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Bringing Back Broadway: Situation's Stephanie Sciandra Smith on Leading Creative and Content

Plus her journey from intern to leadership...

Bringing Back Broadway: Situation's Stephanie Sciandra Smith on Leading Creative and Content 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 and in Part Two we talked to Rian Durham. Today, we talk to Senior Creative Group Director Stephanie Sciandra Smith who leads the agency's creative and content, helping to connect Broadway shows with their global fan bases for success on both Broadway and beyond.


Let's start at your beginning - where were you born and raised.

I have the benefit of the glorious, illustrious combination of being born and raised in Central New Jersey, the Woodbridge area by way of a brief stint in Staten Island until I was seven. It always makes for a good conversation starter. People are like, "Oh, you're from New Jersey?!" Before they can get a joke out I say, "Yes. And before that I lived in Staten Island." They get distracted by Staten Island before their Jersey comment can even come out. It's a good talking point, but proud to be a Jersey girl.

What first got you interested in theatre?

Truthfully, it's my mom. I grew up and we would listen to Les Mis. It was her favorite show, and is still in her top favorite list. We can't remember if Les Mis or Beauty and the Beast was the first Broadway show I ever saw. I know it seems like an odd choice for a small child who was in first grade, but I grew up listening to "Castle on a Cloud" and thought that that was going to be my destiny to get on Broadway.

There's still time!

Totally, still time. But, that didn't work out. As I grew up, I always was a theater kid who loved the music and would see shows with my family. I was lucky to be able to do that. The bug got me really early then I did community theater and in-school productions. When I got to college, it dawned on me that, "Oh, there are other jobs around the theater that don't involve actually being on stage." That was really exciting to me and set me on my trajectory when I realized, "Oh, you can do something professionally in an industry that you personally are passionate about." Who knew? I guess that's what college is for.

What did you start at that led you right to the current role?

I started out at Situation as a client services intern and I've been at the company for over 11 years now. I was also a cheerleader growing up. And the reality is, in its best form, particularly when you're talking about live entertainment and Broadway, that's what creative marketing is all about. You just get to be cheerleaders. I've got tons of experience in that.

At the time, social media was just proliferating beyond the personal sphere and into the professional sphere. What could brands do in the space? Back then, client services teams and account managers were overseeing the social media side of things because there weren't many dedicated social roles in the digital marketing field. That's the piece that really excited me about this new frontier (which seems so silly now). I found Situation while they were doing what has been affectionately referred to as the HAIR eParty. At the end of the revival of HAIR, the show would invite audiences on stage to dance. Situation put a camera at the back of the theater, worked with all the unions, and every night, they would publish that video on the show's Facebook page. You could tag yourself, tag your friends, etc.. I happened to be a resident assistant at NYU at the time. I took my residents to go see the show and showed my boss. I was like, "Look at this great program! We're dancing on a Broadway stage!" Then I wondered - "Who made that happen? How does that work?" And that's how I found Situation.

I then read all about how they had just done a Next to Normal Twitter campaign where they were collaborated with Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey to create a Twitter performance of the musical. That fascinated me-what content strategy and marketing could do beyond direct response. There's something really exciting about the precipice of that. I applied to be on the client services team, did a brief stint as an intern and was quickly hired full-time as one of the first folks on the social media team because this whole new branch of the agency needed to exist.

The first show I ever worked on was Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. It was an incredible show to cut your teeth on, particularly in social. I often think about what that show would have looked like now just because social has changed so much over the last 11 years. I spent a lot of time gaining experience in social. Everything from insights, analytics, customer engagement, content creation, and just running the gamut.

Then, I was really excited about and interested in how we could take what we were learning and seeing on social and apply that to larger creative canvases. We saw on social the more Spider-Man, or Spider-Men I guess, that were in a photo, for example, the higher your engagement was. That answers a larger brand question of, do we reveal the magic that there are more than one?

So, you're responsible for the new movie is what you're saying?

We can have a whole separate conversation about Marvel. I'm a big MCU fan!

Ditto...

That laid the foundation for me of how instincts and insight could come together to create something magical and have larger implications in the creative space. Then, I moved to our creative team, specifically as a copywriter and sharpened new skills there. Not only just in social, which I had experience in, but working on copy in other forms - on an email, on a website, etc.

The pitstop of copywriting was really fruitful. But I missed the insights piece of it. By the time something hits a copywriter, somebody's determined, who's our target audience? What is the creative strategy? What's our messaging POV? What are our brand assets? How does that take shape and evolve across both digital and traditional canvases? That led me down a path of creative strategy.

I oversaw our team of creative strategists for a long time at Situation before I became an associate creative director and then a creative director. Now, I'm the head of creative and oversee the creative strategy for all of our clients in the arts entertainment verticals.

