The picture above is not from an ad for Telstra. It may include the telco’s company colours, and allude to its let-the light-shine-on-me logo, but it’s actually an image of Australian Ballet dancer Cristiano Martino. It’s a still from one of six, two-minute documentaries made by Telstra to promote the six young AB dancers nominated for its long-running and well-respected annual $20,000 Telstra Ballet Dancer award which will be announced in November.
Telstra and the AB are one of the great success stories of the Australian arts. It has been an AB sponsor for 30 years when it was still known as Telecom, and long before there was an Australian Business Arts Foundation and other bodies encouraging businesses to get into bed with arts companies. Its relationship has been so strong that a former Telecom chairman, the late Mel Ward, was chairman of the AB board for a decade.
The company’s attachment to the ballet makes perfect business sense in trying to associate itself with youth, vitality and excellence. These mini-documentaries are made with its money and the AB’s talent are beautiful to watch, illuminating and entertaining. Each of the nominees, Dimity Azoury, Imogen Chapman, Rina Nemoto, Jade Wood, Ingrid Gow, and the only male nominee Cristiano Martino, provide pithy and honest voiceovers telling why dance excites them. The last few seconds of each documentary includes Telstra’s corporate livery.
Telstra was well ahead of the pack in getting its corporate message out by coupling with artistic excellence, and it has maintained its support, bucking the trend in the overall decline in corporate sponsorship of the arts. An Australian Bureau of Statistics report yesterday said that while donations from individuals and foundations to arts companies had gone up in the last decade, “corporate sponsorship has grown at a slower rate increasing from $21.7m in 2001 to $30.4m in 2012. Over this period corporate sponsorship as a proportion of total sponsorship and donation revenue has fallen from 72% to 47%.”
These Telstra videos released yesterday are a great example of smart marketing finding their way to consumers through social media (and sites like ours), while providing new, quality content. While the Martino documentary is the only one of the six in the series that apes the look of a Telstra ad, would anyone care if they all did?
In the 1990s the Melbourne Age visual arts critic Robert Nelson found himself temporarily out of the role after he described the display of sponsor cars on the National Gallery of Victoria’s forecourt as crass in an opinion piece for the paper. “He nearly cost the NGV its sponsorship!” an Age editor thundered at the time, as if that was his business. In June this year the NGV celebrated the opening of its Italian Masterspieces blockbuster with two Mazdas on its St Kilda Road forecourt without comment.
The message from governments in the last decade or so is that Australian arts companies have to wean themselves off the public teat. They must find new sources of income and be more creative in their corporate partnerships. Those who work in the arts have been made to feel grateful for any support that they work hard to attract, knowing that in a period when corporate sponsorship is declining a sponsor can pull the plug at any time their fortunes, customer profile, or marketing strategy changes.
Maybe there’s nothing wrong with Telstra inveigling its advertising message within an AB mini-documentary that it is paying for. Maybe no one at the AB thought that was an issue too. Australian companies like to bend over backwards to please their sponsors —including the widespread practice of allowing the hijacking of major arts event openings when the managing directors of sponsor companies clamber on to podiums and bang on about their products. But maybe arts companies and artists need to remind themselves that corporate support is a partnership. They might need the sponsor’s money and connections, but the suits need the artists’ unique talents. These Telstra documentaries below show how much extraordinary talent the telco is lucky to be associated with.