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Bringing Back Broadway: Situation's Rian Durham on Jumping in to Causes and Weathering the Shutdown

The first company that we're spotlighting has been around 2 years longer than BroadwayWorld - Situation. 

Bringing Back Broadway: Situation's Rian Durham on Jumping in to Causes and Weathering the Shutdown Recently we kicked off a new series at BroadwayWorld, celebrating some of those in various parts of the industry who not only helped reopen theatres last fall, but who also devoted time during the worst of the pandemic to ensure that they were building back better. The first company that we're spotlighting has been around two years longer than BroadwayWorld - Situation.

Founded in 2001 by Damian Bazadona, the company, which has offices in New York City and London, formed the Situation Group in 2021- a collective of digital-first marketing and advertising agencies that help brands build passionate communities and move them to action.

Today, the Situation Group consists of four core entities: Situation, Town Hall, The Studio, and Situation Project... What ties them all together is not just media and technology experience but a passion for new technologies, transformation, the power of the arts and communities.

In Part One, we talked to Peter Yagecic on How the Company Embraces New Tech, Hybrid Events & More. Next up, Rian Durham, Account Group Director and the strategic marketing lead for multiple Broadway shows that weathered the shutdown like Wicked, or launched shortly after reopening like the highly-anticipated revival of Funny Girl.


Robert: Let's start at the beginning, where were you born and raised?

Rian: Omaha, Nebraska.

What brought you to the Broadway world? No pun intended...

I actually went to school for theater, and began as an actor. I thought I was going to make it big in New York and quickly got to New York and realized that I did not want to be an actor. I like the art of acting, but I did not like the profession of being a professional actor and auditioning and rejection and all of that. I moved into the business side of things, because I always knew I wanted to stay in entertainment in some way, shape, or form.

I worked a lot in film and television and theater and realized that "You know what? Theater is my first love; I may as well focus on that." I began in digital advertising way back in 2009 and worked for Allied Digital, focusing mostly on big studios and TV. I said, "You know what? I want to do this for Broadway." ... and that's what led me to the Situation.

Hopefully you haven't regretted it since?

I've been here for seven years, so I guess not!

How has your position changed over those seven years or more interestingly how has what you're doing each today changed?

I actually started on the creative team as a strategist at Situation, which was my temporary foray into being on the creative team and that's when I realized that I'm a born and bred client services person. I have FOMO so I love being able to sort of have a hand in everything and oversee things from a 30,000 foot level and let our teams excel at their expertise. I have grown one, two, three - this is my fourth position within the client services team. I've gone from being that newish person sitting at the table, to now being really the person leading a department, which is really exciting.

Where I've seen the changes, I've been able to get so much more out of the weeds. The day-to-day madness of making sure this banner ad gets launched or making sure this media plan gets approved, things like that.

With that experience, I'm able to think strategically to really lead and guide and now push the teams who were doing what I used to do. I went from the very tactical side of things to much more strategy-driven now.

How do you keep on top of trends and changes that are happening if you're less hands on?

I spend a lot of time looking at what's going on outside the Broadway world. No pun intended. I think that's important because... I think sometimes in theater, we're such a tight knit and passionate community and so laser focused. But, I think we can learn a lot of things from what happens outside the community, especially when it comes to trends in the digital space because so much is happening.

That's one thing that's really great about Situation is we naturally stay on top of trends because of our relationship with Google, with Facebook (now Meta). I spend a lot of time looking at what people are doing outside the traditional theater space. Especially when it comes to what are people doing on digital both from a paid and organic place.

Is there a specific example you could think of something you've seen lately far outside of theater that keeps it like, "This is awesome. I would love it to come to us."?

Yes. I think the level of customization that comes in the shopping space and especially fashion and retail, and the fact that they know exactly how to target you and what to say to you. I think that's where sometimes theater falls down a little bit is the customization in what we're saying.

