Plus the winning appeal of Sarah Dessen and Norman Mailer
I have lost so many pitches.
For those that aren’t in advertising, most pitches aren’t glamorous, Mad Men dramatics. For every down-to-the-wire battle for an international airline, there are six lacklustre skirmishes for oven-cleaner. And probably twenty written proposals simply fired into the void.
All losses aren’t equal.
One example. We had four meetings with the potential client. We showed our credentials, took a brief, presented a pilot campaign, got their feedback, and then presented the revised campaign. We saw their offices. They saw ours. They even met the office dog. And then: nothing. Properly ghosted. (Even the dog.)
Another. A comprehensive pitch for all the communications around a new government programme. The proposal was received and acknowledged. And then, again: nothing. No explanations offered, no updates given. Until two years later, when the same programme was put out to tender again. (During the Q&A, we asked if we were, in fact, the incumbent. We were pointedly informed that that we were not.)
Yet another. We'd been working full-tilt to put together the Presentation of Presentations in front of the Big Boss of the red hot mobile phone company. (In the ‘00s mobile phones were the clients - the ones with infinite money. Imagine cars in the ‘90s or crypto last year.) A month of late nights and early mornings. A final all-nighter at the printer, getting everything bound and tidy. Fifteen minutes into the presentation, the Big Boss takes a call and never returns to the meeting. Everyone has a version of this one.
All these losses hurt.
You tell yourself that you don't care, it didn't matter, they'll suffer for it, it would've ruined the agency culture and, of course, fuck 'em, we didn't really want it anyway. But those are the lies we say boldly before going home, binge-eating and crying ourselves to sleep in front of Parks & Rec.
It is just business after all. Why does it hurt so much?
You believe in the pitch.
Creating belief is what we do. We poke and prod and pry until we find out why a thing is interesting. Why it is motivating, why it is special. That’s the essence of our job: to find a truth that's so damn compelling that even we believe it.
We spend hundreds of hours frantically learning everything we can possibly learn about the business. A pitch is a crash course in an audience and sector; an industry, and its trends. During a pitch, we visit factories, test products, read tens of thousands of research reports, crunch all the numbers, and interview every expert, user, ex-user, potential user, and ‘youth voice’ that we can find. Then we whittle all of that down into a half dozen slides and single ‘killer’ chart.
A pitch process is self-directed brainwashing. You're locked up with the client task and not let out of your cell until you know why it is great and, goddamit, you believe in it. I have walked the width of Manhattan Island in barefoot shoes. I have gambled on cricket. I’ve gone school uniform shopping for children I don’t have. I have changed my energy provider six times. I have eaten kale. When you pitch something, you self-radicalise into the ultimate truther. There are four lights and this right here is the most emotionally engaging credit solution ever developed for Millennials starting a family.
You believe in yourself.
The odds are never, ever good in a pitch. Most agency batting averages sit somewhere between the Mendoza Line and Ty Cobb. Those low odds make sense. You are cracking a huge problem. The challenge is, by definition, one that client can't solve themselves, despite being a business that is solely committed to doing that one thing. You’re working against the clock and on your own dime. And you’re probably doing it in the evening, because your contractual working hours are required deliver your actual, real, existing work for actual, real, existing clients.
In order to convince yourself that this phenomenal investment of time and resource is worthwhile, you have to believe that you are going to win. That's irrational, but you make up reasons. You've got a secret. You've got the client insight. You've got the truthiest truth. You've got the proposition or the creative idea or the relationship or the special process(tm) or the meeting room cookies that no other agency else has.
Spoiler: every other agency has the same narrative.
No one goes into a pitch thinking they’re going to lose. You’re about to invest tens of thousands of pounds of time and resource. You’re about to break dates, cancel reservations, miss football games, your mate's birthday, and your kid's story-time. You don’t commit to that unless you think there’s a purpose behind it.
A pitch is a genuinely unreasonable amount of work, and in order to do it, you have to convince yourself of genuinely unreasonable things. At one agency, we pitched to the same client nine times, earning nine consecutive ‘second-place’ finishes. At what point do you accept that it is never going to happen?
I've been doing this for over twenty years now, and, as bitter I sound - I am not. Don’t get me wrong. Pitching is a problematic, expensive, agency-crushing process and needs to be fundamentally revisited as a system of evaluating merit. But I’ve taken something out of even the worst losses.
Kale is disgusting, and I regret ever putting it into my mouth. (I genuinely pity the agency that won that, and had to fake enthusiasm for the length of the contract.) But while working on pitches, I've travelled the length and breadth of the country (and beyond it) and listened to fascinating people from all walks of life. I’ve poked around in factories and visited airfields and farms and warehouses, and seen how stores and restaurants and supermarkets really work. I’ve had the chance to cook in a test kitchen and sample whiskey variants that could strip the paint off a car. I’ve gotten to leer at robots and tractors and sneaker technology. I’ve been given the opportunity to talk to people about their hopes and dreams and fears and families and fandoms. I’ve been allowed to ask very stupid questions of very smart people.
It has also taught me how to present, how to work with teams, how to lead, and how to think on my feet. I've learned that often 'shit rolls downhill', but great leaders will still make coffee runs at 3 am.
Also, sometimes we win.
