Podcast Episode 17 Transcript – Liz Furze

Ken: Hello everyone. Welcome back to the Producer’s Perspective Podcast. Spring has finally arrived here on Broadway and, as most of you know, spring is the busiest time of our year. We’ve got openings just about every single night and sometimes two in one night. And you know who is the busiest during this time of year? It’s not producers, it’s not general managers . . . it’s the ad agency. Because not only are more shows opening but the stakes are much higher now. The shows are opening now not only because there are more people seeing shows this time of year but because they all want in before the Tony deadline. All of these shows are trying to get those nominations and then win that Tony Award and they use advertising to try to do it. It’s a very big awards lobbying technique. I call April and May “the Broadway cage match.” 20 shows go in, only one emerges. And because we’re in the middle of that cage match I thought we’d speak with one of those very busy ad agencies so today I’m sitting across from Elizabeth Furze, managing partner for AKA Advertising. Welcome, Liz!

Liz: Thank you, Ken. Not too busy for you!

Ken: Thank you very much. As you can tell, Liz is from New Jersey. That’s not true . . . I’ll let her tell you the whole story but Liz came over from jolly old England not too long ago to establish the New York City base of AKA Advertising and just a few years later they are now a huge part of our landscape, with such clients as Les Mis, Hand to God, Wolf Hall, Matilda, Spider-Man, All the Way and many, many more, including a host of non-profit institutions, including Manhattan Theatre Club, New Group, Vineyard, etc. I’ve had the pleasure of working with Liz and AKA on It’s Only a Play and Macbeth and they knocked it out of the park on both of those shows. So tell me, Liz, how AKA and you managed to land here on our shores.

Liz: It’s a fairly long story but I’ll try to say it in a succinct way. I moved here in the summer of 2008. I had been working in London for eight years at that time, working on West End shows and seasons, including the Royal Shakespeare Company. I had launched Jersey Boys there. In 2007 and 2008 I was spending more time doing international brand management, so Dirty Dancing, which was a musical which I had launched in the West End, was opening in Toronto and starting a US tour and also opening out across Europe, so I was spending more time here. And that led to conversations with Working Title, who were producing Billy Elliot the Musical here at that time. They were in their very early pre-opening stages, and they’re a London-based client who, up until that point, had more experience producing movies and had only worked with AKA London in the theatrical environment. Their experience working with AKA London was very much one of a full-service philosophy, so they were used to being able to pick up the phone and have a conversation about advertising, marketing, digital, any part of the campaign, with the same group of people and, at that time, on Broadway it was very much more focused on advertising agencies, separate marketing agencies, separate digital agencies and that was the situation with Billy Elliot. So I initially came over here working with Working Title to do six months of working on Billy Elliot, essentially almost acting as an in-house marketing director, although I was not in-house, pulling together all of the different elements of the campaign and making sure that everybody was moving in the same direction at the same time. Fairly quickly I saw that there was an opportunity in the marketplace to have the service offering that we had really based the London company on, which was this idea of having everything under one roof, and really being very accountable to the ticket sales. So we’ve always had in-house analysts looking at the performance of our campaign, the box office and ticketing results, and using that to guide the campaign and the strategies that we recommend. So I stayed over and above the six months and it was interesting because it around about three months after I got here was the economic crash of 2008. So that was a really interesting time to be in the market here and I think that it was one of the things that contributed to producers wanting to look at what their various options were. In addition to that, there were some producers that perhaps previously had in-house marketing directors on staff that no longer had them on staff so I picked up a few projects, one of them being A Little Night Music with Catherine Zeta-Jones, where I essentially worked alongside the agencies working on that show as a marketing director. As the business grew we got to the summer of 2010 and that’s when we launched the full service agency. My business partner over here, Scott Moore, who’s fabulous, joined us and we launched the agency that summer with very little fanfare, just a few phone calls, and it was off to the races, so to speak.

Ken: And I’ve actually known Scott since 1993 when he was the first company manager I ever assisted. I’ve known him a very long time and was glad to see him land at an agency because I’ve been following his marketing prowess for years. Let’s go back a few years before that. Where did you catch the marketing bug? What about it excites you?