I guess you've proven that anybody that can survive social media can really go on to anything!

Honestly, it's true. It's one of those things that can be really tough and it can be really taxing, but it could also be incredibly insightful as to what's going on and being able to see through some of the noise and see what sticks. I think it's a fun puzzle.

Would it be easier or harder today to launch a show like Spider-Man, just since you mentioned it?

Oh, my goodness. Now, I have to circle back to the MCU. It's so hard to answer that question because Spider-Man is having such a renaissance. I think what's been really fascinating about that side of creative is what our external comm choices are. Brands have an obligation to be true to themselves and true to who they are. But the relationship with your online communities-your fans and your audiences-has changed so much. Your fans are not just people who have a huge distance from you and are passively cheering, waving, liking, etc.. They are people who are actively discussing and advocating on your behalf. We saw early seeds of this on Spider-Man-as many detractors as there were, there were so many people who loved the actors, loved the show, and came back countless times.

Launching a show like that now, I feel would only put a magnifying glass on how much communities - if you cultivate a strong community, they will come to your defense so you, the brand, don't have to go at it alone. That's the thing that I think would have been really interesting.

What is the day-to-day of life during the pandemic when there was no Broadway?

It was a really interesting time, because while I think for a long time, Broadway has gotten a bad rep for being less enthusiastic and less progressive when it comes to embracing digital spaces when it comes to programming compared to other industries, like film and TV. All of a sudden, when the physical stages went dark, these digital stages, whether they were programmed virtual events or just your ongoing social communities, were the only stages our shows had. I think it helped prove a point that the two could coexist, Prior to the pandemic, there was a lot of tension between your digital ecosystem and the sanctity of your physical space, which is understandable. They are very different. Now we know that one is not necessarily better than the other.

When digital stages were the only things that shows had, we were lucky to keep ourselves busy. Whether that was deciding what the content is that we're pushing out to keep fans engaged or dialoguing with our communities, asking them, "What do you want to see right now? What can we provide for you that will give you an escape, catharsis, etc.?" We are constantly thinking about how our shows use their platforms in a socially responsible way. What are the things that we can all collectively do to make this community space better?

A lot of our time was also spent crafting run of shows, thinking about user behavior, and figuring out how do we take the incredible IP that we get to work with and make strong content and interactive experiences for our audiences. It all kept us busier than people might have thought. It was, and still is, a tragic situation that we're still navigating through but there are some bright spots from a fan perspective.

All of a sudden, those of us who were in the tri-state area and therefore fortunate enough to see Broadway shows regularly and have that physical access, (not to mention financial access, which is a whole other conversation!), weren't at a huge advantage. Literally overnight, all of our fans were the same. It didn't matter where you were, geographically. There wasn't a badge of honor of being able to see something, to be in that "room where it happens" because we now all had access to the same digital rooms. I think there's something really nice about that, that I hope we don't lose. Because both of those audiences are so incredibly important to any show's success.

How is that knowledge and that experience filtering into today's marketing? Everything's different now than it was pre-pandemic because of that? Or is it just different because tourists aren't fully back yet and all those other strange outside factors?

There is the delicate balance of being excited to have some sense of normalcy in how we used to do things. I also think it's forced us to rethink about our relationship to word of mouth. Because historically, folks think about word of mouth as a very linear experience. You hear about something - somebody tells you something is good because they've seen it. You go research it. You buy a ticket. You go see it and the chain reaction repeats itself. When the reality is, you don't have to actually "see" something to be a fan of something, to be an advocate for something. I think that's what has changed and it ultimately affects the way we market our shows, because there's just as much value and influential word of mouth whether somebody has listened to a cast album or actually been in the theater. There is value in word of mouth from all of these sources, which makes word of mouth a little bit more of a network and a system than a linear journey.

That means we're investing more in a content network, making sure we're seeding the market with content that's got really strong engagement and gives people something to care about so that when somebody is looking to buy a ticket, knowing that buying window is so much shorter, we've laid the groundwork of "we've heard about the show." Before you've seen something that's intrigued you, and if you go to look for it, we want you to see that people are clearly excited about it. It doesn't matter where those people are. They're all part of our fan ecosystem and have huge value in driving that important word of mouth.

How do you determine what that content is that's going to strike the right chords before your show has opened that will start building those fan bases? Is it through data, through testing or all of the above?

All of the above. I think, for us, it all starts with an audience and getting in that mindset. Because the reality is, particularly in digital when things can be niche and you want to seem really fluent with whomever you're speaking to, you walk this really incredible line as a creative between preference and performance. Just because you do not prefer something, if it's not for you, it doesn't matter. It sounds a little bit crass saying it out loud, but it's true.

