s being missed out on is the more nebulous concept of ‘opportunity’, and there are many people who are adamant that the core experience (the concert, the theatrical production, etc) is just fine and a shift towards a more digital presentation would be a terrible thing.

So there we go. In conclusion, it’s worth reading Will Perrin’s thoughts and having a think.

Oh, and it’s also worth pointing out that the other half of Will’s submission had to do with transparency in grant giving. ACE have since announced plans to share more of their data. Which is good.

Notes from Measurecamp 7, London

Last weekend I went along to Measurecamp, an unconference for folks interested in digital analytics.

Very good it was too. There were about 250 people there, all unfailingly friendly, polite and interesting. It was my first time there, and I found that even the old hands were up for meeting new people and giving useful pointers.

Everything seemed to go very smoothly indeed, which can only mean that there was a lot of hard work going on behind the scenes. So thanks to the organisers for wrangling everything so well.

Anyway, enough of that. I went to six sessions over the day, with a mix of presentation and discussions. I sat a couple of rounds out, mostly because you can have too much of a good thing – no sense in frazzling the old brain. Here are the notes that I jotted.

Overcoming barriers to the use of analytics – Peter O’Neill

Quite a nice opener this. Relevant to me because most of my clients are really just starting out with digital analytics. The slides are quite text-y, so you can read through them and get the gist quite easily.

Get round to reading Lean Analytics. Key takeaway is to pick one metric at at time and fix that before moving on.

If you’ve got lots of business units to deal with then it’s best to focus on one, make mistakes, get things right, then use them as a case study then expand out. Rather than spreading your efforts too thinly across all units at once.

See the slide about the diagnostic reports. Look at something like this every 3 months. If you can’t find 1 or 2 things to improve you’re not looking hard enough. Identify underperforming areas. Find places to dig deeper. Ask what’s causing issues. Useful for regular strategy reviews.

Use views vs add to basket to find underperforming product pages.

Do set up in phases, not all at once. Especially if giving instructions to devs.

The Data Layer – Simo Ahava

I didn’t take many notes in this one. Mostly, it was an explanation of what a data layer is and does. The slides are pretty self-explanatory though (if you like code snippets and technical stuff like that), and are here:

Bear in mind that the definition of a data layer’s purpose on slide 7 was prefaced with a warning that English isn’t Simo’s native language. Sheesh.

I actually found this one more useful than I expected. I keep running across data layers at the moment, so a higher level explanation of the various facets was handy, even if I was just at the edge of my understanding when going through the code.

Automating reporting from GA to Google Sheets or Excel – Gerry White, Sean Burton, Tony Lu

This is something else I’ve been doing quite a bit lately. Mostly to automate/speed up reporting, or find ways to get data to clients that they’d never access if they had to wade through the Google Analytics interface.

I ended up with a bunch of links to check out:

Measuring PR Barcelona Principles – Michael Blowers

This was an interesting discussion about the Barcelona Declaration of Measurement Principles. It’s an initiative from the International Association for Measurement and Evaluation of Communication, aiming to establish some elements of best practice.

I’d not heard of it before and there’s some interesting stuff in there. We had a chat around the ‘measuring outcomes, not outputs’ bit about how tricky attribution can be (in the sense of, knowing how much credit you can take for those outcomes when PR activity isn’t working in isolation).

Analytics for Product Listing Pages – Kelly Mclean, Alec Cochrane

This was interesting too. Especially because a lot of the people I work with have big lists of events or collections, with lots of ways of navigating around them.

It started with a big list of things you could be tracking:

With the caveat that it’s not worth tracking something if you’ve no intention of changing it (words to live by).

The UI limitations of web analytics tools was raised. General advice was to get the info into R (which free), SPSS or SAS to make sense of it.

Ask Us Anything (with Beer!) – Russell McAthy

This was a good session for decompression. A panel of people took questions from the floor, with plenty of discussion around things like ad blockers. No slides from this one. No notes either.

Declining search interest in off-West End theatres

I’m just throwing this here as it came up when I was looking at something else.

Here are the Google Trends results for a handful of off-West End theatres.

Google Trends - Almeida Theatre, Battersea Arts Centre, Royal Court Theatre, Donmar Warehouse, Soho Theatre

I can tell what a couple of the recent spikes are. The recent BAC (red) one will have been the fire. The Donmar (green) one must’ve been Tom Hiddlestone in Coriolanus.

Here are some others.

Google Trends - Hampstead Theatre, Bush Theatre, Lyric Theatre, Orange Tree Theatre, Southwark Playhouse
It’s slightly less pronounced with this lot. Interesting to note that Edward Hall took over at Hampstead in 2011 and seemed to inject new life into the place. That seems to show in the graph.

Put Hampstead’s performance in context with the Young Vic though. Woah!

Google Trends - Young Vic, Hampstead Theatre
So it’s not all bad, but overall the trend is generally downward, and at a rate that seems to match the trend for searches of the word ‘theatre’.

Google Trends - theatre

I’ve no conclusions to end on. Sorry about that. Although if you wanted evidence that traffic to event-focussed websites is going to be massively affected/determined by artistic programming decisions, then this points in that direction. Not that that should be any surprise.

Are there any other observations or conclusions that could be drawn from this?


A fair point here:

The thing about Google Trends is it’s not exactly clear how amazing the data is (especially because I’m using topics, rather than straight search terms) and it’s entirely possible there’s some sort of decay rate, or inconsistency or something so really don’t go betting the house on the data above. Like-for-like comparisons are probably fair enough though. Probably.