Liz: Well I trained as a journalist. That was my initial career path and fairly quickly, coming out of that training, I worked in PR for a minute and then started work in this industry, so I’ve been doing it my entire adult career, essentially. I started at AKA at a fairly young age, which I shall not say here because people would then be able to work out my age, but at a fairly young age and AKA London was very small at that time. I think there were about 12 people in the London office, which of course now is close to 150, I think. And the good thing about that, for my own personal experience, was that the company wasn’t divided into departments at that point. Really, if you were working on a show, you did everything on that show, from inputting the box office data to making partnerships and promotions with the brands that you wanted to work with, to booking the media . . . there was less online at that time, it was around 2000. But really you were responsible for everything and it really instilled in me a very holistic understanding of all of the different components that it takes to sell tickets for a show. You would be at the theater every night seeing the people that you had essentially driven there and it created a huge amount of responsibility to that and I think that it was seeing the change that you can affect in the campaign that you run that was the thing that really excited me about advertising and marketing and has driven me to continue doing it ever since.

Ken: So you’re one of the few people that have actually worked in the trenches on both sides of the pond, handling the marketing and the show specifics. A lot of people produce on both sides but not as many people get their hands dirty. What are the main differences between advertising and marketing on the West End, London, versus Broadway?

Liz: There’s a few. Not necessarily the biggest difference but one that certainly springs to mind is that the ticketing landscape is quite different, or at least historically has been quite different. Ticket agents, we call them in London, will be given allocations of tickets when you’re putting the show on sale and what that does is create a situation whereby there are multiple agents who are helping you market your show because it benefits them. So in some ways that gives you more marketing assets to work with that perhaps don’t cost the show money on their budget, they cost the show money on an inside commission. Obviously we’ve seen the way that the brokers work in this market. That’s starting to change on Broadway and I think that it’s going to be really interesting as we see things like TodayTix coming into the market and how that’s going to change the Broadway landscape moving forward. So that’s one piece. Another piece is the price of everything. I think if we’d been talking about this even a year ago I probably would have made more of a point of the different costs of advertising. The gap is becoming smaller, year on year, but ultimately it’s a well-known fact that it costs less money to produce a show in the West End and that extends across many things. Of course there are unions, which keeps costs down in London, but also staffing costs are less, so within the advertising and marketing business people have lower salaries in that world. The media itself is less money, so peoples’ advertising budgets are not quite as large which means, again, the cost to produce a show is slightly less, so that’s interesting. I was actually speaking to a colleague in London a few days ago about what they’re spending now. Obviously I haven’t been there for nearly seven years. And the play budgets, on average a play budget, pre-opening, is still around £65,000 and weekly it’s £10-15,000 per week that they’re spending on media on their full service ad campaigns, which is a pretty big difference. The type of media they’re buying is also different, although not completely different. There is less TV. Musicals rely incredibly heavily on TV buys here and, again, I think that’s something else that’s going to shift and change over the coming years, but for now we’re spending a huge amount of money, a huge portion of their budget, on TV. In London, some of the bigger musicals will do TV, and when they do they’ll do it for short bursts, so they might do four ten-day, two week bursts of TV a year, as opposed to a more consistent presence that we would have on a large musical here. There’s a lot of outdoor in London, so you take a lot of advantage of the London Underground, posters, the four sheets, the bus shelter campaigns. You spend more money outdoors there than I think you spend here, even taking into account the cost of Times Square billboards. I should probably look at that. Online, of course, is a component there and has grown in the same way that it’s grown here. And print advertising . . . I wouldn’t say that they spend more money on print but there’s certainly a larger presence of print advertising in the UK, not least because there are more publications. There are more newspapers in England that target a theater going demographic than perhaps they do here, so you have The Times, The Telegraph, The Guardian, The Independent to a slightly lesser extent, it has a smaller circulation, and the Evening Standard. They are all publications that, if you were running a print campaign, you would run in those papers, as opposed to the conversation we have here, which is, “Does The New York Times and print still work?” And it’s a question that we all ask ourselves and it comes up in multiple ad meetings every season. So those are some of the differences to the campaigns. There are perhaps fewer people in the room in London. The full service agency philosophy is much more established there so I think that producers are used to having fewer advertising professionals in the room. And there are also fewer producers in the room in many instances.