What are the things that this audience is interested in? What are the things they care about? Where are they hanging out online? What are they doing when they're not online? What are the shows they're watching? What movies do they like? Doing a little bit of that landscape research unlocks your creativity, it doesn't hinder it. You might see that, "Oh, fans are actually really talking a ton about this particular song. If we're going to create a music video, let's make sure it's the song that people are talking about even if it's not our 11 o'clock number, or it's not the song that we personally feel is the strongest."

It doesn't dictate every decision, but that's really important to be aware. It's putting things out there so you can confidently know things like whether or not people are responding to fan content versus official show content. The same things aren't absolutely true for every show but we love testing and we love learning. I find that makes the creative questions and challenges way more fun, because then if you're doing something that is counter to what the data and the trends are telling you, you're also doing it really instinctively. You're doing it from an informed place. You can better break the rules when you know what the rules are.

How often do you get proven right?

Oh, man. It depends. You have to define what success looks like. And that's been something, even over the course of the pandemic, that was interesting to see evolve. We've done virtual events where folks will say, "Oh, only 5,000 folks showed up. That feels really low." But, if you were in a physical theater, that'd equate to filling a house five times. From that perspective, it is successful. I know that's a non-answer answer to your question, but the nuances are important as is aligning on expectations about what are we trying to do, and therefore what is "successful" or "right." If your goal is to go viral and break the internet, 99% of the time, you're going to fail. If you've got something focused on impact, it's a lot easier to take swings and win.

I like that theory! You mentioned monitoring and engaging with fan communities. How many thousand different social media platforms does that mean you have to keep an eye on these days?

That is a great question. It's a question that not enough people are asking, not about me personally but for their shows. It's a lot. Usually, for any given show right now, we're talking about anywhere from five to seven different social platforms. The standard usually being Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and TikTok. Sometimes, depending on the nature of the show, we might do something on Twitch. We might do something with GIPHY. There might be a Snapchat situation that's happening. But for the most part, those five are the tried and true. When you start to multiply that by number of clients, the digital footprint is getting much, much bigger and more complex.

What's an average day for you like?

Right now, an average day for me is collaborating with my teams-internal colleagues and client partners alike- which is the best, best, best part of my job. Over the past year, we've grown so much and brought new voices and new perspectives into our industry. I've gotten to help build a new team of folks who are ready to hit the ground running. It was critical to our success with the relaunch of our industry.

You can often find me checking in and collaborating with our individual creative and social directors who are attached to individual client teams. We've got a team of social media managers and community managers who are expertly handling the social specific side of things, in addition to our studio, who are really the master makers, bringing all of the great creative ideas to life. It's a lot of collaboration, a lot of brainstorming and a lot of presenting.

For me, it's making sure we're not sacrificing creative quality or strategic impact in the creative and content work that we're doing. I spend time connecting with our account leads as they've got their finger on the pulse of what is top of mind for all of our clients. Figuring out how we can solve those problems specifically in the creative space is my day-to-day.

What are you most looking forward to as the industry lifts its way back?

There are two things, but they're related. I think it can be a very competitive industry that we work in. Of course, we all want our individual shows to succeed. But, there was something special about the industry first/industry-wide teamwork mindset that we found ourselves in when our stages went dark. I hope we keep a little bit of that.

The reality is, for any of us to succeed, the art form needs to succeed. Having that camaraderie, served us well and will continue to serve us well. Also, bigger tables, more chairs for new voices. I think there's a lot more room and a lot more for us to learn as an industry. For my little piece of the puzzle, you can't have creative excellence without creative equity. Representation has been, and will continue to be, vital in how our work levels up.

Outside of the main day to day, what else are you passionate about at the moment?

Besides the MCU?

I'm proud to be on the advisory board of Maestra, which is an incredible organization founded by Georgia Stitt (Composer/Lyricist/Music Director) that provides support, visibility, and community to the women and nonbinary people who make the music in the musical theater industry. The growth they've had over the last five years is truly inspiring. I also can't say enough about the great work and programming that's being done by the Broadway Women's Alliance. Both are organizations live and breathe the idea that strength can come from collaboration and communal support.

I'd also be remised if I didn't mention Situation Project; it's one of the reasons I joined the company over 11 years ago and is one of the reasons I'm still here today. Situation Project is an official 501(c)3 on a mission to stimulate and expand the imaginations of students in local communities by increasing their access to arts & culture experiences.

Outside of our industry, you can find me trying a new recipe in my kitchen with my husband, working on a new craft project with my Cricut machine, or adding to my record collection.

And are you involved with those three organizations as Situation or as yourself personally?

A little bit of both! Like I said, I've been at Situation over 11 years, and I think you only stay at a place that long when the people are good. You're feeling challenged and you're feeling accepted and also valued. I think Situation has just done an incredible job at creating a culture where people bring their whole selves to work and not only just allowed, but encouraged to pursue those different passions.



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