📚 The notes 📚
As I said above, this week’s rambling notes are pretty personal. I don’t write about myself particularly often, but only because I don’t think anyone would find it particularly interesting. This week may be no exception, but I thought that given I’d chosen music that (hopefully) conveys a very personal feeling, I should probably write something to accompany it and make a little more sense of it.
First things first; pitching. If you already work in advertising or marketing, you can probably look away for this and the following paragraph. For those of you that are still reading, I need to explain a bit about what this means and what it entails. In an advertising or media agency, we competitively pitch for new clients. It’s a slightly odd process, and it changes lots depending on the client, the type of agency you are, whether it’s being run internally or externally, and the size of the account.
Broadly, however, it takes the following shape; a client creates a shortlist of agencies that they think are interesting and asks them all to submit some written information on their agency. They then create a shortlist of agencies that they’d like to meet at a meeting that’s inventively called a ‘chemistry’ meeting. They then narrow the list down again, and issue the final set of agencies a brief to respond to. The brief is usually a critical business or marketing challenge that they’re facing, and that ultimately the winning agency will help them resolve. The final agencies then have a few weeks to come up with an answer, that they then ‘pitch’ to the client team. The client team then usually narrow down to two agencies and then fee and pricing negotiations begin. Eventually they decide on the winning agency, and it’s announced to much fanfare in the trade press, and the new agency begins working with the client.
This process is almost certainly analogous to lots of other high-pressure situations, so I reckon a lot of what I’ve written – and the mixtape I’ve put together – probably still carries meaning and relevance even if you don’t work in adland.
Now, I would say that I’m currently in a state of recovery. This year, we’ve pitched quite a lot. Some pitches we’ve won, some we’ve not won but have been a frustratingly close second. Pitching is a funny old business, but one that I’ve been very involved in since the start of my career – I’m a planner / strategist, which means I’m one of the people in the agency who’s responsible for figuring out how to solve a client problem, and then I work with other teams to help build out what that looks like in either ideas or media. So pitching is a critical part of my job.
Why am I in a state of recovery? Well, pitching is exhausting – physically, mentally, and emotionally. Most confusingly, it’s exhausting in both a great and a not so great way. Let me explain… Once you’ve taken the brief from the client, it’s a planner’s job to figure out what to do. Sometimes there is an abundance of information, sometimes there’s very little. To be honest, neither of those two is better than the other. You’re still faced with trying to learn everything about a business category and a set of people (“consumers” – I shudder at the word) that the client is trying to appeal to, in a relatively short space of time. So the first few days can be pretty daunting, and often until I feel like I’m making progress on cracking the problem, I usually feel like a fraud in my job. Despite doing this for more than a decade, I feel like I’ve forgotten how to do my job. This happens. Every. Single. Pitch. (There is music on this week’s mixtape that best captures this emotion – have a guess at which songs.)
What usually helps is talking to everyone on the pitch team about everything and anything to do with the brief. And going for a walk. The theory of the adjacent possible (which I’ve mentioned a few times before) definitely applies here. The less you focus on the problem and the more you think about something a bit more lateral, the more creative response you get to the problem. What’s incredibly exciting about pitches is the creativity and invention involved. You’re trying to solve a new problem, for a new client, without any real legacy of what has and hasn’t worked in the past. And screechingly close deadline. Add in our (Initiative) obsession with helping brands become part of culture, and you can see why pitches are exciting.
We create new tools, new ways of thinking, massive without-bounds ideas, we uncover hidden parts of culture, learn new codes of language, and we go on this exploration as a tightknit pitch team. You’re exploring what the most advanced solution could be, and then trying to find a way of presenting that in a yet acceptable manner. MAYA. It’s like a double-yolk egg – first we’re trying to find an idea that we think will resonate with the people that the client is trying to appeal too, then we’re trying to find a way to make it appealing to the client. Double-yolk egg MAYA! As a team this process is incredibly bonding, at Initiative a pitch team becomes like a mini-family, because we work on every part of the pitch together. There is no baton-passing process, and after the first few days there’s no deference on either role or seniority. Then, after a little while, everyone hits their groove. We have a direction, an initial set of ideas, loads of interesting research, and it all starts to click into place. (Again, there’s music that conveys this feeling too.)
Once we’ve got the answer, and the ideas, we then rehearse the presentation, and all of this leads up to the final pitch presentation.
In the lead up to the pitch presentation, people are rehearsing scripts alone, going through little rituals, and / or psyching themselves up. As you’d expect, my ritual involves music, and there are a few songs that I listen to in preparation. These have now become habit, and the idea of writing this week’s letter like this came from an initial thought of sharing my psyche-up playlist – instead I thought I’d try and recreate the whole set of intensities and emotions in aural form, to give you the full flavour.