Ken: We’ll get to that in a second, but you raise an interesting question. You said a question that comes up in almost all of your ad meetings now is whether or not The New York Times print actually works. Well, what do you think? You’re the expert, does a full page ad in The New York Times work these days?

Liz: I think every client has asked me my opinion on that and they will all tell you that I feel that it has its place for the right show at the right time with the right message. However, one shouldn’t except to place a print ad in The New York Times and necessarily see the immediate uptick in sales that it perhaps once created. We’re incredibly big on layered campaigns. It’s part of this whole full-service integrated philosophy, that you can’t expect one thing to work on its own, whether that be a New York Times print ad or a TV campaign or a direct mail campaign dropping. These things are all creating impressions and, to some degree, there’s a message in the medium itself. So for launching a play . . . Wolf Hall, for example, is a play that we’re working on at the moment. We’ve had terrific success with print ads in The New York Times for that play. It speaks to the literary audience as well as the RSC audience and, of course, it’s just garnered terrific reviews so it’s a great showcase to be able to position those reviews in a heftier way than you might be able to do on TV. Interestingly, with Wolf Hall, there’s also a TV series running at the moment for Wolf Hall. So it creates a situation whereby you have to consider which mediums are best for that show at that time and when you’re dealing with situations like that, sometimes you go, “Okay, well let’s move it to a different platform where we can own the theatrical sensibility that the plays have.” So, yes, I think print is not dead, but it should be considered in a different way to the way it was once considered. and I would like to answer that question every year because I think the answer may shift every year as other mediums develop.

Ken: I think that’s the perfect answer. I’ll never forget the first day of Macbeth and the look on everyone’s faces when I said, “I think we should do a full page ad in The New York Times,” because I agree, there’s a place for it, it just has to be the right show and the right message you want to convey. But let me ask you, do you have a favorite type of media? Or let me ask you this, let me put it a little more lucidly. You’re advertising a show and you can only choose one form of media . . . outdoor, direct mail, online, TV, whatever it is, and I’m telling you, there is a gun to your head and someone says, “You’ve only got one choice to make.” What would you choose?

Liz: What’s the show?

Ken: I knew you were going to ask that. It doesn’t matter. I’m just going for your favorite or whatever you think would be the most effective regardless of the show.

Liz: I will answer your question but I would say that I think so much of it is based on what the show is. Every media mix is and should be different for the show that you’re representing. However, gun to my head, don’t know the show, have to pick a medium, I would say at this point probably online. And the reason I would say that is because you could do both what television does and what print does in an online environment. You can give people long form content . . . native advertising is really taking off now in what I would refer to as “real world advertising,” so we’re starting to utilize it more in theatrical advertising. So we can provide people long form content, we can give them the kind of detailed information that a print ad might have once, historically, done. And, likewise, streaming, pre-roll, you can put television, moving assets, online and deliver the same kind of message that you’re also aiming to deliver on television. So if I had to choose one, not knowing the show, I would say it would be digital and online advertising.

Ken: I didn’t expect Liz to actually answer that question so I’m glad I got that out of her.

Liz: I think I qualified it enough.

Ken: Yes, very good. Now, listen, it’s not uncommon to hear producers around the city complain about anything or everything, but one of the common things that we often gripe about when talking about ad agencies is, “I always hear the same ideas. It’s like the handout they gave me, it could have been from the meeting before me and they just changed the title of the show.” Now, what I love about your agency is that I never feel that when I walk in through the door. I always feel like there’s something new and fresh, and I’ll let you even talk about your moment of Zen at the end of every day, but how do you come up with campaign ideas? What’s your process for, “Okay, we’re doing a new musical, it’s called Coffee Cup: The Musical.” Then what? What’s the process?

