We all know the maxim “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.” Well I believe this to be inaccurate. The truism should be: “The road to Hell is paved with good ideas.” Because it is all those brilliant, new, innovative, gorgeously attractive, energetic ideas that sweep us down into all sorts of unnecessary, dead-end tributaries. They blur our focus. And they cost us time and resources. I should know, because I am a veritable production line of new ideas which have started life as world changers, only to end as the bloopers they are. (I’ll mention later what there is to learn from all this, how ideas can be used positively rather than letting the ideas use you.) Here are some quick case studies from the last 25 years, mostly during my time as an orchestra manager.
First out of the gate comes “The Almost Free Concert.” The idea was to entice new audiences to purchase a subscription series by selling a sampler concert at a ridiculously low price ($2). The concert program would include movements and examples from the forthcoming season that would be introduced by a charismatic compere (that’s BritSpeak for an emcee). Oh yes…and you could also redeem your ticket invitation for a free glass of wine. We had teams of subscription sellers in the lobbies and telemarketers poised the next day to follow up. So far so brilliant. The concert was a great success. The compere was entertaining and a great salesman. And the capacity audience had the best time and…walked straight out the door, eyes front, ignoring all the subscription sellers who wore their best and most inviting smiles to no avail. I discovered that one person had photocopied his invitation and managed to redeem the copies for eight glasses of wine. That’s two bottles! He really did have the best time. Then the telemarketers followed up…nulla, nada, basta così.
The news was broken to me by the telemarketers’ manager. I had indeed identified a new audience: the “Almost Free” audience that would come to anything for $2 and a free glass(es) of wine but…nothing else.
Which makes a nice segue to marketing. We all know that marketing geniuses can come up with really creative ideas. Here is one that was really innovative for its time. We decided to send out an introductory recording about our subscription series narrated by an actor (who had a really alluring voice) and including snippets of music illustrating the compelling reason to buy! This was in the days of cassettes (do we remember cassettes??!) and we mailed out thousands of them, along with our glittering new subscription brochure, to new, recently purchased lists. All sounds good, yes? Then I started getting calls from the bomb squad.
Our prospective audience of mostly retired folks had received oddly shaped packages, assumed they were letter bombs, and— this was very consistent behavior—gingerly placed the packages in the middle of their gardens, before calling the bomb squad. Fascinating.
Staying with marketing, here’s another story. I had the idea of explicating Strauss’ Don Quixote and thereby enhancing the concert experience. Here was one of the great programmatic works of all time telling one of the great stories of Cervantes. But I was convinced that audiences don’t get the story as portrayed in the music and were therefore missing out. My idea was to illustrate the music on a screen above the orchestra so that the audience could follow along. This idea required technology. Now orchestras and technology are strange bed fellows. A bit like a dolphin dating an elephant. And this project had innate problems from the get go. Anyway, the illustrations and text were done, the technology in the form of a giant projector (it must have been 300-400 feet long… or so it appeared) was installed in the upper balcony, a fascinating series of musical trivial pursuit questions (devised by the musicians ) was shown pre-concert and at intermission. I sat in my seat expecting the very best. What I saw was people’s heads, or huge shadows of heads. The projector shone through the audience as patrons stood up or moved. The effect was surreal: images of Don Quixote, listeners’ heads in silhouette, text, arms, programme books, all alternating in chaotic succession. The plan was sabotaged. The project descended into hilarity and mirth. (Just as Noel Coward wrote.)
Now to orchestras themselves. We have all been to many concerts and seen many orchestras. I think you will agree that symphony musicians are generally not skilled at stage presentation, not even when taking a bow. I have always thought that they see themselves as being invisible. Anyway, with a forthcoming international tour in the offing, I deemed it important to sharpen our image. I brought in a stage director to do a two-hour training programme with the full orchestra. To encourage the players, I also took part. Huh… I was faced with incredible hostility, opposition and downright rebellion. The musicians judged this exercise “insulting,” “inappropriate,” and “inconceivable.” Whatever the next stage of non-compliance is after “herding cats,” that’s where we were. The poor stage director swore he would never work with musicians again.
And so to restaurants. In a previous life I ran a major concert hall and also found myself in charge of the catering operation, and a beautiful fine dining restaurant. Of course I had to give the chef the benefit of my experience and wisdom, rather like Frasier in the episode “Les frères heureux.”
My attention was particularly taken by the way he cooked the vegetables. Always mushy. I wanted them al dente. So eventually and after many threats, that’s just what he produced. I had triumphed. Having dinner one night, triumphantly crunching my al dentes, there was a large party of retired lades, who all, to a blue rinse and bodice, sent back their vegetables to the kitchen as “not cooked.” Hmmm….
There is much to be learnt from all these experiences. First of all, there is the huge gap between idea and reality: Managers are often tempted to impose upon a situation their exclusive view of an ideal in a world that is far from ideal and perfect. An individual’s ideas inhabit a very, very small universe. For those ideas to succeed or at the very least for them to be tested and challenged, they need to meet and have relations with other ideas. And that takes planning. Planning is all about bringing together an expert, highly galvanized, and empowered group with different skills and different perceptions—and the freedom to speak frankly. Although supporters are important, naysayers are essential because without them you only have positive affirmation and that’s a bit like running downhill. You’ll end up with the equivalent of London’s Millennium Dome. You should not possess your idea or let it possess you. Allow it to go into a crucible of discussion and, low and behold, what you thought could not possibly be improved upon, is transformed. Through other ideas and people, it undergoes a kind of alchemy, becoming the golden idea that can move the agenda forward, exploit resources with wise economy, and capture the imagination of not only the planning team but the whole organization.
And the bomb squad will be nowhere to be seen. Guaranteed.