With fashion and retail, even if you're looking to buy a car, it's just really understanding the buyer mindset. I think some of the bigger consumer products really do that well... I can be talking about shampoo and two seconds later, I'm going to see an ad for shampoo. I'm going to see a very specific ad, and I think that's really what's interesting is seeing the specificity that comes in other industries, especially when it comes to the digital marketing side of things.

We'll compare shampoo ads in a couple of days if it turns out, they really are listening to our conversation. Obviously, the last couple of years have been challenging to say the least for the business. What was your day-to-day life when there was no Broadway?

It's interesting because the other side of our business, (The Situation Group) was the nonprofit world and the big cause NGO world. Prior to the pandemic and the shutdown, I led Meals on Wheels America, as well as a bunch of other Broadway clients. When Broadway shut down, and once we got through the first few weeks and we realized it was going to be a long time, the other side of our business on causes grew exponentially. My life pivoted to be really focused on working with Meals on Wheels America, an organization called VOW for Girls, No Kid Hungry, which is a giant national organization and it was fundraising. It was literally "how do we use digital to raise money?"

We were able to help raise millions of dollars in the first months of the pandemic for some of our cause clients- all through what we were doing in digital. Again, it's about looking outside the industry and that's what gave me a completely different perspective of how other industries approach using the power of storytelling to get someone to take an action that is not required of them.

If you think about it, you don't have to buy a theater ticket to survive. You have to buy food to survive. You should buy toothpaste to survive. It's a little different, right? You've got a guaranteed built-in base there. But, with buying a theater ticket or with giving $100 to Meals on Wheels America or No Kid Hungry, it's not something you have to do in your everyday life. A lot of my time is spent telling people this, by figuring out the bigger campaign and storytelling for these big, major national nonprofits and NGOs.

How did that experience then help with reopening Broadway?

I think it helped keep me abreast of what was going on in the digital space and the advertising space. There were many folks that I knew from the industry weren't 'flexing their muscles' during this time, and I 'bulked up' during the time. I was able to stay on top of the trends and to really understand what was happening, and then to see the impact - including the way that the importance of digital shifted. It became really about storytelling and understanding that building and nurturing the relationship is so much more important, because people were not going to make a knee-jerk reaction to go buy something.

We lived in this world where you could put an ad out that said, "Buy tickets now," and you'd buy tickets. What we really found is the power of storytelling. And, I think with the relaunch, that's how we approached a lot of some of our bigger shows, was spending time storytelling. Having to reintroduce the brand to someone as opposed to just being able to flip the switch on and expect all the theater goers to come and buy.

Right. It's never as easy.

Yes, exactly.

You led two big teams there for Funny Girl and Wicked - two very different shows at different stages of their life cycle.

For Wicked, it was really all about such an eagerness in our fan base to see the show again. We had almost 18 years of history with a brand where everyone knew what it was and had a very specific memory of it. Bringing Wicked back was almost like a giant homecoming or family reunion and that was the spirit we were going for. It was really also about being the first show to return on tour and having that moment. The (re)opening first night of Wicked on Broadway was one of the most powerful things I've ever seen because it was all about tapping into this fanbase. We already knew they were going to love it, because it was such an established hit.

With Funny Girl, people know Funny Girl, but people have very specific relationships with Funny Girl. Either they know the title and they don't really know the show, or they know the movie. I think what was so exciting about that, is we were taking this brand that has a lot of equity in and of itself, but were able to make it something for the 'now times'. It was all about how do we take this revival, which could have been a recreation of the Barbra Streisand movie, but instead was "how do we really tell the story of who is Fanny Brice?"

It was a lot more into the storytelling of the show's story itself. Whereas on Wicked, it's about Wicked the show and the production. Yes, we tell the story of Elphaba and empowerment and all of that. But, it's really about this is Wicked. You're going to see something and you just go, "Wow."

