If you've ever wondered who curates the iconic Apollo Theater marquee, meet Fatima Jones. The head of marketing and communications of the beloved 125th Street institution takes that part of her role very seriously – even amid a full plate of the ever-evolving work that goes into supporting the Theater (and, subsequently, the community). We spoke with Fatima about the state of the marcomms industry today, how it has shifted from her days at Central Park SummerStage, plus what's coming up at the Apollo this season (you'll want to mark your calendars).
How did you get your start in arts & culture communications?
My father worked for the New York State Council on the Arts, which basically gives money from the state to arts organizations around New York. I was lucky enough to be around him as he was helping organizations like The Studio Museum in Harlem and various other museums around the state. Even though he was on the accounting side of things, just being around artists made the job look like a lot of fun, and it looked like an exciting industry to work in.
When I got to high school and was able to get an internship, I got connected with the Arts & Business Council and they placed me with the New York Historical Society. That was really my first job in the arts. I got to sit in the PR department (I had never heard of marketing or communications as a job), and was like, oh, you get to write and meet artists, it's not stagnant and things are changing all the time.
Through college, I did different work in the PR space. One summer, I got the chance to work at Central Park SummerStage, and that's where the spark really turned up, because I was able to work with live music and with artists whose names I knew well. That summer changed it all. I said: this is it, this is what I want to do. I want to be in arts communication, I want to work with musicians and dancers. Slowly but surely, I got here, 30 years later, the pinnacle of art, of music: the Apollo. So I feel very blessed to be in this position right now.
What’s been your path to the position you currently hold at the Apollo Theater?
Everything from sending faxes when faxes were a thing, to taking VHS tapes to press, to literally cutting and pasting clips onto paper so you could photocopy and get it right so it looked just like it did in the newspaper. I also worked at a tech PR agency during the big software boom. I got the chance to work for the agency in London for a couple of years, which was an amazing experience. But I always had some kind of side gig. I was always helping a friend put a performance on or working with an arts collective to do exhibitions. There was always an artistic side of me.
The pinnacle moment for my career was when I was at the Brooklyn Museum and got to oversee social media. That really opened my eyes to how much crossover there is between marketing and comms. Being in this position as the head of marketing and communications for The Apollo has been a really good combination of everything I've done over the years.
What does your role as Senior Director of Marketing and Communications entail?
I manage a team of about 11, and work with a marketing agency, ad agency, PR firm and freelancers. I oversee all marketing, and that includes creative, audience development, the box office butt-in-seats type of work, all social media communications, plus institutional press around our executives as well as our performances and partnerships. I work very closely with the development team on any deliverables for our partners and sponsors. It's a lot when I say it like that!
Our work could be endless. There's always something else to do: initiatives to promote, seats to sell, another outlet that you want to introduce yourself to and make friends with the editor of. So, a big part of my job is to continuously ask, does this move the needle? Is this meeting our business objectives? Is this necessary now? It’s also important to leave space to meet the moment. Between TikTok trends that we want to jump on to whatever's happening in the world on a political front, I ask, do we have a voice in this conversation? How do we show up? There's also a lot of internal communication management. I feel strongly that whatever we put out there into the world, the internal team needs to also be able to assist with us getting that word out.
That said, it's fun. My job can go from being in the theater and watching people enjoying a concert to greeting a busload of guests from Idaho coming to do a tour of the Apollo to fighting to make sure that our images are correct in an article or in a broadcast piece.
I feel lucky that I've been able to take what I've learned and developed in the communications world and transfer to the marketing side where I get to have not only a say in what our voice and our creative are, but also make the decisions about them.
Has the changing media landscape impacted your work there over the past four years? How about since the start of your career?
I think that organizations and executives have become a lot smarter. It's almost like we lifted the veil off of the mechanics of what it is we do. There used to be big PR junkets and press conferences for everything. Now, no one wants to travel. Covid is Covid-ing. Anytime I hear somebody ask me for a press conference, I'm like, you've got to be kidding me. Who wants to spend that kind of money? You could do it all via Zoom, or maybe you just roll out an announcement, give previews to a couple of important press and call it a day. I think people are smarter about the way that they announce news. They also understand what crisis communication and reputation management is now a lot more than in the past.
I feel like the choreography of announcing and of unveiling is just a lot more sophisticated now. One of the things I think is great about managing a marketing team is that I can oversee the rollout of things and have it look a specific way at a specific time for impact – especially as we're thinking about messaging. What's good about having one team overseeing everything is that we can look and say, okay: this is what it looks like for press, this is what it looks like for our audience, this is how we're going to handle it on social, this is what it's going to look like creatively. I can look at all of it as one landscape and do it in a way that is very coordinated and on-brand for our organization.
I've been thinking a lot about experiential marketing specifically because it's my goal to take the Apollo outside of our doors. We’re going to be onboarding two theaters in a building a few doors down, so I really need to think about it as one Apollo with mini stages versus one theater. How do we expand our brand to be more than just one space? It's about the feeling you get when you come to our institution; whether it's in the historic space or in the two new theaters, I want you to have one experience. I want you to have the same experience on a Wednesday that you would have if you went on a Friday.
