ATG chief executive Mark Cornell: ‘Theatre’s been slow to embrace the importance of selling itself’
While his lack of experience in the industry meant his appointment in 2016 was a surprise to many, Ambassador Theatre Group’s chief executive is passionate about delivering a top-quality theatre audience experience in and out of the auditorium. He tells Alistair Smith about shaking up ATG’s ticketing, accessibility and communications
When Mark Cornell became chief executive of Ambassador Theatre Group in 2016, his appointment was greeted with a collective scratching of heads in the theatre world. Commercial theatre in the UK is a small community, not known for hiring senior figures from outside the entertainment sector, and Cornell was replacing two of the business’ best-known names: Howard Panter and Rosemary Squire.
“For a lot of people, there was probably some appropriate incredulousness,” Cornell acknowledges. “Who is this outsider? What can he bring to theatre? I dare say some people may still be thinking that.”
So, who is he? Well, to say Cornell does not have your typical theatre exec’s background is something of an understatement. Educated at Winchester College, he joined the army on a scholarship and, after officer training at Sandhurst, enlisted in the Royal Green Jackets. He went on to serve for seven years including four operational tours in Northern Ireland from 1986 to 1992.
“In terms of the Troubles, it was a pretty bad time,” he recalls, before adding rather matter-of-factly. “As it happens, I was blown up in the Enniskillen bomb on Remembrance Sunday 1982. That was the second bomb [incident] that day.”
One gets the impression that Cornell is not someone who is going to be fazed by the occasional bad review.
Cornell values his time in the army, but was ready to leave after his seven-year stint. “As a young guy – I was 19 years old, commanding 40 to 45 soldiers – you grow up pretty quick. It taught me at the right age some very important life lessons, which without question have influenced me ever since. While I try not to come across as someone who is particularly military, there is no doubt that there’s a streak within me: when talking about strategy and tactics, or ‘winning wars’, but also in supporting and understanding that it’s important that ‘everyone’s boots fit and the mail gets through’, and all those classic army adages. It helped me understand how a unit, a team, can work efficiently and effectively.”
If there are hints of Cornell’s army upbringing in his choice of language, there are also some nods to his later professional life in his office: beside the table where we are speaking is a wooden crate containing some very expensive claret.
Cornell left the army to join WH Smith (“a great transition to civilian life”), where he ended up running the Greater London newsprint and distribution operation, before heading off to business school in Lausanne, Switzerland (“the happiest year of my life”) to get his MBA.
On graduating, he joined LVMH, the luxury goods house known for high-end wines, spirits, handbags and perfumes. It was there that Cornell spent the largest part of his professional life, leading brands such as Hine cognac and Krug champagne, before finally heading up the Moet Hennessy range of brands in the US.
It was there, though, he sensed he had hit a ceiling.
“I realised that if I was going to get on to the board of LVMH, it wasn’t imminent,” he says. “I just knew it was right to change, to do something else. So, I went off to run a super yacht business based out of Monaco. At that time, super yachts were a very fast-growing business and it spoke to a lot of the people I had been selling to in my LVMH days. I knew that customer and I like the sea, so it seemed to make good sense.”
“But it was the biggest error of judgment I’ve made in my life. Very quickly I realised I’d made a terrible mistake: it wasn’t an industry I liked. My due diligence was poor and I felt very uncomfortable in an environment that was far from what I was used to and challenged my values and principles every day.”
After a year, he packed it in and soon landed a job running Sotheby’s Europe, which proved a much better fit. But in 2015, he was moving on once more, having again realised that he’d got as far as he could.
“Daniel S Loeb, the activist investor, had bought into Sotheby’s. He decided to change the management: he removed the chief executive of the group, based in New York, and replaced him with an outsider. That was a role I was hoping to fill myself and it disappeared in front of me, so I took the view that I didn’t want to sit around. The reason I had left LVMH was that I didn’t want to sit around waiting, and I didn’t want to wait here either, so I decided to move on.”
