Monday, April 01, 2002

Selling Paavo

(Photo: Bruce Crippen, Cincinnati Post)

By Kathleen Doane
Cincinnati Magazine, April 2002, Vol. 35, Issue 7

I'll be honest. There were a few moments last fall when I wondered, “Is this guy stalking me?” After all, nearly everywhere I went, Paavo Järvi, the CSO's new maestro, showed up:

* His large banner portrait on the side of the Kroger building downtown watched me each morning as I walked to work.
* I'd lock eyes with his much-larger-than-life visage on an 1–71 billboard every time I neared the Taft Road exit.
* Even while channel surfing, suddenly there—like, the ancient phoenix—was a conducting Paavo rising from the flames.
* Paavo's eastern European accent on the radio cajoling me to yet another concert.
* And all the while, the phrase Bravo Paavo played in my brain like a repeating bass line.

Was I losing my grip on reality? Had some chemical or hormonal shift caused this paranoia? What was happening inside my head? Actually, the marketing team of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra was messing with my mind.

Their blitz campaign to promote the orchestra and make its new musical director a household name before his moving van even arrived surpassed expectations. The defining moment for CSO marketing director Dianne Cooper occurred one day shortly after Järvi got to town. An amazed Paavo arrived at the hall one morning and told how people on the street were going out of their way to say hello. The night before he had gone into a downtown restaurant and been instantly recognized and welcomed by everyone from the owner to the waiter—all before the first concert. Even fans at an early Bengals game gave a nod of recognition when Paavo tossed out the first football.

The CSO front office describes Järvi's ability to connect with people as a “marketer's dream.” Whatever mystique usually keeps music lovers and conductors at a distance from each other evaporates when Paavo begins to talk about what he does, why it's important and why it's fun.

All well and good—but has that awareness moved people to take action and meet the campaign's ultimate goal, persuading folks to buy tickets and attend concerts? Indications at the season's halfway point show subscriptions for the longer series are up about 6 percent. (The goal for Järvi's first season is to increase subscriptions overall by 3 to 4 percent.) The best measure of just how effective the whole effort has been in getting first-timers through the door will be the single ticket sales tallied at the end of the season. The statistic with perhaps the most significance may be the 76 percent increase in online sales through the CSO's Web site (, with 70 percent of those ordering identified as newcomers to the CSO's database. There's reason to assume many of those patrons are younger, given the online ordering preferences of young ticket buyers. And like every arts organization the CSO is in search of young patrons, which brings the discussion back to Paavo, who, at 39, is practically a kid in conductor-years.

On several occasions, Paavo has met with students at area colleges, personally inviting them to certain concerts dubbed “college nights.” For $10, students not only attended a concert but got to party afterward with the maestro at a free buffet in Corbett tower. One UC student, at the first college night back in November, was so enthusiastic about the opportunity that he showed up with a duct tape proclamation, Paavo Rules, on the back of his shirt. Nothing makes a marketing director smile like having your target audience start marketing for you.

As well-planned as the effort to launch Paavo was last year, a good portion of the outcome was based on luck. The truth is, when Cooper's marketing team (which included Mann Bukvic Gatch Partners, a local marketing firm) got together back in 1999 to plan the orchestra's million-dollar, four-year image campaign, the only thing they knew for sure was that in year three, they would be introducing a new conductor. That alone provided them with one of the only two reasons an arts organization ever undertakes such an extensive and expensive promotion. (The other is a new home.) Aside from a fairly long list of candidates, they had no idea who the musical director would be. It's been a real bonus that Paavo has so far turned out to be such a media hit.

It does make one wonder if other names would have had a similar impact. When the CSO conducted its search more than two years ago, possible contenders included Sir Andrew Davis, William Eddins and Roberto Abbado, which means I could have been haunted by any one of the following phrases: Dandy Andy, Bully Billy or Roberto Rocks.