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On Circles, Blocks and the Art of the Pitch

If you’re a professional creative then you’ll know that having a great idea is, unfortunately, only part of the process. If you want to see your idea made real then you have to be able to sell it. And yet, very often, almost all of one’s creative energy goes into the idea itself, with very little reserved for the pitch.

I’d like to share with you a story about a pitch. From 700 years ago.

Pope Boniface VIII was rather unusual as popes go. He declared Christianity to be a human invention, just like the faith of the Jews and the Arabs; he decreed that sex and the satisfaction of natural desires was no more a sin than washing your hands; and he spent much of his papacy enriching himself and his family. However, to his credit, he was also a great lover of art.

Pope Boniface VIII

Pope Boniface VIII

When the time came to get some new frescoes painted on the walls of St Peter’s Basilica he sent out an envoy to visit each of the great artists of the day and to ask them for samples of their work so he could select one of them for the commission.

Among those on the papal pitch list was Giotto, or to give him his full moniker Giotto di Bondone. When the courtier arrived at Giotto’s studio he explained his mission, expecting the artist to disappear round the back and return with some of his favourite paintings. Instead, Giotto reached for a blank canvas, a pot of red paint and a brush. Under the gaze of the puzzled emissary, he paused, dipped the brush in the paint, and, with a single sweeping freehand gesture, described a perfect circle.

‘There you go’, he said (or at least I imagine he said). ‘If your guv’nor knows anything about art then he’ll understand’. And he quietly returned to whatever he had been doing before the envoy arrived.

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Giotto had guessed that the Pope, being a connoisseur, would know that drawing a perfect circle freehand is almost impossible. And that to be able to do it is a brilliant demonstration of natural skill. He guessed right. Pope Boniface VIII, who would later be cast by Dante into his Eighth Circle of Hell for his venal ways, awarded him the project and went on to become his lifelong patron.

I tell this story because it demonstrates how effective taking an original approach to how you present yourself or your idea can be.

Most agencies and most creatives pitch in exactly the same way as every other agency and every other creative. Typically they plod through the original brief, explain the idea, visualize the execution with a few references, and then finally jog gamely on to a conclusion. And all this is incarcerated in PowerPoint or Keynote slides.

It’s OK. It works. It’s tried and tested. But, my word, it’s predictable. If you really want to stand out then you must reserve some of your creativity for the pitch itself.

Here’s another pitch story. This one from 700 years later.

When Channel Four, home to some of the most innovative and iconic TV branding of all time, decided to change their identity they approached a number of design studios. Grant Gilbert and his team at DBLG came up with a beautifully simple idea. They figured that the nine constituent shapes which make up the Channel Four logo have become so distinctive that viewers no longer need to see them arranged as a logo.

The original Channel Four logo

The original Channel Four logo


They realised that these shapes could be liberated to provide an ever evolving, dynamic on air system. Branding without a mark. A great idea – there’s a video about their process you can watch below.

But the real touch of brilliance came in the pitch itself. Instead of taking the client’s hand and dragging them through a deck of slides, DBLG took a different approach. Grant arrived at the pitch with a shiny silver case (you can see the same case in the video above). In it were the nine constituent parts of the logo, each of which he had 3D printed at his studio.

When the time came to present the idea he simply opened the case and tipped the letters onto the desk. Immediately Channel Four could recognise their logo even though it was all broken up and, well, no longer their logo. They could see for themselves that the idea worked; it didn’t need to be explained. And they could pick up the pieces of the logo, touch them, feel them, play with them.

DBLG’s idea became the award winning Channel Four identity you see on air today.

So next time you’ve got to pitch, remember Giotto with his freehand circle, and Grant with his silver case, and ask yourself whether you really need PowerPoint.

Maybe there’s another, better way …

richard holmanComment