Publicist Madelaine Bennett On The State Of Comedy Criticism


Bruce Dessau is the comedy critic of the Evening Standard and the editor of comedy website

The latest piece in this current series on the state of comedy criticism offers the perspective of the publicist.

Madelaine Bennett is the Managing Director of The GingerBread Agency. At the Edinburgh Festival last summer she represented a number of comedy acts including rising star Jordan Gray, who picked up an Edinburgh Comedy Award nomination for Best Show.

Hello, my name is Madelaine, and many years ago I made the (in retrospect, possibly unwise) decision to choose a career as a publicist, specialising in PR for the arts/entertainment/culture.

I once co-ran a lovely little company called Prospero and then I was Publicity Director and ran the Performing Arts dept for the behemoth that is Premier PR. And for the last three years, I’ve headed up The GingerBread Agency. Check us out, we’re adorable.

When I was asked to write this column I felt I couldn’t say no. Not because I love my name being in any kind of spotlight (I’m one of those PRs who prefer to stay firmly in the background, my light deliberately hidden under several bushels).. And not because it might get a bit of attention and win more work, because in all honesty, comedy PR is hard work and not that lucrative. That said, it still makes up about 25% of the work we take on, because for some reason buried deep in my own psyche. I can’t quite face the idea of not working with clowns anymore.

(I’m not gonna talk about the other kind of culture PR I do, because a lot of it is in direct competition to Mobius and they are incredibly churlish people - jk, we’re friends, I promise)

Anyway, back to why I said yes. I said yes, because for the comedy shows I do work on, my relationship with key comedy press is absolutely essential to my being able to deliver a job well done. A PR campaign can often stand or fall on the reviews it gets. A comedy show or tour will inevitably do better if the press write about it (so long as they like it) and therefore comedy critics are a vital part of what I do. So, I owe Bruce. His reviews (and that of his peers) have often been the difference between a solid press campaign and a ‘meh’ one. So it felt like the least I could do.

In Bruce’s opening article for this series, I saw that he was concerned that press tickets might become scarce because producers want to sell every ticket. And he wondered if producers even need to give out a ticket and lose that precious income when paying audiences (and performers themselves) will happily spread the word on social media channels for “free”.

Not so! It might be that a well-selling show has a cut-off if every small culture blog requests a pair of comps, but generally speaking, reviews from established critics will always be able to sell more tickets than the solitary press comp they take off sale. High praise from a respected critic still means a lot, and while social media posts are undeniably valuable in raising awareness and even generate clicks, they cannot offer that expert endorsement.

Every now and again, a show will want to decline press. Sometimes they’ll have a valid rationale and there can be all sorts of reasons for this. When that happens, I’ll do my best to explain to the journalist why it’s not possible to offer a ticket.

I was asked to think about some reasons why this might happen. It can be for all sorts of reasons, some of them entirely unique to a particular show. But in my experience, these are the main ones

  • The show is a work-in-progress and being sold as such. It’s not the finished article and not ready for review.
  • They have a personal aversion to reviewers. This happens but it’s not something I experience all that often because if someone really doesn’t want to be reviewed, they are less likely to hire a PR to push their show.
  • The show is selling really well, they don’t need this show to be reviewed, and because a paper will tend not to revisit the same act in too short a period, they want to keep their powder dry in the hope that critics will instead come and see their next show.
  • It’s not getting the kind of critical response they had hoped for, and there’s little point in adding another so-so review to a growing pile.
  • Or, on occasion (although this is rare across the board and even more so with a comedy show) certain shows may only invite certain kinds of critics. There’s an interesting article in The Age here (you may or may not agree with The Age's stance, I have thoughts, but that’s for another blog) on an internationally acclaimed play called ‘seven methods of killing kylie jenner’ where producers declined any reviewers who weren’t people of colour. A stance driven by a desire to increase diversity among critics.

All these things do happen, but 49 times out of 50, if a show isn’t a work-in-progress, I want that review.

A successful PR campaign will look different for different projects. A longer London run places a lot of value on reviews, whereas a tour, especially for a smaller comic, will value preview press as the most critical to generate ticket sales (not that they wouldn’t love reviews, but a slew of ‘em are less likely, as a show is typically only in one place for a single night).

Until recently, getting print coverage was the ultimate measure by which people would decide how good a PR campaign you delivered. Now, whilst it always feels nice for the performer to buy a paper with a review or feature all about THEM, when it comes down to cold hard facts and cold hard cash, online is often valued more highly than print. Because online you can read the article, click a link and buy that ticket.

At the Edinburgh Festival, while features (such as interviews) are great and truly valued, the main aim is always getting reviews and stars to put on a poster, with the eventual aim of converting that grass-roots marketing into ticket sales. But for a comedy podcast, say, features and interviews are the core goal, because that’s what builds a loyal audience over time.

Ultimately, while different campaigns take different shapes, success is never just about ‘getting coverage', it’s about ‘getting coverage that drives an audience towards your show’. And reviews are still a huge, huge part of achieving that.

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