Liz: Thank you, firstly, for everything that you just said. It’s something we really strive for so I’m really pleased that, as a client, you’ve noticed it. We’re very collaborative. The team is incredibly collaborative with each other, we spend a lot of time brainstorming across departments and I think that’s really useful because it allows us to really come to a shared vision about what we want to achieve for any of our shows, and that vision could be something like a creative message. So, for example, Matilda, one of our musicals, we just put out a TV commercial using the song from the show “When I Grow Up” and using the hashtag “#whenigrowup.” That wasn’t just a conversation about, “Let’s make a TV commercial and put it on TV.” It’s, “What do we want to say about the show overall and how can we do that in all of the different assets that we have available to us?” We have a mantra, internally, I’ve always said to my team that we have to think about these shows individually. We have to find the right way in to each of these shows to find their audience and to speak about them in a different way because otherwise it does become like wallpaper. It’s interesting, I was speaking to a friend of mine this weekend who doesn’t work in the industry but is a creative director. And I said something about a new TV commercial that we’re putting out and he said to me, “What does it say? ‘The New York Times says it’s great’?” and I said, “No, actually, we haven’t used quotes,” and the shock and horror that a theatrical commercial would go out into the world without that kind of formulaic, “This review said this, this review said that . . .” So I think that it is important that we continue to question ourselves and each other and our clients. “How can we do this differently? And is there a more efficient way of getting a specific message out about a show to an audience that isn’t perhaps what you had previously considered?” I think I’m talking in circles slightly, so forgive me for that, but the other thing I would say . . . and I think this is where the challenge comes in and I know that you and I have discussed this in the past . . . is that Broadway is incredibly risky as a business entity and we are often weighing up, I think producers and agencies are forced to weigh up, the pros and cons of doing something new versus doing something tried and true. And when there are so many plates to spin and so many risks to take with putting on a show, it’s incredibly difficult, sometimes, to say to a client, “This thing’s never been done before and we don’t know if it will work. Our instinct tells us it will work, our research tells us it will work, and we’ve tested it and that says it will work but it’s never been done before and we think that you should spend your money on it.” It’s difficult when you can say, “This is another thing that has been done by ten shows before and we’re previously seen these kind of results.” It’s about a balance of doing both of those things to ensure that you deliver campaigns which can activate ticket sales.

Ken: I think that’s a very, very good point. We like to gripe about “no new ideas” but at the same time we don’t often say “yes” to a lot of those new ideas, in defense of the agencies out there. It’s up to producers to challenge their agencies and then give things a shot. At the end of every meeting that I go to at AKA there is a moment of Zen, there is some new idea. I actually, on my shows, try to save a portion of my budget for what I call “mad money,” which is something from me every week to try something a little new to see if we can find a new way to talk to our consumers. What do you guys think about research? Are you focus group people, do you like it?

Liz: We’re big research people. I would say we’re big data people, so that comes back to the box office and ticketing analysis. We have what we call an insights department in-house in the agency and have always had that. The insights department started out as being a department which focused very much on looking ahead with our box office and ticketing results. So we could be looking back to look forward, I should say, so that we could be really accountable to the recommendations that we were putting forward for future activity. In the advertising industry it is the time of data. There is so much more data available to us now in so many ways online, analytics, to look at the way people behave on your website, looking at the way people react to online advertising, and indeed focus groups, both in person and online. So the insights department now also focus on those areas of research. We have our own research list . . . I think it’s about 9,000 names at this point . . . that we’ve built up that we use for the benefits of our clients to be able to test things in perhaps a more cost-effective way than a full on focus group. I think that focus groups often tell you what you already know instinctually. However, coming back to the idea of Broadway being a risky business, the more data you can get, the more information that you can arm yourself with before committing what are, in many instances, large amounts of money and putting a campaign out there, the better. So I believe in it, I support it and I think that the research and data analytics is only going to become a bigger part of what we do, moving forward as an industry.