A short period as a consultant followed, before he was headhunted by ATG’s owner, private equity firm Providence, for his current role. His job at ATG marked a double departure for Cornell, who had never worked in theatre or with private equity before.
But, he insists, there is a clear thread that links his previous jobs with his role today.
“My passion is for quality work – whether that is a quality bottle of wine, a quality suitcase, a quality work of art or a quality production on a stage,” Cornell explains.
“I saw a terrific opportunity in two fields. One was the development of the audience experience. Speaking generally, while what has been on stage has always been very high quality, what surrounds that or makes up the experience [in theatre generally] is sub quality compared with what’s on stage. I’ve always thought the experience was below par.
“Secondly, I’ve always been conscious that fantastic work is being produced every day in theatres around the country and around the world that hundreds of thousands of people aren’t aware of. How can we get this fabulous work on to their radars?”
He gives himself and his wife as an example.
“The thing that really excited me about the role was the fact that I was only ever an occasional theatregoer, but whenever I went, I would always say to Lucy, my wife: ‘That was phenomenally good fun, we should do it more often.’ But we never did. And I suppose it’s the challenge of trying to answer that question – why didn’t we do it more often? – that I’m here to try to solve. That has been in the forefront of my mind for the past two and half years.”
This interview marks the first time that Cornell has spoken publicly about his aims for the company. Why has he been so reticent to step forward and outline his vision for ATG and theatre as a whole?
“The reality is that I needed time to learn in the first instance, to appreciate this business, ATG and what it was, but also the industry,” he says. “Until I’d learned – and I’m still learning – until I’d got some basic understanding, it was very difficult for me to determine a path. And I thought that until I was really clear about what we as an organisation were trying to achieve, I was better keeping myself under a bushel and not jumping out into the industry and saying: ‘I’ve got the solution to all our problems.’ And I just didn’t think that anyone was particularly interested in me, or what I had to say. That may still be the case, but at least now I think I have something to contribute.”
He stresses that he has been helped to get his feet under the table by two senior figures at ATG in particular: Michael Lynas and Adam Kenwright. He describes the pair as “sitting on my right and left shoulders”.
“Both of them are very strong industry players and have connections with the industry. That gave me space to think and not to get too drawn into the detail from the outset. And it allowed me to meet people in an appropriate context: Michael told me the half a dozen producers I needed to meet and Adam introduced me to the important people from a marketing or communications point of view.”
Following that fact-finding mission and six months into his tenure at ATG, Cornell presented a strategic plan for the company in early 2017. That still provides the basis for the way he wants to develop the group in the coming months and years.
Mark Cornell on…
“From an ATG perspective, there is more musical performance in the regions than pure theatre. But we’re trying to change that. We’ve toured some really great stuff – Gaslight, for example. We’re committing to something we consider really important. It might have drifted away in the past, but when ATG was very centralised, the local theatres were not so inspired to entertain their communities.”
…the ‘vertically integrated’ business model
“We think the vertically integrated model of production, theatre ownership/management and ticketing makes good sense. But we have to apply the model to all parts of the business. That means the productions have to be strong – so we need good relations with producers – but also the ticketing has to be good to ensure full engagement with the right audience.”
“We have a very strong desire to build a good, solid business in the US. I’ve recruited a great team out there and it’s performing extremely well. We’ve now integrated the ACE theatres [acquired in 2015] into ATG North America but we need a broader footprint. The Colonial in Boston was an obvious target for us and our intention is that it should become a pre-Broadway house. We were very fortunate to fall into the arms of Carmen Pavlovic and Moulin Rouge. It premiered a few months ago to great acclaim – a wonderful way to relaunch the theatre. I hope that signalled to the producing community that the Colonial is back in business.”
