One does not simply walk into proposals....The quintessential epic journey shares more parallels than you think with the proposal process. The journey is long, full of danger, twists and turns, and the ever-looming threat of darkness that means to stop you from delivering your precious package! But, as a famous man once said, we get by with a little help from our friends.
When we saw this film in mid-December of 2001, I recall a few young gents sitting two rows behind us reading from textbooks and having a discussion while we waited the two (nearly three) hours for the film to start at midnight. Why would you need textbooks at a movie theater? This was before the days of select seating that allowed you to skip the trailers and still have your seat reserved. As it turns out, they were making the best use of the wait by studying for fall semester finals. I learned an important lesson from those two gents that night - a deadline is a deadline.
Fitting that we went to see a fantasy fiction cultural phenomenon come to life on the big screen (from a book that my mother read as a kid) about the epic journey of the unlikely creatures that have to deliver a package to save the world. On the edge of adulthood, I learned from this film that a deadline is a deadline and a delivery is a delivery; and in most cases, both are non-negotiable. As a marketing coordinator, I have since learned that you use whatever resources you can to make it to the delivery by the deadline. Sometimes those resources are guidance, shortcuts, support from your team, hiring or acquiring specialists, and relying on your friends.
The short synopsis (as the story is much to long in its entirety to detail here, let alone the condensed film version clocking in at 3 hours) begins in the Shire, home of the Hobbits. In Hobbiton, Frodo Baggins has just inherited all of his Uncle Bilbo's possessions, since he has decided to take his leave of the Shire and travel the world. One of these is a gold ring, with a long and mysterious past. Gandalf the Grey, master wizard and family friend, has his suspicions about the ring's origins and sets out to research it. What he learns is that it is in fact the One Ring of Power, forged by an ancient and evil sorcerer that can control the fate of all races on Middle Earth and bring about darkness, war and destruction.
Upon learning what Gandalf has discovered about the ring, he sets out to take the One Ring to Rivendell, where the wise race of elves may know what to do with it. His friends from the Shire tag along to support him, although only Frodo has the strength to carry the One Ring. Upon reaching Rivendell, a special council convenes to decide the fate of the One Ring. Lord Elrond, one of the Elf leaders all too familiar with the history of the One Ring, decides that the only way to destroy it is in the fires of Mount Doom where it was forged. Frodo volunteers to do this, and is joined by representatives of the other races of Middle Earth, forming the Fellowship of the Ring.
Along the way, the team is tested and challenged by numerous threats, all while Frodo is trying to resist the temptation of the One Ring's power. As they travel through dark and hostile lands to reach their destination, they are also hunted by an army of orcs led by a traitorous wizard from Gandalf's order. The team fights everything from weather and trolls to demons and orcs, as well as trying not to fight each other. By the end of the film they are separated, suffering casualties, and no closer to the end of their journey. This first act sets the stage for the epic trilogy of events that focuses on the journey to destroy the One Ring of Power and all that Frodo and his fellowship endure to get him to Mordor.
Marketing coordinators and Hobbits have a lot in common. We are both steadfast and tough, resourceful and reliable, and for some reason, always hungry. We work hard and celebrate equally so. We both start the journey looking something like this:
And finish our quests looking like this:
Most importantly, we seem to volunteer for tasks that are unlikely to be understood by anyone except the wisest among us. I often wonder why it is that marketing coordinators choose this work that not many seem to understand and even fewer seem to appreciate. For now, that answer can wait, since the film follows the RFP journey pretty closely in a few ways.
When Frodo receives the ring, he doesn't truly understand what it is, or its power. Gandalf explains its history, its power and its possibilities. On many occasions, I have had the same expression as Frodo when standing in his shoes (or rather, feet). The feelings of doubt and uncertainty are all too familiar when going through a new RFP, even to seasoned and experienced marketing coordinators. The conversation between Frodo and Gandalf of trying to figure out what to do with the ring feels similar to a go/no go conversation between proposal champions and marketing coordinators. In the case of Frodo, it is a go decision.
