If you hold dear the old adage that ‘it’s not what you know, it’s who you know’, then you really need to get to know Alex Poots. The softly spoken 37-year-old Scot has an A-list army of close personal friends. Not five minutes into our conversation and he’s already revealed that he and ‘Damon’ (of the Albarn variety) have been working together for five years, how every few weeks he likes to meet up for a drink with local design deity Peter Saville, and why he’s the one that Elton John calls on for impartial advice when he’s having delicate problems with ‘him indoors’.
OK, that last one may not be entirely true, but you get the picture; Alex Poots is one major league mover and a’shaker.
Bearing that in mind he’s exactly the right man to be in the driving seat for the Manchester International Festival. For those of you unfamiliar with the MIF, it’s time to get acquainted. The festival will launch in summer 2007 as a biennial event, showcasing newly commissioned work by established artists across, in Poots’ words, “the entire spectrum of human creativity.” As a flavour of what’s to come Poots and co held their inaugural ‘Trailblazer’ event last month, which saw the Gorillaz play their first ever live gigs for five consecutive sold-out nights at Manchester’s Opera House. As high profile cultural coups go, this one was of Himalayan proportions.
“Yep, it was their first ever live performances,” reiterated a coolly un-star-struck Poots. “They came to me a while back asking if I thought they could do a live show and I said ‘yes, but I think it’d be best if you did it in Manchester’. I explained that it’d be more noteworthy if they did it here rather than in London, and they were very receptive to the idea. That created a lot of interest prior to the shows along the lines of ‘well why Manchester?’ So, it all worked out nicely and became a real plus in terms of the publicity angle.”
As we said at the start, ‘it’s who you know’.
That said, it’d be mendacious to assert that Poots is only in the MIF hot-seat because he’s got a big bunch of celebrity buddies. In reality he’s sitting pretty because Manchester City Council were attracted to an undeniable pedigree, established over years at the various coalfaces of major cultural events and organisations. His last post was as director of contemporary arts at the English National Opera (ENO), at the Tate Gallery he orchestrated its first ever live music events (featuring artists as diverse as PJ Harvey and Anish Kapoor) and at the Barbican he was lauded as the architect of its move into bold, and commercially successful, new territory. The council, understandably, were intrigued:
“Spurred on by the success of the Commonwealth Games, they were looking to launch a festival that had national and international appeal. They asked about 4 or 5 potential directors what format that should take – if you like, what should be its vision statement - and I was one of that group.”
Explaining how the idea for commissioning renowned artists to produce new works arose, he continued; “I spoke to some friends of mine from Manchester after speaking with the council. One of them reminded me that Manchester was the world’s first industrial city, therefore its first real modern city, and because of that, was the centre of the universe for a time.
“So, it suddenly got me thinking that maybe the festival could respond to that in some way. Having the world’s first international festival of new, original work in the original, modern city seemed like a really good match. It was growing out of the genes of the city and that gave it a unique standing and character compared to any other festivals in the country.”
Its very uniqueness makes MIF a little difficult to pigeonhole and, if you’re the sort of person that likes doing that sort of thing, to ‘rank’ in the overall festival food chain. As Poots takes pain to assert “it’s not just an arts festival, it’s across culture, creativity and innovation” and because each commissioned artist will be doing something they’ve never done before (i.e. Gorillaz playing live), by its very nature it has to be a ‘suck it and see’ kind of shindig.
However, going by the first entirely sold-out Trailblazer, there seems to be plenty of people who should have a taste for it:
“I was expecting it to go well but it totally exceeded those expectations,” Poots noted with a tone of barely suppressed satisfaction. “Sometimes these things can look and sound like they’ll be perfect and then they unravel at the last minute, but with this one almost the opposite happened.
“The coverage it received was fantastic, and there’s much more to come - the BBC filmed it for broadcast next year and EMI were there to capture it for an upcoming DVD release (it was also broadcast ‘as live’ on Radio 1). In all of these cases the event isn’t just the Gorillaz playing live, it’s branded as a Manchester International Trailblazer show and that will help our profile immensely.”
It’s this last point that begins to shed light on Poots’ innovative marketing strategy, not to mention his assured marshalling of the often unruly media animal.
“It’s my intention to advertise the festival through work, through commissions. Hence Gorillaz was the first Trailblazer and there’ll be two more to follow next year. I think it’s always best to advertise with something that’s tangible, rather than just sticking posters up saying how great it’s going to be – well, I mean, says who? You advertise by the standard of the work you’re pushing and the calibre of the artists that you manage to get involved. In that respect I’m choosing artists that have a national and international interest - and not just from the audience’s point of view – and that undeniably helps oil the publicity machine.”
So, no big budgets at stake for a pre-festival advertising knees up then? Apparently not. Poots prefers to stick to ‘content led marketing’, a concept championed by another high profile friend of his, former director of communication and strategy at Channel 4, David Brook.
“I used to know him pretty well and he was a quite brilliant marketer. He was in charge of a disposable budget of £100m, but used to talk about focusing on content led marketing. He liked promoting Channel 4 through the work itself and that’s something I strongly believe in – it’s the festival programme that should be leading the way, but that programme has to be constructed in a way that lends itself to easy communication and marketing. So, I’ve always thought that the best shows were the ones that are artistically strong and therefore really a no-brainer to communicate.”
We’re not sure that MIF’s London based PR consultancy Idea Generation would appreciate that they’ve been handling a ‘no-brainer’ of an assignment. That said Poots is quick to laud their efforts so far, as he is with local marketing services providers Love Creative and Code Computer Love. Although all three of the firms were only contracted for the first event, his endorsement that “I think they’ve really done us proud” suggests the seeds have been sown for on-going relationships. It seems as though all that ‘Love’ he’s been getting in Manchester has paid off for everyone.
Finishing off the festival interview on a crowd pleaser, Adline quizzed what effect MIF will have on the city itself and the brand of Manchester.
“Can I use some concrete examples?” was his response. ‘Yes’ was ours.
“Well, the Gorillaz managed to attract 500 people from America to Manchester for the concerts, to spend the weekend, or however long it was. They wouldn’t have come otherwise. Also, there were several hundred people from Europe who came to Manchester specifically to see the shows. That’s one important impact; creating a new visitor audience for the city.
“Secondly, if you’re working with top class artists from around the world, then the press, the arts community, the venues, the marketeers and everyone associated with these groups, sits up, takes notice and realises that something’s really cooking in Manchester. Word spreads like bindweed in those communities. So, rather than Manchester advertising to the world that it’s a cultural centre, which of course it is, it’s actually demonstrating it by tangibly doing something.”
And, just when he looks like finishing off on a high, he’s back on for an encore: “And lastly, because we’re co-commissioning with other international venues and festivals (the acts will have their world premieres at MIF before select ones move on to Paris, Rome, Berlin, New York and “possibly even Beijing”) means that we’re forging important links with other cities and events and getting recognition for Manchester.
“When our shows move on everyone can see in the accreditation that it’s being made with Manchester. So, we’re actually making the city stand out, giving it a genuine point of difference and getting it recognised on a truly international level.”
Something that, come summer 2007, should get him a whole new legion of close personal friends.