The MRS Social Inclusion Group (SIG) is a new network for people across the research and communications communities who want to improve the opportunities and amplify the voices of those disadvantaged on the basis of their social background. There’s a launch festival this week: a series of free, virtual panels focusing on key themes and trends around social inclusion. Tomorrow (Thursday, 22nd), I’ll be joining Steven Lacey and Ian Murray to talk about the cost of living crisis. Please do come along!
I rediscovered my love for Sarah Dessen novels a couple of months ago, and have reread, well… the lot of them.
Dessen is a best-selling young adult author. Her books are very similar, and extremely little-c-conservative. There’s a young woman (white, heterosexual, beautiful, small town, middle class) who has some problems and manages to sort them out with the help of quirky friends, found family, parents-that-eventually-kinda-come-around, and a boy with floppy hair and nice abs. They all take place in charming Everytowns where the only bad thing that could happen if you walk home late at night is that your mom will ground you.
These not the ‘issues-led’ YA that (rightfully) racks up the critical attention. These are not stories about overcoming structural barriers or dealing with police brutality or rebelling against a crushing patriarchal system or surviving sexual violence. They’re ‘small’ stories. Stories about feeling overlooked or outgrowing your friend group or being taken for granted or fearing like you’ve missed out on things or simply not knowing where you’re headed.
(As an aside: my favourite is Saint Anything probably because it is the darkest of the lot, but that’s a different discussion. A bit like Georgette Heyer’s A Civil Contract or Star Wars: Rogue One - once you’ve established a solid foundation you’re set up for the remarkable exception.)
Dessen’s Hallmarkian world-building perfectly captures an ultra-middle-class experience that is a media-depicted “majority”, but yet, in actuality, a tiny, tiny fraction of the country. According to the US Census, about 13% of the country is aged between 10 and 19. Of that number, about half are female, half are white, and half are middle class. Roughly speaking, a ‘Dessen Girl’ is 2% of the population. Once you factor in that only 8% live in towns sized between 10k and 50k people, your average Sarah Dessen character winds up representing about one tenth of a percent of the American population. It is a portrayal of “quintessential American youth” that is as recognisable in culture as it is fantastical in reality. Dessen’s glossy teens might as well be orcs or Regency duchesses for all the practical relevance they have to one’s life.
But that’s also why they work.
With all that structural improbability, Dessen should be pure escapism - not unlike the Gossip Girl series (which I also adore, but is a high fantasy that puts The Rings of Power to shame). Like orcs (or duchesses), the immediacy of the Dessen Girl is what makes her so effective. Because the characters are so familiar, it doesn’t matter if they’re actually reflective. They are real-like, which (a bit like truthiness) is all the reality you need.
There are a thousand-thousand failed novels featuring beautiful white girls. What separates Dessen from the pack is not that she uses the trope, but that she uses it well. Despite the relative smallness of their struggles, Dessen understands - and conveys - the concept of relative deprivation. We know the Dessen Girls are facing problems that are (objectively) minor, and that they are neck-deep in impossible privilege, but, to the characters, the problems are still real and (subjectively) overwhelming. They aren't carrying a ring to Mordor, they're trying to get their dad to pay more attention to them. And, thanks to good writing, they take us along for the ride.
On a different note, but also an important one. Sarah Dessen’s books are - for ostensible romances - not actually romance-centred. The floppy haired boy is the least-important relationship in the book; lagging far behind the one between the heroine and her friends, the heroine and her family, and the heroine and herself. The boy has a role to play, but is generally symptomatic of the heroine’s overall social well-being. But the relationships that truly matter and are lasting in the Dessenverse are the non-romantic ones.
I also really enjoy - and have been rereading - Maurene Goo and Morgan Matson - and am struck by the subtle differences in how they prioritise these relationships, how that changes the ultimate message of the book, and what that emphasises in terms of values. In Dessen, however, the books are about the importance of friendship, the comfort of family (real or found), and the acceptance of yourself. The floppy haired boy - like early admission to Stanford or one’s mom’s old Mustang convertible - is a reward for getting everything else right.
If you’re interested: The Truth About Forever and The Rest of the Story feel about ‘core’. Once and For All is on the lightest end. Dreamland and Saint Anything have darker themes.
I finally, finally read Norman Mailer’s The Fight. Mailer’s… troubling… to say the least, as both a writer and a personality. The Fight is self-indulgent and, frankly, super-racist. But… even with all that… it is a captivating example of narrative non-fiction that manages to bring to life the unique experience of witnessing the Foreman vs Ali championship bout.
I am fascinated by sportswriting. Just at the simplest level, it is using text to capture an incredibly non-textual experience. Sport is about sight and sound and touch - hell, even taste and smell. Watching sport is as much about the hard plastic seats and the clapping-sore-hands and the dreadful weather and the smell of the BBQ and the taste of beer in cheap plastic cups. Capturing that as something you can read in your living room is a true art form. Legendary food writer Calvin Trillin said that others wrote about food, he wrote about eating. In sportswriting, the great works don't capture the action on the field as much as the experience of being in the stands.
In The Fight, Mailer meanders about, seemingly writing about everything that isn’t boxing, but this somehow makes the final few pages (with its half-century foregone conclusion) all the more significant and thrilling. You don’t feel like you’re in the ring with Ali (thank god), but you do feel like you’re a journalist by the ring, and that’s pretty special.
The 2021 Kitschies shortlists have been revealed. Congratulations to all the authors and artists!
Thanks for reading Raptor Velocity! Subscribe for free to receive more occasional rambling.