The responsibility of using public money

Half of my career was spent working solely in the private sector, fashion, retail, commercial art; financial accountability varied, the definition of 'essential expenditure' also varied quite dramatically, however my own marketing 'training' if you like (both experience and formally taught) has always placed a huge importance on the measurement of spend and the return on investment (ROI).

When I decided to start Crystlsd, with the aim of supporting arts, heritage and cultural venues to tell their unique story and reach people with it, I assumed that the accountability in these sectors would be off-the-scale regulated. I assumed that spending public money would bring with it such an ingrained sense of responsibility that every expenditure would be considered through a lens of expertise and measured against the objectives of the organisation. 

I was wrong. In the five years since Crystlsd began, and the some ten years I have been involved in marketing for arts and culture, I have been surprised at how money can be spent seemingly without thought.

From a small fry example I witnessed, where an organisation re-printed 400 t-shirts because they wanted to put another logo on them, (total spent; £750, could have spent; £300) to a lack of planning and organisation meaning a print job quoted at £1 per copy went to £2 per copy because it had to be printed through the night in order to make a deadline, to a few thousand pounds of wasted funds because a project continually missed deadlines.

Tick-tock, tick-tock on the deadlines....

Tick-tock, tick-tock on the deadlines....

Poor project management results in excess spending. That's not new information to any of us. When a project overruns it gets harder to meet deadlines, more people have to be drafted in, suppliers are asked to go above and beyond, with shorter and shorter time frames and the bills stack up.

What I find myself asking is, how is this allowed to happen with public money? When a private company changes a project, moves the goalposts, misses a deadline, reprints t-shirts or whatever it may be, no doubt it's frustrating for the people working on the project, and it definitely doesn't help your supplier or stakeholder relationships, but - that company pays for it, from their profits. Fine, on you go, it's not the best way to manage a project or a business for that matter, but it's your prerogative as a private company. 

When a publicly funded project is mismanaged, the money needed to solve those problems is money from the public fund. Surely, that cannot be right? Come on now? Can it? 

Arts, culture and heritage organisations in receipt of public money are in such a unique and privileged position to be able to deliver potential life-changing, if not day-enhancing, experiences to the public, but they can only do that if the structure and expertise are in place to spend that money well, ethically and appropriately.

Expertise is undervalued and essential in the arts and culture sectors

Expertise is undervalued and essential in the arts and culture sectors

What does this mean?

Spending public money well; grounding decisions in expertise. Making uninformed decisions about how to spend money will lead to waste unless you are lucky, and luck is not a business strategy.

Spending public money ethically; unethical spending of public money is, for example, delivering an exhibition of all white, male artists... and then asking your marketing team to reach 'new, diverse and hard to reach audiences' to attend the exhibition. It's not doing your due diligence in understanding your audiences, or your responsibility as a custodian of public funds. 

Spending public money appropriately; when you are in receipt of public money, it will come with conditions; diversity, equality, accessibility for certain, perhaps creative risk-taking, perhaps growing audiences. But almost unquestionably, public money is about Opportunity. Opportunity for artists, for individuals, for communities, for regions. And so, the inappropriate spending of money might be; falling back on the same artists time and time again, sending money outside of a community or region when a project is specifically for that community or region, even, in my view, contracting an un-diverse (is that a word?) agency to deliver your marketing for Black History Month... that's an example, but I'd bet on it having happened.

There's a transparency required with public money, a self-awareness and a balancing of commercial acumen with cultural ambition; veer too far one way, and you risk becoming divorced from the purpose of the project, too far the other and you risk being irresponsible with the funds you have been provided.

When it comes to marketing and communications, it's all about being informed before you commit to spend - here are a few things to think about:

1. Be wise: do your research, know what you're spending money on and why, for example, Facebook adverts, do they work for your business? How do you know? How do you measure that? Are you familiar with Facebook Insights and the application of that data to your organisation? Are you familiar with best practice for high converting Facebook adverts? As an arts and culture organisation you need understand the risk and reward when it comes to investing money in marketing. 

2. Collaborate: talk to other arts and culture organisations in the same field or region, about the marketing and communications activity they have been doing, what worked for them? Can you collaborate on a study to understand the efficacy of certain marketing tactics. For example, pooling your anonymised audience data might give you a better understanding of opportunities for growth. 

3. Measure: measure everything you do where you can, online this is simple; use the social media insights provided on all platforms, track hashtags, track your links, use Google Analytics, set up landing pages for certain projects so you can see the exact pull that marketing is having on your audience, use tools such as CoverageBook to see the reach and influence of your PR - this isn't expensive and it can help you benchmark success, and thus, justify your spend. 

4. Test: testing seems like a luxury for many arts and culture organisations because testing requires the time and money to experiment. However, almost all of your activity can support the testing-mentality as long as you are able to measure and review the results, making small tweaks as you go.