“You can’t run a creative business when you can’t invite audiences in”

Written by Matt Roberts CMgr FCMI Tuesday 08 September 2020
CMI asked the CEO of Shakespeare’s Globe and CCO of Creative England how Covid-19 has challenged the creative sector – and how it can recover
Open-air theatre

Lockdown caused UK theatres to shut for the first time since The Plague in the 14th century. To say the industry has suffered wouldn’t be doing it justice; the industry has been devastated by Covid-19.

Amid rigorous social distancing rules and anxiety among potential audience members, the nature of organisations and employment across the sector present enormous and nuanced challenges to leaders. To help plot a course through this uncharted territory, I spoke to Neil Constable, CEO of Shakespeare's Globe and former chair of the London and South East CMI Board; and Terry Corby, chief commercial officer of Creative England and South West CMI Regional Board Chair.

A long-term game

Despite an easing of restrictions, the situation for the creative and cultural industries will remain challenging until the sectors can open at scale. For some organisations, such as Shakespeare’s Globe, that may not be until a vaccine is found, with Neil saying that all employees “recognise that we are going to be very much in this situation for the long game.”

That the Globe’s revenue has been decimated to around ten percent of its usual amount speaks volumes about the financial impact of the pandemic on the sector. “You can't run a business when you can't invite your audiences in,” Neil says.

The Globe would normally welcome one million visitors a year, typically playing to audiences of 1,500 people. As Terry points out “there isn't a playbook for this so we are all learning as we go,” says Terry. And Neil agrees that “for us, social distancing performances don't work.”

Sector-specific challenges

The people-centric nature of the culture industry adds an extra dimension, as does the fact that it is largely made up of micro and small businesses and freelancers, many of whom have fallen through the gaps for government support.

Despite a cash injection of £1.57bn from the government in the form of the culture recovery fund, the reality is it will be spread very thinly; analysis by Oxford Economics suggests around 400,000 jobs will go across the sector. “What we're trying to do is help the industry to help itself,” Terry says.

Supporting the current and next generation of talents

Both share concerns about the longer-term pipeline of talent into the sector. Making it easier for students to get on the first rung into the creative industry must be a priority, both leaders believe. “We've got to give them as many business and management skills as creative skills, because they're certainly going to need them,” Terry says.

With the end of the self-employed income support scheme in October and many venues unable to open until next spring, many freelancers across the sector are being forced to consider alternative careers. “Alongside thinking about the future generation, we have been lobbying government hard to recognise that we will potentially lose a lot of the creative talent that has been generated in this country if something isn't put in for them,” Neil warns.

Digital innovation

An enduring legacy of the pandemic will be the use of digital platforms. They have not only allowed the creative sector to connect in new ways with audiences, but have opened it up to an international market. “It's still very early days to see whether the digital offers can bring in the levels of income that actually really will help our bottom line,” Neil says.

Meanwhile, the importance of personal networks has never been more important. Use of project software Workspace to allow creatives to connect and collaborate on new ideas and projects has been thriving. “It's getting people to think laterally about how they do things differently,” Terry says.

Communication challenges for creative sector leaders

With remote working fast becoming the norm, retaining the beating heart of the organisation is essential, Neil admits. With 240 staff still on furlough at the Globe and 40 working on current projects, regular video updates from senior management are a great way to update staff. Despite the temptation to rely on Zoom and Microsoft Teams for communication, sometimes you simply need to pick the phone up, Neil says, “even though you may feel like you've got no more news to say.”

Communication has become more human and less corporate, Terry adds. “People have been more open to talking about when they're having problems.” Transparency and taking everyone on the journey is key to engagement. At the Globe that translated to all staff being presented with full cash-flow forecasts. “Staff can see how we are draining the valuable reserves that we put aside for significant capital projects, how they can help reduce that burn rate and also help to innovate and bring more income in,” Neil adds.

Creativity key to solving problems

Amid concerns about the devastating potential impact of a second wave of the pandemic, Terry remains optimistic at the ability of creative people to solve problems. “I'm very confident our community is going to come together to get everybody through this.”

Neil’s optimism for the future is buoyed by the historical context of Shakespeare writing during a different type of pandemic – a plague. “Even though theatres are being closed down, and despite the move to a more digital world, there is a desire to congregate and watch live performance.”

But future success depends on leaders and managers being open to change – in terms of business models, working practices and people management. “There are parts of our industry that would like things to go back to what they were,” Terry says. “That isn't going to happen.”

You can watch our conversation in full here. For more articles exploring the challenges of Covid-19, check out our Leading Through Uncertainty hub.

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