Ken: One of the things that I love about the industry but is also very challenging, I’m sure, for vendors, is that we have a lot of people that didn’t grow up in our industry that decide to get involved with it, maybe not even from the business world. What do you recommend to people that they do before? If they’ve never been in an ad agency, how could they best prepare for that experience, or what should they learn? What’s the training ground for producers even before they start working with an ad agency?

Liz: We will see producers, co-producers, investors, coming into meetings in the early days and certainly observing, watching the landscape, seeing how lead producers interact with the advertising agencies and really taking a note from that, and I think that’s incredibly smart. I mean, listen, even things like the CTI courses are really good for getting a very black and white breakdown as to what the elements of advertising and how to advertise a show are . . . I’m actually doing one this Sunday. I think the biggest thing I would say, though, is just to talk to your colleagues, to ask questions and to listen and observe. I think one of the things I really enjoy about this business is that I have never been in a situation where someone hasn’t wanted to give back. I mentioned CTI . . . I love doing those things, because to have the opportunity to talk about the theory of what we do and why we do it and how we do it and what works and doesn’t work is really terrific. And I think that any new producer that wants to or is moving towards leading their own projects . . . I think that any colleague, co-producer that they ask for advice and opinions on this, I think that they would share that information freely and willingly.

Ken: What do you think the media landscape is hoping to look like a decade from now? Where do you think Broadway shows will be advertised?

Liz: That’s a great question. We talk about it a lot. It’s all about digital, and when I say digital, I don’t just mean online advertising, necessarily, in the ways that we see it today, although I think that will be part of the landscape as well. You can see that outdoors is going digital, radio stations are going digital, print . . . obviously newspapers have already gone digital, so I think that what we will see is that more and more and more of the platforms that we utilize to advertise theater are going to be in a digital environment. And that could be a digital billboard versus a still billboard, streaming versus typical TV. The TV question is a big one because I think the same conversations that people have been having for the last five years about whether print is dead is going to be a conversation we’re going to be having about TV in the next five years. We’ll be sitting here and you’ll say, “But should people still advertise on TV?” and I’ll say, “Right show, right time, right message.” But the fact is that that industry is changing in the same way that the newspaper and magazine industry changed with the advent of online, and we would be stupid not to embrace that at the earliest possible moment. So I think, overall, if I had to give you that answer in a nutshell, which I realize I have not done, I would say it would be a more targeted campaign in mostly digital formats. And the targeted thing is interesting . . . I was talking to some of the team members about this recently. So much of the advertising and the marketing that we’re able to do at this point is becoming so much more targeted, which is brilliant because it helps us utilize the budgets to the best possibilities, but e-mail blasts at this point are becoming a lot more targeted, direct mail is becoming a lot more targeted. I think as we move in terms of how you’re selecting who you’re actually reaching you can select by when they typically buy tickets, the price point that they typically spend and so on and so forth. And I think as we move from TV into utilizing more online and more streaming behavioral targeting, for example, it’s interesting for what the future looks like because we know we have a challenge on Broadway whereby we have a smaller group of people buying multiple tickets and we’re not necessarily generating new audiences, and I think the more targeted these campaigns get over time, what does that mean in five or ten years’ time when we can be so specific about who we’re reaching that we’re not reaching anyone who might be on the fence about going to the theater to bring them towards wanting to be a theatergoer in the first place. It’s a question that I think we should all ask ourselves.

Ken: That is a scary question . . . has more targeting actually narrowed the potential audience?

Liz: I don’t know yet but it’s something we’re looking at.

Ken: Scary. You are in the midst of Tony season now. If someone said to you, “Liz, I want to win a Tony Award and I want to advertise to do it,” what would you do? What would you tell them? Is there now an advertising playbook for winning a Tony Award?

Liz: No, I don’t think there is. I think advertising can help sell tickets, but ultimately I don’t believe that there’s a step-by-step advertising guide to winning a Tony. I think that certain choices about what you’re saying in your advertising, when you’re saying it and who you’re saying it to can help push the dial in a certain direction, and it can also hurt you. The wrong advertising can hurt a Tony campaign, I think is also something that should be considered.

