Producer Ken Davenport on Marketing the Magic of Broadway
The magic of Broadway attracts audiences from across the globe. The stories from these stages bring millions of patrons into theaters and play a significant role in defining the cultural conversation across our country today. Take a stroll through Times Square on a Saturday evening and take a look at the stage doors of Broadway theaters, full of fans waiting to have their Playbill signed. As a marketer, it's one the best examples of fandom you can see with your own eyes.
Recently, I had the opportunity to sit down with Ken Davenport, a Tony-winning producer and prolific leader in the Broadway industry, to discuss his perspective on the Broadway community. He has a proven track record of building passionate communities of audiences and is admired for his ability to challenge the status quo. I truly enjoyed the conversation and think you will as well.
Damian Bazadona: Broadway is a very special place—it's a fairly small industry yet has such incredible fandom around the world. As a producer and entrepreneur in the business, how would you describe what "passion" looks like in the Broadway community?
Ken Davenport: Everyone who works on Broadway is here because at one point in our life, most likely as a kid, our lives were changed because of the theater. We found our family. Our home. And passion in our community isn't passion for our business. It's passion for our family … which includes our audience.
Broadway is home to over 40 shows playing at any given moment of time. What do you think is the special sauce that makes some Broadway brands thrive while others struggle to build a passionate fanbase?
Broadway is in one of the most competitive industries on the planet. Not only because there are over 40 shows running on Broadway at once in New York City, but there are 400 Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway shows along with operas, symphonies, standup comedy shows … and people-watching, which is free! Add to that saturated entertainment market our very high costs of running a show, and it becomes necessary for a show to strike that word-of-mouth match faster than other industries. We can't afford to wait around for audiences to discover us like they might discover a hole-in-the-wall restaurant in a far-off part of town.
So what do you need to capture an audience's attention fast?
Something so unique and so special that people can't help but talk about it. My mission with all of my shows is to be able to say, "This is the first time that [fill in the blank]." What is unique stands out. And what stands out, sells.
"What is unique stands out. And what stands out, sells." I love that quote! So aside from your many successes on Broadway, you are currently producing a highly anticipated Broadway-bound musical based on the legendary Neil Diamond titled A Beautiful Noise. What was it about this show you think will give it a "unique" lane?
Without giving too much away, our production of A Beautiful Noise is unique in that it deals with what an artist like Neil Diamond faces later in his career. In addition, for as much as a superstar as Neil is, there hasn't been a bio-film, big documentary, authorized biography, etc. If you want his story and his music in one place, this is it. You can't get it anywhere else—especially when it is told by incredible artists like our writer, four-time Academy Award nominee Anthony McCarten, whose credits include Bohemian Rhapsody, The Theory of Everything, The Two Popes and The Darkest Hour. If you look at those credits, what do you see? Biographical dramas—it's his specialty. And now he's done what he has done so beautifully on screen for the stage.
It's one thing to be a fan of a Broadway show, it's another to get off your couch and make the commitment to attend a show—which is no small hurdle given the travel and cost. How do you drive "action" in your community?
Sometimes I think we are like the auto industry, which advertises constantly so that when you are ready to buy a car, one brand is top of mind. We need to be present always … but we don't have the budgets of automobile companies. So I endeavor to create a community, so they feel like they must attend to complete their experience with the brand.
I would love for you to expand on this idea of attending the show "to complete their experience." I know what is very challenging in the Broadway business is figuring out how to build a community for a live experience with so many of your fans never actually seeing the live experience given their location, financial means, etc. There are many storytellers from the advertising and marketing community who will read this column that are facing a similar challenge in marketing their brands in retail, hospitality and wellness, for example. What's your advice, given your success?
The challenge is the fun part! It's where we can get creative. I urge brands to brainstorm new ways to deliver their experience and to check their concerns and fears about giving too much away at the conference-room door. In the '80s, I was obsessed with going to see Broadway shows because of what I saw on the Tony Awards or because I heard a cast recording of the show.
Now we have streaming opportunities. Many in my industry still fear that streaming a show or having a movie version or even licensing that show to theater companies in other areas of the world may prevent people from seeing the flagship production. And yes, you may lose a few customers, but you gain much, much more, as I saw when I streamed my off-Broadway production of Daddy Long Legs in 2015 before live streaming theatrical productions was a thing.
What can you show your customer or potential customers? What can you send them? Electronically or physically? How can you get your actual customer to bring home physical memories of their experience to inspire others to have the same experience? When I was 16 and wanted to see The Phantom of the Opera, I didn't have any money or even a license to drive myself to New York City! But the brand made it a "must," so I made it happen. And so will your customers.
You've produced many amazing productions and have built an incredible sense of what works and what doesn't. Is there any particular mistake you see over and over from Broadway brands trying, but not succeeding, in building a passionate fan base? Are there any particular investments you think are critical to build, grow and maintain a passionate fan community?
The biggest mistake is not communicating to them often enough. And thinking that just because you're posting or sending something, that everyone is seeing it. Most of your audience is not, whether you're communicating through email, Instagram or TV ads. So you have to do it more often. And brands need to think more about what is in it for your audience, instead of just trying to sell them a ticket. And more often these days, they don't want a ticket—they want an experience.
Break out your crystal ball. Give me one word to describe your view on the future of Broadway and why you chose that word.
The more forms of digital entertainment that pop up everywhere—from your computer screen, to your phone, to VR goggles—the more the live experience becomes more rare.
And what is more rare is more valuable.
So, yeah, bring on the metaverse … because Broadway is going to be even bigger as a result.
Thank you Ken. And for those of you interested in learning more about the business of Broadway, Ken is the host of a very popular podcast I would highly recommend.
Building Passionate Communities is a regular interview series where Damian Bazadona, president and founder of Situation Group, sits down with extraordinary leaders at organizations that have paved the way in both cultivating passionate communities and driving them to meaningful action. For more about Building Passionate Communities, or to be considered for the series, please get in touch.