play to the crowd





Deryck Newland and Kirstie Mathieson from the charity Play to the Crowd that runs the Theatre Royal Winchester, the amazing Hat Festival and educational activities discuss the critical – but friendly – interventions James West made as they planned their new brand and how to find the right agency. 

Back in autumn 2017 Creative United’s Prosper programme, focusing on general resilience and viability of arts organisations, matched James West for 10 coaching hours with new CEO Deryck Newland and one of his first appointees, Communications Director Kirstie Mathieson, to help tighten their branding brief. James then joined the panel to help Play to the Crowd find the right agency for a rebrand for Play to the Crowd incorporating the Theatre Royal Winchester, the Hat Fair and Playmakers. 

Being clear about your brand is part of the visioning toolkit that James West helps his clients develop. Meetings with Deryck Newland (DN) and Kirstie Mathieson (KM) were before the pandemic – so face-to-face in Winchester, then followed up by email support.

Revisiting this period is surprisingly emotional for all three. James to hear how the agency appointed has been a continuing success, and for Deryck and Kirstie a chance to update about their covid survival – via gut-wrenching redundancies, at the same time as an uplifting £300,000 fundraiser. And now the team is having to pivot again after the autumn 2022 Arts Council ‘levelling up’ awards left them without that vital NPO status.

DN: “We didn’t have many hours together in 2017, so we decided the most useful thing was accelerating this brand development journey. James was like a sort of touchstone, a sort of external objective eye. I felt I didn’t have the skills and expertise on my own and it also gave credibility to a change process. It was very clear that a radical process was needed around profile, the brand, case for support and the whole organisational structure to keep everyone on board. No one knew it was a charity. They assumed Theatre Royal Winchester was commercial and the Hat Fair was magic.”

KM: “Before our time it was two separate organisations, they’d merged but they were still separate silos with two websites.”

DN: “We had to find the identity of the organisation, and it felt like a big job.”

KM: “We knew we needed to restructure our branding to match the organisation we wanted to become, so we put a brief together and that’s where you came in and helped – to check we were asking the right questions.

JW: “When putting a pitch out to externals, it’s so important to see it with their eyes. A lot of the work was around the value of that, as you said ‘external eyes’. Often you can see where creatives get confused, they take something and run with it, but it’s in the opposite direction of what’s wanted.”

When we embarked on this there was some pushback against it, so actually you were our friend to give us confidence that we were on the right track. There was a trust that we had in you that you were going to help us get this right.

Kirstie Mathieson

JW: “I then got involved in the selection process. For me that’s why I wanted to invite you for this interview – I saw a show on the stage, spent time with you in and around the space, talking over coffees. This gave me so much more connection to you and the organisation. I wish as a side note that funded programmes would allow for that level of relationship building because you can just imagine how much richer those collabs would then be. 

KM: “Those days were really insightful. The agencies that pitched in person, the majority could have done the job, but what was really interesting was seeing your take on it. You could ask harder questions than us, because we were going to be working with one of them.”

DN: “It gave more heft and credibility to have someone else on our interview panel – it held their feet to the fire. That was really useful.”

JW: “It was a really bold use of name and brand strategy across a spectrum of arts provision vision. Has it played out?”

KM: “[In 2020 because of the pandemic we had just eight weeks to raise £300k.] In terms of advocacy and comments [we know] people understand what we are about. The response was phenomenal, the brand development has been amazing. We really don’t think we’d be here if we hadn’t rebranded and been able to tell that story.”

JW: “Do you think that wide relevance was a critical factor?”

DN: “I think it was about clarity. We had arrived at a clear brand, with a clear family and it was clear that the family were connected, and through the branding journey our vision to ‘delight and unite’ was clear, simple and powerful which was so important in the middle of a global pandemic. I did lots of video messages – they saw me up on the roof clearing the drains, testing the sprinkler system, just keeping the building alive when no one was here. The public bought into that notion that this was important for the quality of their lives. If it hadn’t been for that new brand we would possibly not be here now.”

JW: “It comes back to that choice; that moment of trust.”

KM: “One of the key drivers behind the rebrand, was highlighting that we are a charity. It opened some of the trusts and local family trusts to us and it really did change engagement of our donors. We now have engaged members in the audience. People really got behind it and some did their own fundraisers. It’s started a massive ball rolling in terms of the journey.” 

DN: “You can claim to be a part of that journey! It was a small part but if you make an intervention in the right moment, it can have massive effects. It’s like if you can knock an asteroid a fraction off its course it will miss the Earth and you save the planet.”

JW: “You’re making me sound like a superhero! You never quite know what the impacts are. My approach with all clients is to try and equip them so that beyond our sessions it has a merit, even if it is just to give them a toolkit to respond. But to hear this story and the scale of what’s grown from it is filling me with goosebumps.” 

DN: “The branding agency we chose, with your support as part of that panel, had a real feeling for the Hat Fair and he took his kids there when they were younger. But the whole project had to be delivered on a fixed budget of £10k. For a major branding agency that was tiny, but we still managed to persuade them to connect four brands for Play to the Crowd.

JW: “You were testing who was going to give you best partnership.”

DN: “The questions that you asked helped us test our assumptions, things we might not have thought about, particularly what the companies receiving the pitch might need.”

JW: “There was high level ambition right from the start, but the bit in the middle, the how, what and when was lacking.”

DN: “I’m smiling because I am a little bit dismissive about how to go there and need people to colour in the steppingstones that I’ve not even realised need to happen…”

KM: “When we embarked on this there was some pushback against it, so actually you were our friend to give us confidence that we were on the right track. There was a trust that we had in you that you were going to help us get this right.”


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James West is a sector specialist Creative Industries Business Adviser and has worked with 400+ creative, cultural and heritage organisations across the UK.

James works predominately on government funded Business Advice programmes, where his expertise is focused on achieving targeted outcomes.

This article is part of a series of he has created recognising his first decade in business.