…ATG executive vice president Adam Kenwright
“Adam heads up our business development. So he is the person I might ask: ‘I want to strengthen our business on the continent, how should we approach this? I hear a lot about Stage Entertainment, about the Mehr! Group. How are we going to proceed with that?’ Adam is our go-to man on those big strategic plays. He contributed towards our success with Harry Potter and he’s also picked up the creative learning part of our business. He works directly with me – we’re a good double act. I’m bloody lucky to have him and Michael Lynas [group content and creative director] around.”
Cornell explains the three ‘strategic pillars’ to his vision for ATG: to create and attract quality content, to improve the audience experience and to make ATG more effective and efficient internally.
Linked to the first of those aims, Cornell says that one of his priorities has been to allay fears that under his leadership ATG would become less focused on producing and the importance of high-quality theatre. This was a perception that was fuelled by the company’s jettisoning of one of its key production arms: First Family Entertainment, which created pantomimes for the group. However, Cornell stresses, it is absolutely not true that ATG has become less driven by creating and showcasing quality theatre.
Internally, he points to the way he has restructured the senior management team to ensure that producers and production always ‘have a seat at the top table’.
“I was very conscious, as was the whole industry [of the idea of]: ‘Who is this guy Mark Cornell coming in who knows absolutely nothing about theatre? He’s a suit, he’s bound to get it wrong.’ But the reason I had a little bit of confidence was because the common denominator between my former life at LVMH, Sotheby’s and now at ATG was all about the quality of the products.
“I really understood the importance of content,” he continues. “So, when I came to look at the structure of the team, I wanted to ensure that what I call the ‘content people’ were not only very strongly represented but they were strongly represented in senior positions.”
The UK team is led from a venue operations point of view by Nick Potter, with Michael Lynas heading up the programming side. Cornell describes this as a “double act” and points to similar duos running ATG’s US and German operations.
“The beauty of this model is that I can sleep at night knowing that content is properly represented in the business around the world and content is absolutely at the top table,” he adds. “It’s why we’re making decisions to do things like Caroline, Or Change, or The Jungle – to do things that are critically very highly acclaimed but not necessarily particularly commercial. At the same time, we need to counterbalance that with some more overtly commercial things, which are also hopefully very critically acclaimed.
“It’s very important that ATG is not purist about what we mean in terms of ‘great quality work’. We need to produce and present to audiences what they want and it’s finding that balance between treating theatre as a real treat and at the same time theatre being very accessible and topical and relevant. I think The Jungle is a fantastic example of that.
“From the beginning, everyone knew that The Jungle wasn’t a particularly commercial venture – especially when we started ripping seats out of the Playhouse Theatre to make room for an Afghan cafe. But the audience has paid us back. It took a bit of time to get going, but The Jungle has now made its mark, people are going in droves and I think it is becoming commercial. That’s a very good example of us doing the right thing.”
He believes The Jungle will have broken even for ATG by the end of its run and says that, more widely, the production operation within ATG is now generating a small profit for the group – something he admits has not always been the case.
Cornell is equally keen to stress that his priority to strive for higher-quality content is not restricted to in-house work. The group’s relationships with independent producers have been strained over the years, and Cornell says that he is eager for ATG to become known for working with other players in the industry, rather than using its size to dominate.
“Our relations with the producer community are, I’d like to think, improving every day. I dare say there’s lots more we can do. We’re endeavouring to be better partners to producers: whether that’s to do with the deal, marketing support, flexibility or investment. The producer community is key to our success. If we are oriented to make them as successful as possible, we are also the beneficiaries of that. We no longer see it as an us-and-them scenario, we see it as ‘Hey, how can we do this together?’. There are producers who I know very much feel that transition has taken place.
“The other thing I’m very proud about is the very strong work that the team here is doing to foster work with the Almeida, the National, Chichester and the Lincoln Center [in New York]. As a result of those great relationships we’re seeing marvellous work, whether that be Oslo or Sunday in the Park With George. Those partnerships along with better producer relationships are undoubtedly raising our game.”
