Catastrophe Theory

I can still taste the kale.

I have lost so many pitches.

So many. 

And these aren't all glamorous, Mad Men-style efforts too. For every dramatic down-to-the-wire battle for an international airline, I've had three lacklustre fizzles for oven-cleaner. 

One particular favourite. Four meetings with a potential client: credentials, briefing, campaign presentation, revised campaign presentation. A few train journeys each way. And then, quite literally, nothing. Ghosted.

Another. We'd been working, full-tilt to put together the Presentation to End All Presentations for the Final Round of The Big Creative-Shoot-Out in front of the Big Boss of THE Hot New Mobile Brand. All-nighters, a truckload of printer toner, and all the premium card-stock in the world. In the pitch, we make it through the introductions, then the Big Boss takes a phone call and never returns.

Neither of these, I’m afraid, are uncommon. We all have these stories - and more.

You tell yourself that you don't care, it didn't matterthey'll suffer for it, it would've ruined the agency culture and we didn't really want it anyway. But those are the lies we tell ourselves (and the junior team members) before going home, binging a family-sized portion of KFC, and crying in front of Friday Night Lights

Why do pitch losses sting so much?

You believe in the pitch.

Communications, particularly advertising, is about creating belief. We poke and prod and pry until we find out why this thing is interesting. Why it is motivating; why it is special. There’s a little box on every brief called ‘reasons to believe’, and the planner’s job is to make those as compelling as possible. That's our job: to reveal a truth that's so damn seductive, so clear, that even we believe in it.

That self-indoctrination is particularly powerful during the anxious compression of the pitch process. We spend hundreds of hours frantically learning everything we can possibly know about a business - their brand, the audience, the sector, the industry, the trends... To live a lifetime with the brand in just a few short weeks, until our knowledge of it becomes instinctual. We visit factories, try products, read tens of thousands of pages, crunch all the numbers, and interview every expert, user, ex-user, potential user, whatever, that we can find. Then we spend the next few hundred hours trying to whittle all that down into a dozen slides and one ‘killer chart’.

A pitch process is self-inflicted brainwashing. You're locked up with the brief and not let out until you know why it is great and, goddamit, you believe in it. I have worn barefoot shoes. I have gambled on cricket. I have changed my gas provider six times and my pet insurance four times. I have drunk multiple milk alternatives and my body weight in probiotic yoghurts. I’ve tried coloured vodkas and clear bourbons. I have eaten kale.

When you pitch something, you become the ultimate truther. There are four lights and this is the best credit card for Millennial families.

You believe in yourself.

Here’s the objective fact of any pitch: the odds are never in your favour. You are cracking a huge problem. A problem that, by definition, is so hard that the client - who literally has a business focused on it - can't solve it themselves. You’re doing this from a cold start, against the clock, nights and weekends, on your own dime; while juggling everything else you need to do to keep your business afloat. And you have to find a solution that’s better than the two - or five - or twenty - other agencies. Just as a matter of statistics, that’s grim.

In order to convince yourself that this phenomenal investment is worthwhile, you have to believe that you are going to win. You make up reasons. You've got a secret. You've got the insight. You've got the truthiest truth. You've got the most dazzling creative.

Spoiler: every other agency is doing exactly the same thing.

A pitch is a genuinely unreasonable amount of work, and in order to do it, you have to believe genuinely unreasonable things. It is suspension of disbelief. When reality snaps back into place, it stings. 

Here's the flip side.

I've been doing this for gfiyfhty years now, and, to be completely honest, until I came to writing this, I had safely forgotten all of the horror stories above. Possibly I'm just ground down by the relentless unfairness of it all. Or, more likely, I’ve learned that - as painful as these lessons were at the time - as a totality, I'm a much, much better at my job because of them.

Yes, I had to eat kale (it was disgusting), but I've also gotten to travel the length and breadth of this wonderful country, and have long, meandering conversations with fascinating people from all walks of life. I like factory visits and secret shopping and poking and prodding at things I’d never once thought about before.

Yes, I’ve worked countless nights and weekends, but I never did so alone. I was always there alongside brilliant, hard-working people. Thanks to pitches, I’ve gained a better understanding of everyone’s role in the agency, their strengths, and how we best work together. I've learned when to cajole, when to bully; when we need pep talks and when we need pizzas. I've learned that sometimes 'shit rolls downhill', but the best leaders still make coffee runs. 

Yes, I’ve spent thousands of hours explaining strategies to distracted marketing directors, but I’m a better presenter for it. I have a better sense of which darlings to kill; which parts of the narrative are important to me, and which actually matter. I know the people to present with - the ones that can finish my sentences, even when I.

And, yes, I’ve cried into a bucket of chicken, but I have learned that it really is just business, no matter how personal it feels. I’ve learned that every person - and every agency - is the hero of their own story.

And, sometimes we win.


Speaking of killer charts - I’m a vast believer in simple diagrams, reductive explanations, clear patterns, and brutal simplicity. A good shape helps me understand (and, in turn, explain) the world.

It is possible to see shapes of processes… The relationship between two quantities can be expressed as a set of points on a graph. If those points form a smooth, continuous curve - the kind that mathematicians call ‘well-behaved’ - then calculus and the analytic techniques descended from it make it possible to analyse the process, determine its rate of change at an instant, and its total change over a period of time, and summarize it as an equation relating x and y. We can speak of a process ‘bottoming out’ or reaching its ‘point of diminishing returns’, and we understand at once the ominously increasing slop of the population curve.

Making an ‘easy’ chart involves hard decisions, but you can understand the appeal - especially for the more challenging and complex problems.

Sadly:

As we have seen, though, much of reality is not so obliging. Many processes yield graphs with obstinately ill-behaved curves. The planets travel in stately Newtonian paths, but meanwhile winds wrap themselves into hurricanes, chickens alternate with eggs, and we change our minds. Discontinuity is as much the rule as the exception.

These quotes are from Woodcock and Davies’ Catastrophe Theory (1978), which attempts to explain a type of topological approach to systems that is way beyond my ability to comprehend. Catastrophe theory attempts to explain how stable systems go wonky: how variables can combine to create dramatic upheaval in seemingly consistent environments, with little or no ‘warning’.

You can see the appeal, especially when it comes to more complex social or behavioural problems. I was hoping to cheat a bit - find a nice universal diagram for a Powerpoint or two. Instead, I’ve wound up spinning off in the other direction, because, well: reality is not so obliging.

This seems to me the more important lesson here, especially as we attempt to address complex problems. In order to create great strategies and clear propositions, we excise and simplify and reduce. We have to. Otherwise, we try to contain multitudes, and down that path lies madness (and bad work).

But… once in the field, there are variables we will never fully understand, or even predict. Our markets, audiences, channels, environments are constantly in flux, and rarely ‘well-behaved’. Our models are convenient fantasies - they are expressions of faith, what we believe about behaviour. When reality strikes, our beliefs are invariably challenged: we can either radicalise or adapt.