This is a keynote speech I made to the Arts Marketing Association in December 2017….

I was kindly invited to speak to you today because of a project that I have recently been working on for the government. I was not a full time Civil Servant I was seconded over from my role at the time running, Digital Production for BBC Studios. Whilst working inside DCMS I was asked to uphold the three articles of Civil Service Faith;

It takes longer to do things quickly

It is more expensive to do them cheaply

And it’s more democratic to do them in secret.

And with that first article in mind I do want to point out that our report has not yet been published and at the moment I’m not able to share any of its recommendations. I am speaking today under my own steam and in my own capacity as a Digital Don Quixote who has been tilting at Linear Windmills for far too many years. What I do want to share with you though is some of my observations from spending time inside Whitehall and from listening to people across the cultural landscape.

I also want to share with you when I believe we will have the opportunity to  deliver on John Meynard Keynes vision of  “a time when the theatre, the concert hall & the gallery will be a living element in everybody’s upbringing” But that opportunity that we have in front of us right now, will only be found if we truly question what it means to work digitally, if we understand the business we are really in – and if we respond positively to change.

Now the origins of our DCMS Project go back to the Culture White Paper of 2016, which under Ed Vaizey announced a review with one simple aim, making the UK one of the worlds leading countries for digitised collections. But as it takes two to Quango under the next Culture Minister Matt Hancock the review evolved…With the aim of pulling the technology and cultural sectors towards each

And focussing around a series of specific themes. With my own workstream concentrated around access to and engagement of , the group of people formerly known as the audience. We launched our own consultation platform, receiving hundreds of contributions. And from those contributions, themes began to emerge.

The Natural History Museum told us, “We  need to acknowledge that public expectations are changing rapidly – much of our younger audience see sharing digitally-enhanced video as a normal part of life, and cultural institutions need to embrace new technology to stay relevant.”

The Arts Council’s Creative People & Places Project in Northumberland said that “We need an arts and cultural sector that is more representative of society as a whole and which has multiple entry points for people to take part… Digital platforms are part of the mix, enabling new collaborations, supporting co-creation and increasing  choice.”

And Helen N – (I love the anonymity that message boards allow)

If you look at some of the most successful digital organisations, the public do a lot of the work. Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, WordPress, ebay, even Google owe their positions to the number of people using them and stocking them with content. ….

“Bloggers, vloggers, artists, writers, activists and almost everyone loves to see their contribution to the world. They crave views and votes and in turn want to reward others by voting. They want to express what something means to them, or doesn’t. They want to agree or not. Existing culture is just a spring board for them to create their own.”

Across the board there was a recognition that Technology empowers people and is shifting traditional power relationships. The internet savvy public is now in the majority in the UK. The age of being surprised by the ability to accomplish anything on the internet has long since passed us by. The public expects to be able to catch up on TV & Radio its missed, it expects to browse the categories of libraries, museums and galleries. Meeting or exceeding the expectation of the  public is the currency by which public institutions are valued  and so if those institutions are to remain relevant it is vital that the interactions evolve as expectations do. And there are many other reasons why these institutions need to evolve;

Taking Part data shows us that 22% of people did not attend an arts sector institution or event in 2015/6 – with the vast majority attending mainly film or popular arts (popular music, plays, pantomime etc….) Infact 38.5% of those surveyed said their cultural participation came through popular arts or film. With just 10.1% regularly attending a wide variety of arts & culture. In short we are super-serving a particular demographic and our physical and digital cultural offer is reaching the same or similar audiences in most instances.  And the audiences we have are not getting any younger.

If you look at recent Ofcom data a quarter of adults in England use the internet for cultural purposes; three in ten (29%) said they had accessed a museum or gallery website in the previous 12 months, but the majority of those audiences were over the age of 45.   And this is exactly the sort of dilemma we faced at the BBC. Ageing audiences, consuming traditional content in significant volumes. Whilst around us old ecosystems were unravelling and new ones emerging.

Whatever you are producing, directing or curating now,  it better be as good as a picture of a cow photobombing a horse in a field. We are now in a world of plenty fighting for the currency of attention, and attention is what defines media and most forms of cultural engagement. Facebook, Instagram & Snap are taking moments away from  other media. They now have our attention. That has left more traditional players  like the BBC & countless Arts & cultural organisations with the feeling that they need to respond to “digital”, around specific technology challenges, around the gaps in existing arts provision, around the curation and commissioning of a digital arts website or around broad and vague notions of public service. But, At times of great change we risk the retreat to high water and falling back on what we know. 

Take Nokia for example. If Nokia had really been in the business of connecting people they would have invented Facebook. And if they had responded positively to change they would have embraced the app ecosystem developed by Apple & android that ultimately crushed them. Nokia knew about phones. They just didn’t know what phones would become.  To not fall back onto the familiar and to unlock the opportunity in front of us. We need to respond positively to change and we need to have absolute confidence about the business that we are really in. What for example does it really mean to work digitally?

Tom Loosemore worked at the BBC, he then helped build out the Government’s Digital Services and he now leads a lot of the Co-Ops Digital Activity. He got me into working digitally when almost ten years ago he showed me a map for the future of – when I asked him why comedy wasn’t on it yet – he said thats because nobody has worked out what to do with yet – and so my journey began.

I work digitally because I think I am in the business of story and because we now have the most amazing tools at our disposal. I work digitally because I know that our relationship with audiences is changing & that the prize on offer is to put audiences and audience service design at the heart of future content strategies. And I work digitally because its not just about working in the online world. It’s about enabling existing organisations to offer new experiences, and to reach new audiences but most of all, it’s about reacting positively to change.