An example he gives of ATG’s new collaborative approach is in the way it made changes to the Duke of York’s Theatre in the West End to accommodate ATG Productions’ co-production of King Lear.
“Ian McKellen [who played Lear] wanted to play to a smaller audience, so we took some seats out and in that space we’ve created a bar at the back of the stalls. It’s a really good experience. With things like that we’re trying to be more collaborative and entrepreneurial, but always with the audience in mind.”
Q&A: Mark Cornell
What was your first job?
I was a jackaroo [a trainee on a sheep ranch] in Australia. I’d just left school and I remember my boss saying in his strong Aussie accent: “You start at seven in the morning. Every day. Every week. If you’re a minute late you’re fired. Is that clear?” I was 18 and pretty laid back and it was quite alarming. But I loved it and from that moment on, I got a bit of a work ethic.
What was your first theatre job?
What do you wish you had been told when you were starting out?
It took me time to recognise the difference between an intellect and an education. I was lucky to be fantastically well-educated, but when I joined the army I realised I was not as intelligent as many young people around me. The difference was our education. Had they had my education, they might have gone on to far greater things [than me]. That helped me understand there are bright, clever people everywhere and if you can harness their talent and intelligence, you’re halfway there. As my career has progressed, I’ve learned that it’s no good sitting around waiting for things to happen. We all drive our own destiny. I’ve had an extraordinary range of roles, but a good deal of that is down to a belief that most skills are transferable and if you are excited by something, there’s precious little to stop you going after it.
Who or what has been your biggest influence?
There have been plenty: from soldiers who guided and supported me to a wonderful man who I still see every year: Alan Bowen, who was my mentor when I left the army and joined WH Smith. I’ve always been conscious of the role a mentor can play. My greatest mentor in my life was my father. He was a career soldier: he knew nothing about the luxury goods world, the art world or the world of theatre, yet he was very conscious of always providing me with a place to go for counsel or advice. His mantra for me and my brothers was: “I’m only here to give you two things – love and wings, the confidence to get on and do it.” The idea of wings is very important: you have to allow people to fly, to succeed.
This links into one of Cornell’s other ‘strategic pillars’ – improving the audience’s physical experience of going to the theatre. He points to improvements that the group has made to its US theatres – the Lyric and the Hudson – to underline the kind of improvements he would like to see across the estate. Both have undergone multimillion-pound refurbishments to improve the audience experience and, in the case of the Lyric, tailor it to its current show: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Similarly, he also points to the success of the Starlight Express Theater in Bochum – which ATG has recently acquired as part of the German theatre operator Mehr! – as an example of a venue that is tailored to suit a specific show and its audience. Starlight Express has been playing there since 1988 in a tailor-made theatre complete with skating tracks and in-the-round seating.
“It is really about providing to people’s needs,” says Cornell. “It is saying, ‘You like this show, we’re going to give you this show in an environment that makes sense and is tailored to that show.’ While we’re not going to have – and nor do we want – every theatre of ours to be full with a sit-down show, we do want to work with the producers to do a better job of giving them what makes sense for their show.”
While ATG has been able to achieve this with King Lear and The Jungle, it is not always as straightforward in the UK, in part due to the planning restrictions placed on many of our historic theatres. It is, admits Cornell, a concern – one that was shared by his predecessors at ATG and has been raised by many of the West End’s other theatre owners.
“I have full respect for planning authorities, but I do think at some stage we need to address this whole issue of whether planning really applies to all elements of the theatre. The facade of course, the proscenium arch and the boxes… but does it really need to apply to the loos? Does it really have to apply to the bar space?”
Across the company’s more than 30 UK theatres, Cornell says the group has spent an average of £7.5 million a year on capital improvements. This does not include repair and maintenance. Outside London, work has recently taken place at the Alexandra in Birmingham and there are plans for upgrades in Oxford, Brighton and at the Manchester Palace. Meanwhile, there are also two new UK venues on the cards: both focused on music, in Stockton-upon-Tees and Swansea. While this could seem to be a departure for ATG, Cornell says the new venues will complement its existing portfolio.
