I just spent a four-day weekend with my family in Carpinteria, CA in much the same way I did nearly every day the last 20 months: with the outcome of multiple game-changing new business pitches hanging over my head like the Sword of Damocles.
Will the wind blow slightly to the left and nudge one of the other finalists over the finish line? Or will an intangible in our deck or the confident tone in our voice lodge in the mind of a decision-maker in such a way that tilts things in our favor?
How can I allow myself to enjoy the seals frolicking in the surf or pause to read the placard about how salt marshes form when the next text I receive could change the very course of my agency… my career… my life?
Pitching new business is a helluva drug.
The juiciest briefs come in reeking of a brighter future, intoxicating with visions of what could be: the promise of a more respectful and collegial client relationship; the potential for exciting creative and technical innovations; the possibility of team-sustaining profits and awards.
And then, for the next two or three or four weeks, the pitch is all-consuming like new love or gnawing hunger. REM sleep is rearranged to better serve the conscious and unconscious obsession with unearthing the big idea. Content consumed holds tantalizing hints that must be teased out. Weekends must be sacrificed, as they are the only stretches of time where there are no meetings to interfere with actually doing the work.
The fuel cells burn bright and burn hot, with little thought or care for how they will perform after the final Q&A’s (if you started the presentation call on time and didn’t chew into your buffer that is) and thank you’s have been said.
But those fuel cells must be refilled. Those that ignore the warning signs do so at their peril. As is true of all drugs, what goes up must come down.
I’m sure there are a million ways to refuel, but here’s what’s worked well for me as I’ve come to accept that pitching (despite the romantic promise of utopian thinkers) isn’t going anywhere in agency life any time soon.
As with most things in advertising, the following recommendations are an alchemical mix of hard data, hard-knock wisdom, anecdotal experience, things we stumbled upon on Twitter, and in-the-moment inspiration. All tied up in a nifty bow by a favorite quote in Latin (so it MUST be true): Solvitur Ambulando (“it is solved by walking”). I first read this quote inscribed on a rock at the center of a labyrinth in Sedona, Arizona (another physical location with its own mental state) many years ago and it’s stuck with me ever since. Any mantra good enough for St. Augustine, Aleister Crowley and Oliver Sacks is good enough for me.
One: stock up on long stretches of thinking about nothing. And if nothing isn’t available, think about subjects like how salt marshes form or how great that bongo player is.
Two: take long walks that go nowhere in particular. And if you must go somewhere, let the most important choice be whether you go left down the beach or right up the beach.
Three: read something that gives you pleasure. After immersing yourself in category research and the ecstatic art of whiteboard-staring, take your brain elsewhere (for me it was roving with vampires in the summer of ‘76).
Four: give back to those who absolve you of your pitch mode sins. For every core member of the pitch team, there is a friend, a loved one, a child, or a bartender who missed your presence while you were living the brief. Be there for them. Shower them with your attention. Kiss their elbows. Buy them the Toxic Waste they crave, though it may pain you greatly to do so.
Five: commit yourself to learn from the pitch: win, lose or draw. We can’t live in the Carpinteria of the mind forever. Commit to the retrospective (never the post-mortem). We must return to the battlefield better. Stronger. Faster.
Especially when you’re fighting for that brighter future that maybe, just maybe, is a pitch win away.