One of my former bosses and Head of Digital at the BBC, Ralph Rivera had come to this behemoth of a broadcaster from AOL and before that a background in the gaming industry. He looked at digital transformation in three ways;

He referred to “old things in old ways” –  we’ve always made it like this and shared it with you like this, and its always worked like this

Then “old things in new ways” – “we’ve always made it like this but now we can share it with you in all sorts of new and exciting ways, but it still works like this”

And finally “new things in new ways” – “we’ve not made this before, we’re not quite sure how it works – will you share it”?

Now if you’ll forgive the clumsy use of Powerpoint & a heavy handed metaphor. I believe that at the moment a lot of UK Cultural organisations  thinks that different forms of distribution for the same forms  of content will help them rise to the challenges they are facing.

And I believe that, a pan is a pan is a pan

And in  this case that Pan is Shakespeare

You can film the most amazing theatrical experience, you can distribute that on iPlayer, on NT Live or on YouTube, but what the Taking Part Data tells us is that you’re going to reach the same or similar sorts of audiences that you always have. To reach new audiences, especially online, we need to think about form, about need state, about user experience, and about how we raise audience expectations.

Now nobody’s expectations were raised by the set of Shakespeare GIF’s we produced for Shakespeare Lives last year – but that’s because ( & I do expect to hear a aah of realisation at this bit) in maturing organisations you tend to see the words “digitial” & “marketing” quite close together. BUT one of the hardest jobs you’ll ever have is to market something digitally that has no obvious, relationship with, connection to or reason for existing on a digital platform. People make money from social media by using it as a sales tool, to push, to promote, to effectively broadcast – but it is at its most effective when you use it organically, when you use it to listen, & to join conversations. Take for example the recent Twitter war between the Science Museum & The Natural History Museum.

So how do you transition from old things in new ways or marketing old things in new ways to new things in new ways & why should you even bother. We need to bother, because the way that we interact with culture is  changing. Audiences are no longer simply passive receivers.  Infact the  people formerly known as the audience can play a more active role than was ever previously possible, ranging from selecting on-demand content, through to controlling interactive experiences, to the co-creation of the artwork itself.

More & more content is being consumed online along with increases in the opportunity to consume. Around 7 in 10 UK Adults use a smartphone, 3 in 4 UK Internet Users have a social media account. The Natural History Museum already reaches more people in a single month through social platforms than visit the museum in person during a whole year.

To compete for the currency of attention the cultural sector needs to to adopt the norms of other digital businesses & organisations. It needs to create the conditions in which agile development, data informed decision making & audience centred design thinking are not only encouraged but adopted across the sector.


And digital businesses and organisation invest in innovative processes, not just innovative ideas. So I would advocate investing in a shared infrastructure, and an approach to innovation that would avoid the fragmented support for initiatives that do not join up which is currently prevalent. Actually I wouldn’t invest at all – I’d just borrow what already exists. In 2015 we developed and launched a home for new ideas at the BBC and we called it Taster. Taster was where we road tested new formats, new technologies, and new talent all in front of the audience. Here’s a few of things we made in 2016.

Since 2015 Taster has published over 200 pilots, had over 50 million page views, and won numerous awards – but most importantly it gave us valuable audience insight & analytics that helped inform decision making. And what we learnt from Taster is that you dont pilot single innovative ideas, you pilot the process. You identify digital behaviours, you laser in what makes people share content, you licence a new technology, or you develop a new digital format and then you repeatedly pilot with many different teams till you know if what you’ve produced truly can scale,

The annual cost of running BBC taster was less than a single episode of Dr Who, and whilst many pilots came to nothing there was an acceptance from senior leadership that we needed to adopt the fast fail culture of digital businesses.  That R&D was a core part of our public mission and that we had to anticipate and respond to changing audience behaviour.

But if we jump back into the cultural landscape and  look at the results from this years Nesta Digital Culture Survey we see that there is a decline in reported R&D behaviours over the last three years. When conversely those that have experimented have reported increased impact across all areas of their organisations as a consequence. But Those organisations that are being brave, that are questioning what it means to work digitally, and that are responding positively to change are doing some amazing things;

Look for example what’s been happening in Amsterdam 

And there are countless other examples as well from the Forever Project that you’ll hear more about today, Arts Admins and GMV’s  Project Kiwi that’s also here. As well as the Creative XR programme, sponsored by the Arts Council & Digital Catapult that is exploring the opportunities for immersive content across the cultural sector.

The digital world is a networked world.  To succeed digitally Our cultural institutions need to develop a culture of collaboration, particularly across traditional boundaries, between different parts of the sector, between different sectors and between local and national bodies. And perhaps that is where Government can most usefully play a role…

When talking to the V&A about this their Head of Business pointed out to me how almost every cultural institution he’s come across had its catering contract provided by Benugo’s. He also pointed out the absurdity of each institution conducting its own contract negotiation, with no awareness of each other and achieving no economies of scale. 

The key to unlocking digital opportunities lies in closer working relationships , in a simple and routine method for encouraging innovation, and a firm realisation that to work digitally is not about old things in new ways. It’s about focussing on the needs of your audience, its about a rapid, flexible, iterative approach to development where its generally better to be 80 per cent right & quick, than 99 per cent right and slow – and the trick is to know what kind of mistakes its acceptable to make.

Is Culture Digital – well let me answer that with another question.