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Friday, January 21, 2011

Feature: Liesl Barrell, January 21, 2010

Confessions of a Grown Up Digital Drama Queen
By Liesl Barrell

In a new monthly segment for CharPo, I’ll be profiling theatre artists and companies to investigate their digital marketing strategies, online lives and incorporation of new media in production. 

In this first instalment, I’ll take you on a little trip through my twin passions (stage and web) and give you an idea of where this Digital Drama segment will be heading.

People are often surprised by what seems to them like a strange move for me, from theatre into the digital marketing world. When asked about it, I like to discuss how all communications stem from the oral tradition, and by extension, the ancient art of the stage. Or that the phrase “virtual reality” was first coined by avant garde theatre theorist Antonin Artaud

This often does little to lower their eyebrows, as I suspect the reasons they think of the two spaces in binary opposition are the same that bring them together for me: old or new, media is what I’m passionate about. 

Perhaps the first time I heard the siren call of the series of tubes was in 2007, when I watched a piece on one of my all-time favourite multi-platform marketing campaigns: The HBO Voyeur Project. It was launched by BBDO (the real life inspiration for Mad Men’s Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, as well as their fictional onscreen rival) in partnership with a number of smaller agencies, vendors and media buyers. 

Watch the campaign summary video above and you’ll immediately notice the stunning theatricality of the silent vignettes that are at the heart of this award-winning campaign. 

The core messaging communicates HBO’s storytelling muscle by focusing on basic narratives such as “The Discovery,” “The Proposal” and “The Temptress” played out across outdoor, TV, digital, mobile, and social media. It’s no surprise that theatre practitioners often use exactly these kinds of snapshot summaries to isolate the action, drive or purpose behind a scene, act, or entire play: they are universal and have resonated with us since the dawn of oration.

Thankfully, after a long hiatus, the archived promotional HBO Voyeur website is back up online, where you can watch each of the storylines play out to a score that evolves based on your chosen scenes. Big Spaceship, BBDO’s partner digital agency, built the site and drove online strategy, and they even created MySpace pages (remember MySpace? Meh, me neither) for the archetypal characters. This took HBO a step further into social than many brands had taken at the time. 

The single biggest criticism of all this work was that, cool though it was, the campaign seemed to have little meaning, it was all meta with no meat. Had they evolved their strategy to involve interaction between the characters and online users, HBO could have served up a little more substance to reach the greater level of engagement now more commonly played out on Twitter and Facebook. 

Campaigns like these constantly transport me back to my worn copy of The Theatre and Its Double. To the pages where Artaud described the mirage of the theatre in virtual terms, that immersive space into which we project, find and lose ourselves. They remind me why the very best of new or any media is, has been, and aspires to be as profoundly performative as it is narrative

Now that you know a little more about what inspired my transition, I’m looking forward to diving in and covering home-grown tactics and theatrics, because there are some unique and exciting ways Montrealers in the theatre community are using emerging technologies. After all, campaigns like The HBO Voyeur Project are multi-million dollar executions, but they all start with an idea like any other. And if there’s one thing artists know, it’s that ideas are scalable. 

In the wake of a revitalized and increasingly competitive MTL indie theatre scene, theatre practitioners are marketing themselves with passion, creativity, innovation and sophistication. So it is with great anticipation that I close off tonight by saying that posts over the next few months will be spotlighting specific artists and companies and their use of viral video, email marketing, and social networking to build communities, promote themselves and find support. Stay tuned for more, and if you notice any crazy cool theatre marketing, feel free to drop me a line.  

Liesl is an account manager at Twist Image, a leading digital marketing agency ranked among the top 10 in Canada for the second year running by Marketing Magazine. You can read more about her and the things she cares about on her blog,


  1. love the hbo campaign, but I wonder about the effectiveness of digital media in marketing theatre. So much focus now is on clips, previews, webisodes and interactive media with the focus on bringing entertainment to the home, laptop or phone of the viewer. I wonder how the same methods will prompt people to leave their homes and get bums in seats in local theatres. Look forward to the next article.

  2. I used to wonder about this as well, but I think the more varied and wide the conversation about the thing (play) the more people want to see it. It reminds me of seeing a Jackson Pollock live at Moma and thinking, "NOW I get it." After the movie, after the debate about his place in art history, after the man, many, "My three year old could do that."

  3. David: Thanks, hope you like the next one!

    Anonymous: You raise a really salient point, and one of those age-old McLuhanesque debates: how do you use media to translate its passive consumption into an active conversion? Whether that’s buying a product, signing up for a service or heading out to see a show, that’s where good marketing comes in.

    The clearer the objectives, and the more measurable the impact, the better. One of the really useful things about digital marketing is how easy it is to gather metrics on even local campaigns and use them to hone and improve strategy: from analyzing click-through rates with an emailing list distribution clients, Google Analytics, social media monitoring tools, etc. There’s a wealth of tools to help determine if you’re making headway. Bad marketing doesn’t learn, doesn’t strive for more next time round, doesn’t ask where the opportunities are...

    Let’s also not forget that while bums in seats may be a primary transactional goal, artists and companies also need to build cachet within their community as informational/awareness goals. So success can be quantifiable on that level, too: building a network of contacts, on a reputation as a centre of authority with opportunities to grow (e.g. teach a class, attend a conference, meet a mentor). Many of these goals are actually more easily achievable with the tools we have now.

    Charlebois Post: Absolutely, buzz builds desire and curiosity. Particularly with something as time-sensitive as a run, where you have 1-3 weeks to catch something before you may never be able to see it again... Sadly most Canadian shows never see a 2nd production.


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