“We’ve taken a view that we’re in the business of live entertainment – cultural live entertainment. So, we’re not going to start owning sports arenas or that sort of thing. Therefore we’re starting to think about how we can diversify that offer. Clearly ATG has always done some music and comedy, but we want to raise that game. We’re not looking to take on the AEG and Live Nations of this world, but we are conscious that a lot of comedians don’t want a 10,000-seat arena or an 80,000-seat stadium. A 2,000-seater is exactly what they want. We’ve always approached that from a theatre perspective, but now we’re saying this venue is predominantly suited to theatre, but how can we engage the music industry a bit more? To complement that thinking, we’ve said: ‘Let’s buy a couple of smaller music venues.’ That way we can hopefully start encouraging some of the music promoters and management teams to tour some of their acts through a combination of our music and theatre venues.”
Cornell is also keen to expand ATG’s regional holdings in the US, where it already operates a number of sites, including recently acquired theatres in San Francisco and Boston. But he urges caution: “I hope, step by step, we will increase that footprint but we don’t want it to be too big or flabby.”
Change in emphasis
Cornell stresses, however, that he does not see physical expansion as being as central to ATG’s growth as it has been historically.
“We’ve said that if an appropriate acquisition comes on to our radar, we’re not going to ignore it, but really our emphasis has been on doing we what we do better.
“When I arrived, I remember an awful lot of people saying to me: ‘We’re the biggest theatre company in the world, we’re the biggest this…” All of that is true. Lots of lists were published showing how many theatres we had. That didn’t interest me at all, frankly. It’s not why I’m here. The teams now understand that. The reason I’m here is to become the best. From my point of view, that means delivering the best-quality content to as broad an audience as possible. That’s what we are now hell-bent on trying to achieve.”
Historically, venue and company acquisition have been used by ATG as a way of increasing the value of the company so that it can be sold on by its owners at a higher price than they had paid for it. There are expectations that Providence will put the group up for sale again soon – perhaps as early as next year. In that context, part of Cornell’s role is to add value to the company and secure as high a price as possible.
While acquisitions still play a part in this, Cornell says his prime focus has been on improving what ATG already has and, in particular, this means its people.
Soon after joining, he embarked on a quite radical – and controversial – restructure of the business that led to significant redundancies, some of long-serving senior staff.
Cornell says that the restructure was focused on making ATG “less centralised and less autocratic” and on giving regional theatres more ownership, accountability and autonomy.
“I felt that the theatres themselves needed to be empowered,” he explains. “So much of the decision-making was happening centrally and I felt that was wrong. I needed the general managers of the theatres to believe those theatres were their businesses, their community centres. London is slightly different, but essentially what we’ve tried to do across our entire theatre footprint is to empower our leadership. At the same time as that, we were looking to upgrade our leadership. So we spent quite a bit of time and effort on training. We introduced a new training course for our senior leadership called Leading Lights. It’s been wonderfully successful and I think the people who have done the course have felt it has really supported them.”
Two additions to the head office team that Cornell highlights are chief financial officer ShanMae Teo, who joined from Providence (“I wanted there to be complete transparency and trust between ATG and Providence”) and Sarah Calcott, formerly of Ebay and Sky, whom Cornell describes as a “very serious business-to-consumer marketer”.
“She is running what we call our growth and transformation team. That is a combination of three groups that used to be very siloed: ticketing, marketing and food and beverage. By putting them under one person, we are tying those things together in a way that is very different. We’re much more collaborative between those teams. We are approaching the challenges from the audience perspective now. She has been really good at changing how we approach a problem: from an audience perspective rather than an ATG perspective.”
