Natalie Jenkins on leading the whole creative spectrum
CEO, Block Branding | Chair, Seesaw Magazine | Deputy Chair, Regional Arts Australia | Future Now Board Member
I recently saw Natalie's comments on some arts community LinkedIn posts. So I looked (or stalked?) her profile to view her professional background. I found out she is on the Board of Regional Arts Australia, the Chair of Seesaw Online Arts magazine and at the same time, is heading up an agency; I wondered about her diverse work challenges.
I was determined to meet this professional unicorn in person and ask her how she had morphed herself along this far-reaching scale. With her down-to-earth manner, she generously carved out time to meet me in her office to chat about why she had decided to combine her love for the arts with a commercial focus.
With her no-nonsense practicality, Natalie made me feel welcome, making it easy for me to delve right into the conversation. Then, as she adjusts her trademark round glasses, she begins to explain her career journey.
'I've been involved in youth drama at school; I loved performing when I was younger, but I realised pretty quickly that I was not talented enough as a creative in the creative side of the arts', Natalie explains.
'So my career choices have been a way of remaining creative and fuelling my passion but doing it from what I'm good at, which is the management and business side of things.'
Early on, Natalie moved from primary school teaching to drama teaching until an unforeseen job as a youth theatre company administrator fell in her lap.
'This was back in the '80s. The Youth Theatre Company was unusual for the time, run by the performing arts teachers of the public schools in the region as a separate not-for-profit. We toured over to Malaysia and Singapore with the production when I was in year 12. My performing arts teachers must have noticed then that I had a knack for coordinating and organising.
'So they started to get me into the organising roles, and when I left school, the teacher who founded the youth theatre mentored me in administering the company.
'I think I was 18 at the time, no idea what I was doing, absolutely no idea!' Natalie laughs.
'I ran it for a year and then stumbled across the WAAPA arts management degree at ECU. It remains today the only Australian undergraduate degree in arts management. Essentially, it's a business commerce degree for the arts.
'That was probably the point where I realised this is what I would be: a manager in the arts sector. So I've stuck to that path really up until recently. It's fuelled by passion at the end of the day.'
In the past thirty years, Natalie worked in different structures, usually independent not-for-profit organisations performing arts organisations, or she consulted more broadly in the corporate community investment space that included the arts.
She managed regional performing arts venues and companies for fifteen years, either working for local government or independent organisations. Natalie decided to take a break from that and went into strategic consulting. In 2005 she began to work with the West Australian Community Foundation.
'In the mid ‘2000s, philanthropy in Western Australia wasn't a big thing yet. Apart from people such as Janet Holmes a Court, and Kerry Stokes, who have always been big supporters of the arts, at the time, there weren't many high-profile philanthropists or big Foundations in Western Australia.
'The WA Community Foundation was established for the broader community and was ahead of its time, just before the global financial crisis (GFC)', Natalie recalls.
'We worked with local communities around the State to help them chart their own future by setting up an endowment fund to provide them with a self-sustaining income for that community. I was acting CEO on two occasions and establishing and heading up their consulting arm. We collaborated with (mainly) the resource sector on their community investment programs,' Natalie explains.
'It was a boom time in WA, and those companies with money had so much growth and needed to give back to the community in lots of different ways. There are similar enduring Endowment fund models in Canada, the US and Europe. The capital in the endowment fund generates interest granted to community groups while the capital grows.
'I collaborated across the whole spectrum of sectors, including health, sport, education, public safety, the arts, Indigenous engagement, and it was pretty amazing.'
Natalie pauses briefly.
'Around the GFC, everything crashed. It changed the whole landscape for both the resources companies and the philanthropic trusts.' Corporate community investment budgets were cut, and interest rates on investment funds were so low that little return was generated for disbursement to communities.
'I had personal reasons to step back. My son was born in 2010, and I went back to teaching at University. I kept running a small theatre company part-time and continued sitting on arts boards at that time.'
In Natalie's view, those years were her 'slowing down.' But, fortunately for the arts, it didn't take long, and she went back once more into the breach.
'I was interested in the community change after the GFC. Although, of course, the arts sector was relatively insulated as it's never been flushed with money, ' she explains.
'10 years on, it swung back again, but then obviously COVID hit. There's been a pretty good support response from state and federal governments, although, of course, it took a while for it to kick in, while the drastic effects on the arts were instant,' she explains.
'There's been a massive push at government level to understand the connection between all sectors and how arts fit in. But, of course, we all have a different role to play. Still, we are part of those creative industries.
'Regional Arts Australia has fortunately received a substantial COVID response from the federal government. As a result, last year and this year's budget included increased support for regional arts practice across Australia.'
