Mobile, TV, WOM…must be a marketing ‘Trans-formation’

When it comes to ticket sales, more is more. So the Art Gallery of Ontario's Arlene Madell is connecting with new visitors and creating reasons for them to keep coming back.

Advertising art is more akin to the complexity of Picasso than paint by numbers. In a climate of copyright restriction, decreasing leisure time (and dollars), media fragmentation and limited public funding, it requires finesse – and bold strokes.

Art galleries traditionally draw a high-brow culture consumer, and can be seen by the hoi polloi as intimidating. Relegated by many to school trips and major exhibits, they’re often superseded by movie theatres, theme parks or sports. So getting ‘gallery visit’ farther up on the masses’ wish list is no small feat. Which is why Arlene Madell, the Art Gallery of Ontario’s director of marketing and visitor services, is not only behind the rebranding of one of Canada’s premiere galleries, but is also recreating the experience for consumers. Madell sees the Nov. 14 reopening of the AGO – the long-awaited ‘Trans-formation’ – as an opportunity to redefine not only visitor perception of the art experience, but the AGO’s approach to marketing itself.

Bold, but you would expect no less from a marketing executive who spearheaded a series of groundbreaking campaigns for the gallery. Recent years have seen her driving daring and award-winning campaigns for exhibits like Andy Warhol/Supernova: Stars, Deaths and Disasters 1962-1964 (July-October 2006). Designed to attract a younger audience by going beyond the familiar Campbell’s soup paintings, taglines like ‘Sex, carnage, electric chairs: It must be summer at the AGO’ showed a darker, edgier side of the artist’s work. And for Catherine the Great: Arts for the Empire – Masterpieces from the Hermitage Museum, Russia (October-December 2005), Madell focused her team’s efforts on drawing broader audiences: rather than relying on the beauty of the collection, she encouraged bold moves like placing Catherine the Great’s coronation carriage in a suburban Toronto driveway and superimposing Catherine’s image inside a TTC streetcar.

‘It’s not every day that you’re presented with the opportunity to market your passion,’ says Madell who, prior to taking the position at the AGO in early 2002, spent over 20 years in the financial sector, most recently as VP sales and marketing, mortgages at the Bank of Montreal.

‘Marketing strategies need to reflect a changed way of doing things, and you need to bring the institution along with you,’ says Madell. ‘Change has to start from the inside – you need to make sure other people are comfortable taking risks.’ And when it comes to a heritage institution, that can be a challenge. ‘Not everyone is always on the same page,’ explains Madell, ‘so it’s about always pushing yourself and having good communications.’

Doug Robinson, chairman and CCO of the AGO’s AOR, Doug Agency, values that approach. ‘Arlene has been open to letting us do some very creative media,’ says Robinson, who worked with her on the Warhol and Catherine exhibits. ‘Arlene understands brands; she’s very insightful, and she’s got a great sensitivity.’

Now, a more fundamental push toward repeat visits to the gallery is Madell’s focus. For the past six and a half years, she has watched attendance peak and drop from one specially ticketed exhibition to the next.

‘What I’m trying to do is shift our visitor patterns away from just waiting on special exhibitions, and smooth out that attendance,’ she says. ‘I’m trying to keep it on a steady trajectory and get people to come back again and again.’

Indeed, even with the flurry of visitors expected in the first months after the AGO’s reopening, Madell is focused on later stages of the campaign (what she calls ‘sustaining the buzz,’ starting next spring). ‘That is most critical to [the campaign's] success: the nurturing of repeat visitors, creating that member loyalty,’ she says.

And certainly there’s no shortage of selling points arming the marketing arsenal: a new building (with a price tag of over $220 million) designed by Frank Gehry, a new identity designed by Bruce Mau, a new street-side restaurant, espresso bar and retail shop, 110 galleries and over 70,000 works of art. ‘We’ve got great products to work with,’ says Madell. ‘It makes [things] easier, but my job is ‘How do I convey that?”

The key, says Madell, is to market the AGO visit as an experience, something she has positioned strongly to the agency. ‘There’s so much more to do here than there was before. If it’s an experience when you get here, that will be part of the brand-building,’ she says, pointing out that the AGO will be marketed as an integrated experience where art connects to everything from architecture to food, shopping and various programming.

In an effort to make the gallery-going experience a participatory one, the campaign aims to challenge, entertain and engage diverse communities by forging a number of new marketing directions for the AGO. They include radio, online advertising (on sites like,, and, and as part of Cineplex Media’s digital pre-show advertising in theatres and in-lobby monitors throughout Ontario.

Building on the new brand identity – an AGO that is inclusive, for all ages and not intimidating – is inherent to the campaign’s use of the public to communicate what the brand stands for. ‘Visitors will be part of our process and will help communicate our story,’ says Madell. To that end, Doug developed television commercials (a first for the AGO), expected to air in November and featuring live ‘man on the street’ interviews that capture the often humourous and surprising public reactions to various unidentified images of the gallery’s art and architecture.

Robinson, who fondly remembers the art classes he took in the gallery’s basement years ago, explains, ‘I really feel AGO is my AGO, and I think that is part of what we’re trying to do: make it feel like it’s your AGO, that you really have a personal attachment to this brand.’

In early October, Madell’s team will launch a mobile marketing campaign – another first for the gallery – to help draw younger audiences in via a contest to win free admission. Text alerts will be sent out pre-opening, with countdown messaging and fun facts about the AGO’s collection and the new building. The alerts are expected to continue throughout the year, with event announcements, feedback surveys and special offers. And web plans include a downloadable screensaver of the new logo and images from the collection.

Throughout the campaign, a strong call to action is captured on all fronts with the tagline: ‘The New AGO. Whoa. Gotta Go,’ developed by Doug Agency.

OOH will feature brightly lettered posters in transit shelters. The campaign is also expected to co-exhibit with The Bay this month for its ‘Artfully Living’ promotion via a window display at the flagship Queen Street store that features the new AGO building model.

Echoing some of the same edginess seen in past campaigns, a teaser effort in the weeks running up to the Nov. 14 opening will appear on major Toronto streets, launching with black-and-white posters that cryptically read: ‘Free Henry Moore’ and ‘Free Tom Thomson.’ The campaign gradually builds to reveal colour- and logo-clad posters touting ‘Free AGO’ – free-admission offers designed to build new audiences and ultimately make the institution more accessible.

A more formal print campaign in major Toronto dailies and magazines following that teaser is also designed to resonate with the masses and speak to the new brand identity. ‘On November 14, we’re not just opening doors, we’re opening minds,’ ‘Artists refuse to conform so why should a gallery?’ and ‘Experience a staircase that lifts you up even when you’re going down’ are some of the taglines featured alongside images of the gallery’s prestigious artworks and architectural features.

Other print and retail executions feature posters with photos of Frank Gehry-designed chairs (available at the AGO shop), taglined ‘Art you can touch, sit on, even take home,’ and other taglines like ‘Where flexible minds come to stretch’ and ‘Our largest work of art is the gallery itself.’

‘It all comes to the idea that this is a different place,’ says Madell, ‘that we’re pushing the limits in terms of how we interpret [art], that we’re doing things differently – that this is just not your normal museum.’