Drew Hodges

“Broadway is Back!” We get told often we are there — or at least almost there. But producers of new works know the truth: Existing mega-brands are carrying the weight, and new work we all admire is suffering. For a long time now I have heard a frustration that so much advertising money is spent, but “Is it really working?”

Years ago, I sat on a stage facing 3,000 of the best designers in the country at a national creative conference, speaking alongside my client and longtime friend Jeffrey Seller about how we work together. To my surprise (and embarrassment), Jeffrey told the room that he didn’t think advertising really sold tickets — that great shows sold themselves. I wasn’t just going to roll over and die — onstage no less. I not-so-humbly responded that that was a convenient thing to say from a producer who had had the best branding around over the past decades. (This interchange is captured on video and lives online, but I am not going to just hand it to you. Google if you must.) 

I have been told this very thing over many a dinner table — notably by Broadway sage Manny Azenberg — and this was back when a New York Times announcement ad seemed to actually deliver the beginnings of an advance. Now, everyone is at least thinking this same question (“Is my advertising working?”) and considering where to put their money. Do I make TV? Do I change ad agencies? How do I launch? Do I wait for awards season? Everyone is wondering what works anymore.

Here is what I see that could be better.


Caveat: It isn’t the people.

First, let’s get this out of the way. As an agency founder turned freelance consultant, I now get to work with all of the agencies, and every one one of them is led by terrific, talented people who are working their asses off to create great work. It isn’t them. It might, in fact, be you. It is no secret that my best work came through working with the most visionary of producers. Everyone thinks they are David Merrick. Everyone is not. Better to know it and think about what you need in collaboration with your team, rather than quoting your famous “gut.” Think strategically, not emotionally. Which leads me to my first point…


It’s in the wrong place.

Ours is a luxury product. We all do our best to adjust and make what we do more accessible — but it is. And that means our audience can now afford to eliminate advertising from their lives. Streaming rules. And I don’t believe most people want to save three dollars by subscribing to Hulu with ads. And those that did (myself included) are now wondering what the hell we were thinking. Broadcast TV is expensive to make and difficult to deliver. Sports and the morning shows are the last bastions of live audience ads, but everyone has second screens and avoids them like the plague. Plus, sports is not our audience. Our audience can afford to not see ads. 

Producer Bill Haber once told me our audience does not ride the subway. I begged to differ, having told new Broadway buyers for “Rent” how and where to get tickets via subway ads to great success. But nowadays, my New York friends stand very close to the station wall, with a wary eye scanning the station. You can’t tell me ads are on their minds. And transportation has been privatized — Uber is everywhere. Transit is a difficult ad environment. Remember street sniping? (For younger readers: that’s plastering paper posters on construction sites and the like.) Illegal. What about outdoor commuter rail? Commuters stand at the same place every morning and don’t look up. Just ask one. And finally, Times Square. Yes, our somewhat diminished tourist audience is here, but this environment is difficult to stand out in. So many big brands with bigger budgets than us are fighting to be noticed. This marketplace (outdoor) favors the well-known brand, whether that means a soda or a decades-long running musical. Lastly, there is print. I love it, but most folks I know are running quote ads to appease agents. Sadly, they are simply not delivering sales.

My point is this: The large majority of advertising dollars has to be put someplace people cannot buy their way out of seeing. And it should be targeted to Broadway buyers. More on this later.


It isn’t quotes.

Every quote ad in the Times and other print outlets (from my view) are there primarily because creatives on the show have agents that demand it. We all try to make a quote ad that delivers a clear message quickly. Still, most of these ads end up looking like phone books, ensuring everyone on the show is mentioned. As a result, consumers just turn the page. Worse, when TV ads showcase quote after quote, viewers can rarely tell who said it (often by design on the show’s part). This certainly does not differentiate one show from another, particularly when these ads run back-to-back, as they often do. 

The worst part about quote ads: The consumer does not believe them. I have sat in focus group after focus group where ticketbuyers tell us they think the quotes are made up. They aren’t. We all know that. But consumers continue to doubt, as they all seem the same to them. “Thrilling,” “joyous,” etc., etc. A full review is coherent, our quote ads are not. Moreover, people get their recommendations from their online neighbors. The biggest hits don’t run quotes. “Hamilton” never has. “Rent” never did. And if you’re still going to insist on using quotes, at the very least, make sure they align with a singular message and that they’re not just happy words.


