We need to tell Sydney’s story, not sell it to the highest bidder

Born in controversy 45 years ago, the famous white sails of our Opera House have again found themselves at the centre of heated debate, as politicians, radio presenters and those charged with protecting our cultural heritage weigh in on the promotion of the nation’s most expensive horse race.

With social media feeds dominated by the discussion, and more than 230,000 people signing a petition over the weekend to stop the projection onto the sails, the line in the sand has been drawn. On one side, those who believe the Opera House sails are the best way to promote iconic events; on the other, those who believe the sails should stand unadulterated in their elegance as the very symbol of our harbour city.

The Committee for Sydney has just released Sustaining the Advantage, benchmarking Sydney’s performance in 2018 in comparison to 33 global cities, to help business and government plan the city’s future growth.

The Committee found that Sydney is “middle of the pack” when it comes to defining our brand, crafting our image and exerting our influence, despite being the highest profile city in the Southern Hemisphere. Perhaps this is the moment we’ve been waiting for?

As chief executive of the Outdoor Media Association,  the peak body representing the companies that display outdoor advertisements, including billboards, and own the signs, you might expect me to endorse advertising on the Opera House.

But we need to tell our story, not sell it to the highest bidder. It takes years to build a brand, but it can be damaged in the blink of an eye. A cultural icon like the Sydney Opera House is a building of international significance and a recipient of World Heritage status. It is a building worthy of respect and one that is entitled to retain its artistic integrity.

Louise Herron, the chief executive of the Opera House is right, the Opera House is not a billboard. High visibility and impact are available throughout our city using existing outdoor advertising, and dare I say for a lesser price than our integrity. What is clear is that they both play a role in building a brand – the Sydney Opera House tells the story, billboards sell a story, and in this case, they are mutually exclusive.

The Opera House has and can continue to be a canvas for a variety of beautiful images that reinforce its status as a cultural icon, but it is surely a sign that ‘all bets are off’ that we would even consider the Everest Cup to be something that could add value to those graceful sails.