With Funny Girl, it was really diving into questions like, "Why is Fanny Brice so important?" And, it was really getting to bring Fanny back to life and really highlight her and have it be about this incandescent star who's coming in and making her debut as a big lead on Broadway. She'd been in Hello, Dolly! amongst these big names and is now up there between Ramin [Karimloo] and Jane [Lynch] and Jared [Grimes] (who tap dances like crazy!). Plus, it has this big, luscious score. It was all about reinventing Funny Girl. Whereas for Wicked, it was about reminding people why they loved it.

For Wicked, when has that flipped from getting the base back, the people that are buying tickets the second it goes on sale? How do you then figure out, "Okay, now it's time to get tourists back and New Yorkers back and people that are not our avid fans?"

A lot of it is based on data. Wicked knows who its audience is and that's why it's succeeded for 18 years at this point. When there wasn't domestic tourism, we had to really think about how do we double down on the Northeast Corridor, right? We had to really make sure that we focused on people who can come and see it then.

Now, we can start seeing the data saying, "Great, we're seeing a return to what our audiences were." Let's shift back to what we know worked and we are looking at different ways to do it. Looking at right now, it's been a shift more to digital because so many more people have adopted a digital lifestyle over the last two years.

For a new production like Funny Girl, is it also data that drives if the focus is Funny Girl the show, Fanny Brice, Beanie Feldstein? How do you figure out even before an audience has seen it what they're going to respond to?

A lot of it has to do with creative testing... We put out there, not just one piece of creative, not one piece of copy, but really build a campaign around the core idea and then putting things out there. What was interesting is we had of course our TV spot, but then, we started doing these individual spots with Beanie, Ramin and Jane and Jared as well, and seeing how people reacted to those individual spots and realizing what was part of the draw. Then the question became - "how do we take that audience and really focus in on that?"

Is that focus groups that are doing that or is that by digital or other research?

It's all through our digital media. We can put a piece of creative out into the marketplace and see how it performs compared to other pieces we have in the market. With a new show, truly, it's listening to the audiences at previews. That's why previews are so important and that's why our teams (and me), especially during previews, like to sneak in and go watch from the back of the house. We usually watch the second act from a different spot and just try to get an idea of what the audience is saying.

For a new show, the most powerful thing that will ever sell a show is word of mouth and these days we rely on social media for that. We really dive in to understand what are people saying about this show when they walk out of it in the space they have as their platform. That data is out there on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, regardless if they have two followers or 200,000 followers. We trust our instincts and we say, "This is the campaign. We feel great about the campaign."

Yes, we can tweak and we can change things along the way, but, I can sell anything on paper. If it's on paper, I can find a way to spin it and sell it.

What does the average work day in your life like?

Well, I have a new puppy. I wake up at 6:30 in the morning and take him out. I'm an early morning worker and I usually spend between 7:00 and 9:00 getting caught up. Then, it's a lot of meetings. The industry is still on trepidatious ground and shows are still struggling and it's still uncertain. It's a lot of staying in really, really close contact with our producers and our general managers about what trends we're seeing, how sales are going, things like that.

I know this will sound like a canned response... but, no day is ever the same except for the fact that I spend a lot of my day talking to people.

Just to wrap up with big picture question - as this season closes and we prepare for the next one - what else would you like to see the industry doing?

My biggest thing is that I feel like we all need to lift each other up right now. I know we're all stressed and we all are at our wits' end. Everyone I know is exhausted. Everyone I know has said 'this is the craziest season that's ever been.' We're a competitive industry because we're 41 theaters competing against an even smaller pool of ticket buyers now.

But, I think we should be celebrating the fact that anyone is even able to make a show happen right now. I think is so important to collaborate and to just appreciate the fact that regardless of what you do in this industry, it is not easy right now. I also feel passionately that we have a lot of work to do on bringing more diverse voices to the table and creating space for those who haven't felt like there has been the space for them to have a voice. We need to create the pipelines both for more diverse audiences as well as industry professionals and that has to start from the ground up.



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From This Author - Robert Diamond