Wednesday, February 18, 2009

psycho, founder's syndrome and letting go

working with a couple of arts organizations - in an ad hoc way - looking at their branding and trying to help them create a more compelling presence and more effective communication.

in this economy, it’s obviously crucial to find ways to drum up money to stay alive - whether it's from ad revenue or audience size.

what’s really interesting (and frustrating) is how much harder it is to inspire change in a loosey-goosey art magazine or dance company or gallery.

a focus group participant sneered, “the problem is founder’s syndrome! they think they got the formula down right from the start and now they’re choking out their audiences.”

when i first came to nyc, one of my first jobs was as a copyeditor and eventually, managing editor of BOMB magazine - then 6 or 7 years old - run out of betsy sussler (the founder and publisher)’s loft.

it was a seething hotbed of artistic inquiry and experimentation. back in the prehistoric times, we used hot wax to glue typeset words and images to boards which then went to the printer to be copied turned into pages. artists manipulated the boards themselves. in our pages, emerging writers, performance artists, architects, filmmakers questioned authority. it was exactly what people want right now.

today, BOMB has real offices in brooklyn, it’s printed on heavy art-gallery-worthy paperstock, with neat, orderly pages. the vanguard is now the old guard. betsy sussler is a legend. she and BOMB magazine are synonymous.

the Battery Dance Company started 34 years ago in tribeca back when it was a land of outlaw artists. jonathan hollander, the founder and choreographer, started the downtown dance festival, helped found the indian-american arts council and was known for his cross-cultural, multiracial exchanges and collaborations. it's breathing and unexpected and exactly what people want to see. but they don't. not enough.

today, Battery Dance Company is fighting to stay visible in the cultural landscape of tribeca (all right, most of the landscape is real estate and restaurants now).

last tuesday, i had breakfast with a bright young swiss woman who oversees the marketing and communication for a swiss fashion brand called AKRIS. AKRIS is the swiss banker of fashion. quietly luxurious. understated, clean and precise. exactly what people who bring home their hermes stuff in plain brown paperbags need. discreet indulgence.

but AKRIS has been owned and run by the same swiss family forever. and almost everyone who works there, from the accountant to the graphic designer is related somehow.

so she’s facing similar digging-in-the-heels because they’ve been successful and always had buyers. (but now those buyers are getting old). and young buyers have never even heard of them.

and the problem is the same – none of the three had to ask the hard cut-to-the-chase, why-is-this-relevant? why-are-we-here? questions that most business people are forced to answer.

so how do you stay alive in your mindshare?

these brands were their founders’ babies.

now they are kicking and screaming teenagers. they’ve got a lot of icons to smash.

in order to stay exciting and compelling and perpetually fresh to new audiences, they will have to question and justify and announce their existence over and over again. in new ways.

if the founders hold on to them, stick to the tried-and-true, keep them safe, it’ll turn into Psycho.

they’ll kill their parents. and extinguish themselves.

teenagers have to take all (or most of)same the insane risks and explosive actions, they have to keep questioning authority and paying attention to what’s current.

all three of the brands have exactly WHAT PEOPLE WANT NOW.

they just need to let them go - set them free.
that's the chance. and the joy.

please, i have human teenagers myself. i know.


Battery Dance Company said...

Your points are well taken and anyone reading this posting from you should be aware that you are one of those good spirits who is lending a helping hand in this catastrophic environment. Increasingly, I think we will go back to the model of sharing, bartering and in-kind support when cash has dried up. Hooray for talented and generous people like you!

ashraf said...

You should look at 1stfans on the Brooklyn Museum site, they have been trying to create a new technology/new economy way of getting new members and greater involvement, and so far its been successful.