It isn’t a movie poster.

I think I started this. When we photographed the cast of “Rent” for its poster, I was told by the agency that they never photographed casts unless it was to shoot a famous star, like Liza, using a famous photographer “like Scavullo.” When I chose eight main characters for 11 of those photos, director Michael Greif was angry with me for picking out leads when he had worked so hard for every actor to feel a part of an ensemble. But with “Rent” — and “Chicago” — I argued to use photography to tell how it would feel to go, not what was going to happen. I think the style was strong enough and the underpinnings of strategies clear and consistent enough at creating an emotional promise that the show delivered on. So we did more photography. And more photography. Even when there were clear successes like Roz Chast doing “Allergist’s Wife” or Milton Glaser’s “Angels in America,” we are now at the point where we show images of stars that make no attempt to show even a whiff of the tone of the piece itself. Some appear to be headshots. Yes, movies use big-star heads, but they use the finest photographers in the country (often multiple ones) to create dramatic portraits, and they have movie trailers to tell consumers how those stars will be entertaining them. We don’t.


It isn’t telling any story.

Not living in the Theater District means I now consume media like all our other consumers, and I often can’t tell what these new shows are about. I watch TV ads in midtown hotel rooms and I still can’t tell. 

I often used to forgo story. I was proud of it. We never told you about Merry Murderesses or getting a hung jury. We avoided funeral homes for “Fun Home” because that did not seem like a fun night out (but it absolutely was). Edward Albee once looked at my proposed key art for “Virginia Woolf” and told me his play was not about drinking. So maybe we have to be very strategic about what story elements we share, but it feels like we have simply decided to stop trying at a time when story is, in fact, king — based on the success of streaming “novels.” Week after week we are hooked at home on story and character. Story does not have to be plot. But I think audiences want to know what they are getting, even if the launch story we tell is: “Watch these leads blow the roof off the place.” That’s a story, too.


It can work.

I want to point out a few recent examples that from my vantage point look like successes. 

I thought the audience engagement that happened on “MJ” and “Beetlejuice” was an exciting new development, and leaned into the kind of critics’ opinions that audiences really want to hear from: other theatergoers. A new launch that felt exciting to me? “Parade.”

The buzz is that this launch sold tickets — and according to my sources that buzz is true. What did they do right? Well, let’s start with the “what.” I first saw the video that was released on Instagram. But not the Broadway launch video. The rehearsal video from the City Center run of Ben Platt singing “This Is Not Over Yet.” My reaction? “Holy crap.” I have been in meeting after meeting where producers decried the in-rehearsal footage that we were releasing. We all started making press days where casts wore branded T-shirts, and everyone felt like the dollar value of the show was greatly diminished. But City Center started releasing video of actual rehearsals; they did the same for Heather Headly singing “Last Midnight” from “Into the Woods.” That elicited another “Holy crap” from me. Which leads me to the “where.” These videos were on shareable platforms. And when you saw them, you were not doing or watching anything else at the same time because they were on the phone in your hand (or at least another screen you already chose to give your full attention). So on its Broadway launch, “Parade” took the time to dress their stars, choose a setting and even go so far as to release a “making of video” that let you know the singing was recorded live. Most other shows are releasing — at best — still images of stars from the neck up. 

On the count of story, I think there has been a good deal of coverage reviewing the strong story that is “Parade.” But at this point, Ben Platt singing like that is also a story, and they told it: “This is what you are going to get when you buy a ticket.” Consumers were reassured, correctly believing these were performers who deliver this level of power every night.

Great advertising does not create success. Great shows do. But advertising can expand success from a limited audience and make it larger. Much larger. But today’s advertising needs to understand today’s market. It should be delivered to a luxury consumer in a place that they cannot pay to have it removed — digitally. It should deliver more than still images of stars. It should avoid quotes unless they can somehow be aligned to create a singular message. And I think it’s time for story to truly make a comeback. Tell me what I am going to see. Get me excited. And sell me a ticket.

Drew Hodges founded SpotCo Advertising in 1997, and currently consults on branding for the arts. His most recent project is the Broadway-bound revival of “Merrily We Roll Along.” www.drewdesignco.com

The opinions, beliefs, or views expressed by the author are theirs alone and do not purport to reflect the opinions, beliefs or views of Broadway News or its affiliates.