Mark Cornell on…
“I want theatre to remain special yet accessible. Theatre is an expensive business. It costs a lot to produce and run a major musical or to attract a major star to the stage – and clearly that has to be reflected in the cost of tickets. Prices are also, to some extent, a reflection of growing demand. But no matter how popular a show is, we’ve always made sure tickets are priced within the reach of most theatregoers and we always ring-fence allocations for cheap, on-the-day tickets. Not a lot of industry people talk about ticket pricing, so the vacuum is filled by misinformation: 56% of the tickets we sold in our regional venues last year were at £20 or less. Our regional venues offered tickets from as low as £13 in some cases. For The Jungle, 40% of seats sold have been at £25 or under. On McKellen’s King Lear, we’ve offered £5 seats to 16 to 26-year-olds and we offered £30 seats to anyone aged under 30 for Hamlet. We’re selling more access tickets than we ever have before – more than 117,000 last year. Is that enough? I don’t know. But it’s a hell of a lot more than people are aware of.”
“People have asked me whether private equity should get involved in the creative arts. Actually it does have a useful role: companies like Providence are prepared to invest serious amounts of money and will raise all the standards. They’re not the only people with money, but PE can be supportive and rewarding. In the past two and half years, we’ve achieved great things that are not comparable to my corporate days. If I’d wanted to buy Mehr!, for example, in my previous life, I’d have had to go through multiple hurdles. But with Providence it was about trust and a number of conversations and support.”
“Providence realised it had a wonderful acorn. It’s not an apple seed, it’s an oak seed. All credit to Howard [Panter] and Rosemary [Squire] for fundamentally building, in a very short space of time, a really fantastic opportunity. But I think Providence saw me as the catalyst to convert that opportunity.”
This brings us to the two areas that Cornell feels both ATG and the theatre industry more widely need to make more progress. The first is ticketing.
“I don’t think it’s very good,” he says, bluntly. “I’m speaking for everyone in the market place. It’s very fragmented. I don’t think there’s a go-to place for tickets – Google perhaps. I think it’s clunky, I think it’s hard to buy tickets. I think it’s hard to even know what’s for sale, frankly. So, there’s work to be done there and we are working very hard at that. I hope in the next year or so we will have some really transformational work to show and engage with the market, to make that side of it rather better.”
The second area touches on this, but is rather broader: communications.
“I think one of the things – as a relative newcomer – I would say is that the theatre industry has been slow to really embrace good communications. What I mean by that is while there are plenty of marketers around – the producers are, in effect, the marketers, as they decide what is the product, how to price it and where to put it – what the industry has been slow to embrace is the importance of how to sell it and how to communicate it. Where is the industry in terms of social media? The answer is not that far. How traditional is the communication spend today? The answer is pretty traditional: posters in tube stations, billboards and so on.
“There’s an acceptance that those who want to see theatre will find out. That’s quite a lazy approach in my view and it’s coupled with a lack of investment and a lack of real desire to reach broader communities. That has meant that today, theatre operates in a relatively limited circle of people.”
“We understand the nature of the challenge and we have started to make some changes, we are now specifically appointing communication champions in all of our venues around the country. We have a very professional, central marketing team, who really understand the importance of communication. We are beginning to scratch the surface, but we’ve got a long way to go.”
That might sound like a pretty dire diagnosis, but Cornell believes it also presents an opportunity: for ATG and theatre more generally.
“That is what is so exciting,” he continues. “If we can better embrace communications, if we can build our communications strength and support, I’m confident we can reach many more people, hundreds and thousands of whom would adore what theatre has to offer.”
CV: Mark Cornell
Born: 1966, Woodbridge, Suffolk
Training: Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst; International Institute for Management Development, Switzerland (1999)
Career: General manager newspaper distribution, WH Smith; LVMH, various roles (from 2000) including president and chief executive of Moet Hennessy USA (2006-2011); chief executive Edminston and Company (2011-12); managing director Sotheby’s Europe (2012-15); chief executive Ambassador Theatre Group (2016-present)