x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Every job is a sales job - including the first Thanksgiving

"We invite the Indians to come to a dinner party, see? We'll sell it as a Puritan thing from the old country, and they'll buy it, show up on Thursday with some great stuff to eat and we'll be all: 'Oh, our stuff is coming out of the oven in a jiffy, let's just start in'."

All big ideas begin with a pitch. Behind every business deal, wedding, car sale, or major world historical event, is a successful sales job. "Every job," my father told me, when I told him that no matter what job I ended up doing in my life, I'd never, ever, ever consent to being in sales, "is basically a sales job".

And he's right. A big part of the work experience - actually, the life experience too, if we're being honest - is about making someone do or buy something they might otherwise do to or buy from someone else.

In Hollywood, we call this "pitching" - you go into a meeting with a studio or network and you pitch your idea - maybe for a show or a script or a feature film - and they listen, nodding and laughing (if you're making a sale) or staring dully into the middle distance, like Easter Island statues (if you're not).

Aside from the very lucky among us, we've all been in a version of that meeting - animated, passionate, making important and meaningful eye contact with the decision-makers in the room. We've all known the joy of making a sale and the defeat of hearing: "Thanks for your thoughts. We'll get back to you."

I have a friend in the venture capital business, and most of his day is spent hearing pitches from entrepreneurs. They come trooping into his conference room with PowerPoint presentations and colourful brochures (called "leave-behinds," with grimly literal directness) and all of them believe passionately in what they're selling - a new kind of web-based social game; a faster fruit juicer; a simpler kind of combustible engine.

The trouble is, he told me, that it's hard to know from a pitch if the idea is promising. A lot of good ideas sound kind of lame when you pitch them. Who'd have thought that golf, say, would turn out so popular? You take a variety of sticks around a hilly and curvy path, hit a tiny ball along into a series of hard-to-see holes. Doesn't seem very appealing. It also makes me wonder about certain holidays. Who came up with those?

Yesterday was Thanksgiving Day in the United States - a day where Americans gather with their families to celebrate the pilgrims and their successful struggle to survive a brutal winter in the New World. It's a feast day, basically - the food on the table is designed to represent the bounty of a New England harvest: turkey, squashes and pumpkins, beans, corn, and apples. (It's evolved, of course, to include more new-fangled items like marshmallows, macaroni and cheese, and American football marathons on television.)

The first Thanksgiving, so goes the legend, was a "pot luck" event in which each guest brought a dish to share. Luckily for the pilgrims, whose larder was nearly bare, they invited the local native American tribes as well. They had cleverly stored loads of delicious nuts and corns and squashes, which made them extremely popular dinner companions.

Over the years, Thanksgiving Day has become a quintessential American holiday, encompassing all of the various strands of contemporary American life: egregious overeating, estranged families gathering in awkward and strained togetherness, and slack-jawed television watching. But it started, first, as an idea that someone, at some point, had to sell.

Centuries ago this time of year, did one of the pilgrims say to his group: "OK now, hear me out. Imagine us around a dinner table. Nice picture, huh? But no food, right? So here's what we do. We invite the Indians to come to a dinner party, see? We'll sell it as a Puritan thing from the old country, and they'll buy it, show up on Thursday with some great stuff to eat and we'll be all: 'Oh, our stuff is coming out of the oven in a jiffy, let's just start in', and before you know, it we've all stuffed ourselves and we can sit back and unbuckle our shoes and just relax. It's perfect!"

My guess is he faced a tough crowd. The early American Puritans were a cheerless lot, and there's not a lot of evidence to suggest that they spent much time entertaining. And when you think about it, it's a terrible idea: invite a bunch of strangers over for a giant dinner party? It's a sign of how hungry they all were, and how threadbare their harvest had been.

And yet, somehow, it worked. And still works. Which is why running a studio, or a network, or a venture capital outfit is so challenging. Sometimes, the best ideas sound awful when they're pitched. Which is why, probably, it's a good idea, when you're selling something, to make sure to make your pitch before lunch. Hungry people are a lot more open to crazy ideas.

 

Rob Long is a writer and producer based in Hollywood