Ask   ASK PLAYBILL.COM: Advertising answers your (and sometimes our own) theatre-related questions.


Ask is a weekly column that answers questions about theatre, generated by readers and staff, every Thursday. To ask a question, email Please specify how you would like your name displayed and please include the city in which you live.

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This week's question comes from Leazah Behrens of Marshall, MN.

Question: What is the process for publicity designers for Broadway shows? Do they work with a director to get their ideas? Answer: To answer this question, spoke with Nancy Coyne, who helped found the Broadway advertising firm Serino Coyne and who has been working in the theatre business for over three decades.

First, when we talk about designs — and I assume the questioner is asking about designs of posters and logos and such — we're not talking about publicity; we're talking about advertising. What's the difference? Let's clarify some theatre business terms: Marketing is the overall term that means "putting your product out to the public to consider," Coyne says. It's an umbrella term that encompasses many sub-categories, including:

  • Advertising: mentions of your product in the media that you pay for, the specialty of the ad agencies such as Serino Coyne
  • Publicity: mentions of your product in the media that are free, like reviews and feature articles, which the press agent facilitates
  • Promotions: "associating your product with other products," Coyne says, such as corporate sponsorships, tie-ins, and using tickets for trade (Broadway shows will give tickets to television or radio stations for them to use to entertain clients, in exchange for ad time). So, about the designs for the ads: Coyne says her firm — which specializes in Broadway musicals — starts working on a show a few months before its out-of-town tryout. Coyne, her creative director, and the account supervisor assigned to the particular account, will read the script (and listen to a CD if there is one) and talk with the firm's art department about what they want to communicate about the show. "We don't try to summarize a show," Coyne says of the ads. "We try to give a flavor, a taste: What makes it unique?"

    The art department will help come up with a general concept, and will then either create the design itself or hire outside photographers or illustrators. For instance, for Serino Coyne's current campaign for A Catered Affair, the firm and the show's producers considered five or six outside illustrators and picked the one they felt could best create a Norman Rockwell-style look, circa 1954. For Cry-Baby, which is also set in the 1950s, the firm found an illustrator who could best capture the look of pulp fiction covers from that era. For help with the Passing Strange designs, the firm called in Dewynter's, the London-based firm with which producer Gerald Schoenfeld has a long relationship. After a designer is selected, the designer presents a few different options for the general look of the show, and the marketing team and the producers will select one of them.

    The show's director and creative team are not usually involved in the ad design process, but they are consulted. And, the set and costume designs can be a major inspiration for the ads, Coyne says. That's one reason why Coyne is a big fan of waiting until the show goes up onstage for the first time — or at least until the set and costume sketches are completed — before unveiling the final ads.

    For Legally Blonde, for instance, "We hired a photographer who is great at that kind of look — that pop look, that young, fresh, Cosmo Girl magazine cover" style, Coyne says, "but it's the set designer and costume designer [who are] all over that artwork, because it's lifted from the show. If the show wasn't pink, our artwork wouldn't be pink." For Hairspray, Coyne says, "in our artwork, she has blue hair — she doesn't have blue hair in the show, but the colors, that flavor, is dictated by the show itself."

    While coming up with the designs (the creative strategy), the ad firm simultaneously decides where to place the ads (the media strategy). Both aspects have to mesh. "We usually create an array of materials, from things that work on a side of a bus, to things that work in a newspaper ad," Coyne says. But often a show will specialize in certain media. A Gershwin score might focus on radio, Coyne says, while for many years people closely identified Evita with its television ad. "Television is a little less important these days," she adds. "I've had a lot of focus groups tell me that the most important thing they see about a show is on the side of the bus." For the Metropolitan Opera's upcoming Philip Glass work Satyagraha, about Mohandas K. Gandhi, the firm initiated a "wild posting," as Coyne called it, putting posters that say things like "Could an opera make peaceful warriors of us all?" on construction sites, to reflect the work's political consciousness.

    From the out-of-town tryout through opening, a Broadway musical will typically have weekly marketing meetings, which include all the marketing representatives and the producers. For an awards contender, those weekly meetings continue through the Tonys. Some shows still have weekly meetings five years into the run, Coyne says, but after the Tonys, many shows switch to every two weeks or every month.

    Shows change their ad designs as their runs progress. For instance, they might use a logo-centric approach to start off and then switch to a photographic approach after opening. "That's a very common next step," Coyne says. "We've sold the show on that — now let's look at some of the people who are in it."

    The main challenge of advertising, Coyne says, is the small budget. The general rule of thumb is that a show's weekly ad budget is no more than ten percent of the weekly gross potential — $100,000 for a show with a potential of $1 million. And, Coyne notes, you're introducing a new product that no one's ever heard of, in New York, which is oversaturated with media. Coyne says the process is not unlike introducing any other product, such as a McDonald's sandwich. But "you have to eat, and then the sandwich is 99 cents," Coyne says. "It's essential and affordable. Broadway is not essential nor affordable."

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