The presentation itself is usually exhilarating. Everybody is nervous before hand (and anyone that tells you that they’re not – regardless of how long they’ve been doing it – is lying), and the presentation feels like a show. Then it’s finished, and holy moses does it feel weird.
The emotional investment that goes into the entire pitch is massive. There are long hours, pressure from each other, internal pressure we exert on ourselves, arguments, tears, huge peaks of excitement, frustrations, moments where everything feels like it’s on a downward spiral, and moments of pure, unadulterated flow.
Those moments of flow are one of the aspects of pitching that I find most appealing. There comes a moment during the process or the presentation, when you’re so locked into what you’re doing, you could almost have your eyes closed. It feels natural, and like you’re almost not in control – but everything you’re writing or saying is coming directly from somewhere else. It’s a glorious feeling. To pull an idea out of your head and refine it over and over again until it works is a cathartic feeling. So flow is quite an intoxicating feeling, but there is a negative side to it. Much like with Sonic The Hedgehog’s ‘life bar’, my energy when I’m in a flow state goes down pretty quickly. It’s not something that I can sustain for hour after hour, but usually if I manage my energy right, I can let it recharge a bit. But with pitching, there’s no real recharge moments. So once the final pitch meeting is done, the adrenaline cuts off, and I’m in freefall.
I was talking to Richard (our CEO) a few months ago, and we were talking about the different types of people in agencies, and he said he saw two types; marathon runners, and sprinters. Marathon runners maintain their energy at a mid-level, never overdo it, but need fewer breaks. They get the job done. Sprinters come in with bags of energy and keep hitting peaks, but need a rest after a while.
I’m a sprinter.
Post-pitch, I’m emotionally, physically, and mentally exhausted. No ‘life bar’ recharges, endless late late nights, and after relentlessly asking so much of it, my brain feels like mush. So I go to ground, take a few days off, and try to do things that are restorative. Time with Shiv and Effie, reading, music, writing, exercise. Learning that I have to go through this process is what made me realise that I’m not an out and out extrovert, but instead I have a bit of both. That I have to manage my energy pretty carefully, and that that’s what helps me avoid becoming a husk of a human and properly burnt out.
Anyway, back to the pitch. Once the pitch is finished and everyone involved has rested for a while, we’re then back into it and waiting to hear on feedback and whether we’ve won the pitch or not.
This can be an anxiety-inducing process, and as you’d expect after being so emotionally invested, everyone is pretty on edge with excitement and nerves. It’s only in the last two years (since I joined Initiative) that this process has felt quite so intense. This, I think, is down to a few things; 1) I’m more emotionally invested, 2) the teams we work in are bonded more tightly, and 3) as an agency we’re very tightknit and feel every win and loss together. This isn’t true of many agencies, and I feel lucky to work with the people at Initiative.
A win is of course cause for a huge celebration, but a loss is where you learn the most. The feedback from the client is invaluable and helps me and the rest of the agency to improve our product. The ideas, tools, and thinking that we develop become enveloped into our day to day work. But where you learn the most is the way the pitch team and the rest of agency react.
A few weeks ago I learnt something magical about the culture of our agency. We were nominated for the Media Week Agency of the Year award, which, considering just two years ago Initiative was an agency that had been totally forgotten by the industry (and lots of people thought it had shut down), was no mean feat. As a team, we’d not only turned the agency around, but we’d been recognised as one of the top five in the UK. It was nice recognition, and as part of the process to crown the best agency, a panel of judges toured around the top five agencies and each agency (you guessed it) pitched their reasons for being the best in the UK. So we pitched, and a month later a few of us were at the awards show, while the rest of the agency was in a bar next door to the awards venue. We won a few awards, and eagerly awaited the final award of the night. Agency of the Year. It came, and we didn’t win. It was, for me, a pretty crushing moment. So we decided to go and tell the agency and commiserate together. As we walked in the bar, word had already got out that we hadn’t won, yet people were cheering and clapping and the mood was jubilant. People were hugging and chanting each other’s names, and I don’t think I’ve ever felt as proud at work than I did in that moment. In my mind, that feeling was better than winning the award.
So the way in which the team responds is everything.
Then, once the hangovers disappear, it’s back on the road to recovery. Which is where I am now, trying to rest a little, trying to restore a bit of balance, and giving my brain some space. So today’s mixtape is an aural reflection of what I’ve described above – it charts the highs and lows, the moments of feeling totally useless, locking into a groove, reaching a state of flow, pumped up moments, freefall, elation, despair, and eventual recovery.
It’s a weird job that I have, but holy shit I wouldn’t change it for the world ❤️