'Regional Arts Australia has been very strategic with the use of this and has planned funding support programs not only for the immediate COVID crisis needs but also for recovery plans to address the ongoing implications that will be seen for many years.'
'My concern is really what happens once the COVID response funding has finished and it's business as usual? All of us need to be thinking about that from a long term perspective.
'COVID has an incredible impact on available resources, whether financial or human resources.'
At this stage of the chat, we are crossing over to the commercial side of her leadership insight.
I recall around 20 or so years ago, many actors and other creatives working in both the subsidised side of the arts and the commercial side of the creative industry in Film and Television or Radio left the State - or the industry - because there wasn't enough work to sustain a good livelihood.
'However, they are sister industries to the stage and screen sectors and often sustained people's incomes when stage and screen roles were few and far between,' says Natalie.
'Artists and creatives continue to reinvent their livelihood in the industry based on changes in market conditions.
'We also see it at Block, how our client group had to pivot and come up with new products or services to meet the market.
'The arts sector is similar, the required agility to respond to the market, but there is only so much you can put online. Certainly, the performing arts, the creative development, ideas and aspiration need continuum and live audience contact.'
Natalie brings our conversation back to the creative sector as a whole. I want to know about her motivation to lead Block Branding, a renowned branding agency in WA.
'I've always been the type of person who will take hold of different opportunities and give them my best shot. It doesn't mean I flit around,' she laughs.
'It seemed like a natural progression, going into the commercial creative industry. While I was working for arts organisations, I've often dealt with agencies. I worked for Black Swan State Theatre Company when Block Branding was our creative agency for a few years, so I knew the team.
'It felt like a natural way to learn something new about another part of the sector and take on a different kind of organisation.'
'There's a big crossover with film, television and advertising. I need to be around creative people; that's what I've done my whole career.
'Now, at the commercial end, I see the same type of people passionately using similar creative thinking, and I realise how connected we all are.'
I'm asking Natalie whether there are significant changes for agencies on the horizon. She is hesitating.
'I don't want to do too much crystal ball gazing because we're still in the response phase with COVID.
'Most agencies just need to be very agile with how they shape to the environment.
'I came into the CEO role just before COVID. I always have a bit of a giggle about that because I don't know what the 'old normal' was.'
'There are big shifts at global levels for the large multinational agencies, and they're increasingly buying up independent agencies. They are continuing to broaden their services to a combination of media, production, digital and PR.
'This industry shift will continue for a while. But we will also see more collaboration on the side of agencies working together. Some, like Block, are not seeking to be in-house full-service agencies, but we can produce and provide the whole picture.
We don't retain every service internally, but when needed, we collaborate with another independent agency and provide the client with the full benefit.
'Western Australia is such a small market, and cooperation benefits the client and sector.'
I agree with Natalie that agency agility and collaboration is of high value, especially for SME's. Suddenly they have access to a broader vendor network and more unconventional and affordable creative services options.
'When you're on the agency side, you're not always party to the whole picture of what the client is thinking about. An interesting question 'what means value, not only in terms of dollars?' Natalie reflects.
'I hope that sort of discussion might be going on within the marketing teams and at board and C suite level as well.
'We all need to be thinking a little bit more about the connection of the community and the broader effect across the whole ecosystem.
'Things are definitely getting better here in WA; I see many very talented creatives returning to our State. We need to make hay when the sun shines, but we also need to plan for the next five years; it could be quite a different picture again.
Natalie's remarks remind me of the dot-com boom. I had just migrated to Perth, tried to find work as an Art Director, knocking on agency doors, who were desperate for skilled web labour. At the interview, I got given a 400-page book to learn HTML in 24 lessons. I became a Web Designer in a week.
We both chuckle knowingly.
Natalie continues, 'Block's client group is very diverse, and we are sector agnostic, which I quite like. Currently, we're working with shopping centre retail, government, cultural organisations, not for profit organisations, food and beverage, property, agriculture and the broader creative sector.
'Ultimately, everyone intersects, and you come across them in different circumstances and different businesses,' she concludes.
Well, the saying rings true for me that 'you come across everyone at least twice in Perth'.
I didn't notice how time whizzed past during our chat. Natalie apologises that she had forgotten to offer me a coffee, but who needs caffeine when we were equally charged with our passion for the creative industries.
The Common Ground:
Creativity resides equally in the operational support side, not only on the performing side
The arts sector requires an ecosystem of connectedness, nurturing and opportunity for self-determination
Commercial application of creative talent and experience are not clearly delineated; they are interwoven with many crossovers in adjacent ecosystems
The arts and creative commercial space are an essential expression of humanity in all its forms. Business and Entertainment are just two of them combined.