Ken: There’s another interesting thought there, that actually advertising to win one can lose you one. You’ve worked with a lot of producers over the course of your years here . . . which ones do you like?

Liz: I like you, Ken.

Ken: Oh, thank you very much.

Liz: Not just because you’re sitting opposite me and representing one of our fabulous shows right now.

Ken: Describe the characteristics, if you will.

Liz: We talk a lot about how we want to do good work. As an advertising agency, you’re ultimately coming to work every day because you want to do good work that’s effective in its campaigns and what are the environments that best allow for good work to happen? And I think that trusting, open, collaborative relationships with your clients ultimately get the best out of an agency and get an agency to put its best work out there. This does not come from me, it comes from a book that I enjoy reading and quote to my team quite a lot, but there’s this whole idea of a trust triangle, that you can’t have great work without a great relationship, that a great relationship builds trust which, in turn, creates great work, and that’s a philosophy that we all work on a great deal. I know that our team are going to walk on hot coals to make a show a success. I know they will, and the idea that they’re in partnership with their clients to do that is only going to make them walk all that much faster. So open, trusting, collaborative clients that are willing to take risks.

Ken: I have a lot of listeners and readers out there that are producing their own shows, just maybe on a slightly smaller scale than what you’re used to working with on a day-to-day basis, but they’re all trying, of course, to get the word out about their show. If you had a very small show, a very teeny, tiny advertising budget, what would you advise someone doing a showcase, for example in my 150 seat theater or even in their home town in Chattanooga, Tennessee? What would you tell them to do to try to get the word out and put butts in seats?

Liz: I think on that scale, utilizing the team that you have is the first thing, so everybody has the ability with most people, particularly in our industry, having social platforms now that they can push information out on. I’d say really look at your own team and say, “Okay, what are you putting out there on your social platforms?” Everyone that’s in your cast, the people who work on the box office in your little venue, make sure that they’re putting the word out there for you across their platforms. I think, in that instance, being really specific about who your audience are, not trying to spread a campaign too thin, because ultimately you won’t achieve any cut through. Pick a medium, pick a message, pick an audience and go for them is what I would say.

Ken: Okay, my last question, which has become our famous genie question now . . . I want you to imagine that the genie from Aladdin shows up and says, “Liz, I love your accent so I’m going to give you one wish. If there was one thing you wanted to change about Broadway, what would that thing be? What keeps you up at night, what drives you crazy, what can you absolutely not stand? With the snap of a finger, a wave of my wand . . .” if the genie even has a wand. I say that every time, I don’t know if he does . . . what would you have that genie wish away?

Liz: There are two things that come to mind.

Ken: You can only choose one. There is a gun to your head.

Liz: It’s a well-known saying in advertising that only 50% of advertising works, we just don’t know which 50%. I’d like that genie to tell me which 50%.

Ken: Very good answer. I’ll let you squeeze in the second one.

Liz: I think that, as an industry, I would love to see us all embrace the idea of what we can do and how we can do things as opposed to, I think, something that happens to us, on occasion to us all, is we focus a little bit too much on why we can’t do something in our industry to move it forward and I think that we have to be forward thinking all the time to keep a broad range and keep theater at the forefront of its game.

Ken: What was the name of that book that you recommend?

Liz: It’s called The Art of Client Service.

Ken: The Art of Client Service. We’ll throw a link to that.

Liz: It’s fabulous. It’s by a gentleman called Robert Solomon. I make all of our client service team read it when they start.

Ken: Nice, required reading at AKA. Okay, I will let Liz get back to her very, very busy Tony season. She’s got Tony Awards to win, even though advertising can’t do it, as she said. Thank you very much for doing this, Liz. Thank all of you for listening and we’ll see you next time.

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Ken created one of the first Broadway podcasts, recording over 250 episodes over 7 years. It features interviews with A-listers in the theater about how they “made it”, including 2 Pulitzer Prize Winners, 7 Academy Award Winners and 76 Tony Award winners. Notable guests include Pasek & Paul, Kenny Leon, Lynn Ahrens and more.