I think you can look at the way Beyonce unveiled the Lemonade album. She was just like, tomorrow I'm putting out an album, and totally upended the system. There was a time where you had to send previews to the right editors before you could put an album out. Social media is changing everything. If you send it to one person, you’re sending it to everyone. I think just the way that news travels now has changed everything – especially bad news – and that makes me a lot more cautious about so many things. Small things can turn into big things very quickly these days, and I think that probably puts every comms practitioner on edge.
What is your favorite part of the work you do?
My goal is to be a multiplying leader. I use my expertise, experience and my voice to amplify and empower others. That is essentially my mission. So, it's great to be a part of an industry that's ever-evolving. There's flexibility and adaptability in the work that, for me, is great. It makes me feel alive, but I can imagine that it can make you very anxious because there's always something going on, something new that you need to learn. Like Instagram moving to Reels – it’s like, okay, now we have to do video. It is definitely not a boring job.
In this role, I get to work with such amazing people, from the president to the executive producer who are always inspiring me, especially as black women in the industry. I also love being involved in choosing the creative that's going to represent our brand voice and vision. Especially with social, you're doing more video, so helping to produce great video content. It feels crazy to say, but I’ve had a chance to meet everyone I've wanted to meet. I'm a huge Sting fan. None of these people remember me, but you know what I mean – it was just enough to shake their hands and be like, you inspired me in my musical and artistic journey.
But, honestly, my favorite thing is just seeing people in the theater having a good time. That's what the theater is about. That's what the arts is about, right? Being a mirror for our times and also an escape sometimes. And also a healing place. A place where you can gather with other people and leave your cares outside, even if it's just for a few hours. Seeing people literally tear up sometimes when being moved by work – I get emotional just thinking about it.
I do have one more favorite: curating the marquee. That's one of the things that I get the chance to do, actually pick the text that goes up there. During the pandemic, I realized how important it was, because it was completely dark on 125th Street except for the marquee. We were getting these wonderful heartfelt messages from people who were like, “we saw the marquee and it really made us feel good.” Just even putting up there, "Stay healthy, be well," or shouting out the essential workers, all of that kind of stuff. I can say 15 years from now that I was a part of trying to keep the city upbeat and positive.
Did you have any mentors or people who inspired you throughout your career?
It’s been a real honor to work around wonderful communications professionals. PR veteran Susie Arons gave me my first PR internship. Nancy Smart took me to London with her to head up a UK branch of an agency I worked for in my 20s. I also deeply value the advice I receive from colleagues in the field like the folks at Resnicow Associates, my friend Meryl Cooper of The Cooperation and Jennifer Williams of J Sharpe Agency. I also believe in having good working relationships with younger people in the field. I look for input from people like Michael Tonge of the Culture LP, my amazing team at the Apollo and I learn a ton from my 14 year who keeps me on my toes!
The arts were so severely impacted by the pandemic; were there any lasting changes to the Theater due to the pandemic?
Our marketing team works really closely with the programming department, but we are not necessarily the programmers on a regular basis. I will say that during Covid, our team actually did lead on creating those first few months of content, when we switched to doing digital programs. We felt that as "The Apollo” we couldn't just do a Zoom presentation – we needed to produce an actual performance and elevate what a digital presentation could look like.
One of the things I'm really proud of is that we do a lot of surveying of audiences now, which probably sounds normal for a for-profit business, but in the nonprofit world, you don't see a lot of that. We try to survey pretty much any program you see. We want to know, what did you think about it? If you went to the theater, did you feel safe? Were Covid protocols met? This helps us create new policies and make different types of decisions. We want to make sure you have a good time. And so far, so good.
What are a few local spots we might see you at when you’re not working?
I love Governor's Island. I glamped there right before Covid and we spent the whole weekend in the tent outside, which is not my usual situation, but it was fun. I still have so much love for my former institutions. Brooklyn Museum has such amazing programming and does lots of great work with the community. I'm a big fan of BAM as well. That's my go-to movie theater besides the Alamo, which I also love because they have great food and drink with equally great service and energy. That's always going to get my vote. And then just a couple of weeks ago I found my new favorite – my husband and I went to Miami, and I got a chance to visit the Perez Art Museum. Just gorgeous. I mean, they have got to have the best location of any museum in the country.
What are some current or upcoming projects you’re excited about?
We are about to announce our full season (fall, winter and spring). It’s just a nice little plethora of everything. We've got a film series. We've got some dance. We've got some theater. There's something for everyone.
I'm really excited about one of the presentations with the dancer and choreographer Camille A. Brown. She just came off a run of a Broadway show called For Colored Girls. Her company dancers will be coming in November. I'm also excited that we will be presenting a bunch of comedy shows, because comedy shows are just fun. Edward Enninful, the British Vogue editor in chief, has a memoir coming up, and he is going to be making a stop at the Apollo with a great moderator to talk about his work in fashion and his rise within the ranks of Vogue.
We also have our Small Stage partnership with Sirius, kicking off the season with the Red Hot Chili Peppers in September, which I'm a huge fan of. It’s a great partnership because not only is Sirius looking for a space that has the kind of legacy and reverence that people have for musical venues, but it also gives us an opportunity to show our brand and who we are to audiences maybe that may have not been able to come to the Apollo in the past.
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