In this case, Frodo decides to go to the elves for help. After Frodo and his band of Hobbits make it safely to Rivendell, a forest-city of the Elves, he, Gandalf, Aragorn and others meet to decide the fate of the ring and what must be done to destroy it. Now if this isn't reminiscent of a proposal kick-off meeting, I don't know what is. Complete with arguing, strategic decisions, deciding team members, plotting a course of action, and all the drama of a family Thanksgiving meal, truly the only resolution they don't make is determining a deadline for their quest; as they don't really know how long the task will take.
From there the path is full of ups and downs, and friendships are forged through the journey together. Trust is not immediately established among the group, especially with Boromir, who doubts the purpose and success of the whole mission. The group is divided on what path to take by the time the fellowship reached the Mines of Moria where they find no other way to continue on their course but to follow through the mines. Here the group learns an important lesson about standing your ground. Ever had a project manager that reminded you of the Balrog? I know I have. But true professional marketers know when to stand their ground, much like Gandalf standing alone against the Balrog on the Bridge of Khazad Dum. Sometimes it is to protect the group, sometimes the mission, and sometimes the integrity of the proposal, that the coordinator must take charge and apply the right marketing principles at the appropriate time. In some cases, similar to Gandalf, I have had to defend decisions for the proposal made from experience and training (although I have never had to shout "You shall not pass!"....yet).
Making these decisions, staying the course, and moving along the proposal path can leave a coordinator quite weary. By the time the fellowship reaches Lothlorien, the realm of Galadriel, she exclaims "The quest stands upon the edge of a knife. Stray but a little and it will fail to the ruin of all." I feel like every marketing coordinator hits this point at some point during the course of proposal development. It's similar to marathon runners losing momentum, and there comes a point when you hit a mental wall. It feels very much like Galadriel's dialogue when she has a one-on-one with Frodo at the mirror, and says "You are a ring bearer Frodo. To bear a ring of power is to be alone. This task was appointed to you. If you do not find a way, no one will." Yet, before the fellowship leaves to continue their quest, she tells Frodo that "Even the smallest person can change the course of the future." This sentiment is an excellent parallel to the experience of putting together a proposal from a coordinator's point of view. At many times you feel alone, buried under the importance and the weight of your task, and if you fail, all will fail. The film has a running theme of the fragility of maintaining hope, but it is always there if you look for it. Hearing Galadriel's final encouragement gives Frodo the hope that he needs to continue, and should be repeated to oneself throughout the course of a career as needed.
Another marketing and life lesson in general that the film exhibits is one of leadership. Aragorn is not immediately revealed to be a leader, nor does he claim to be. It isn't until the council meeting in Rivendell that we learn that he is the rightful heir to the Kingdom of Gondor. Throughout the film, he makes decisions when he needs to, defers judgement to wiser counsel when he needs to, and stays true to his team at every turning point. He also practices a bit of strategy and diplomacy when conferring with the elves both in Rivendell and Lothlorien. By the end of the film, he earns the team's respect through his decisions and actions, becoming the de-facto leader of the fellowship. It's clear that while he disguises himself as a ranger, he innately behaves like a king.
So now to answer our initial question: As marketing coordinators, why do we choose this task? Some may say the money is good, some like the challenge of the hunt, some do it to pass the time until something better comes along, and some just really enjoy it. I think the answer lies with the Hobbits. Throughout the trilogy, in fact, Sam and Frodo often talk of home, how much they miss it, and what would happen should they fail in their task. In the scene with Galadriel and Frodo at the mirror, we even catch a glimpse of what that fate would look like. Soldiers and parents will tell you that they do what they have to do to defend their home. I like to think that the same can be said of marketers and their firms. After all, you spend as much time at work as you do at home, and often we choose our firms based on how "at home" we feel there. To me, marketing coordinators are very much like Hobbits in all the best ways - dedicated to making their home the best it can possibly be. If you don't believe me, believe that Hobbits love to eat. When asked early on in my career what drives me to excel despite how daunting proposals can be, I responded with one word - food. I went on to explain that if I do well at my job, and bring in work, my co-workers can feed their families, and I can feed mine. If we all work together, everybody eats; hopefully as good as Hobbits too.
As part of a community, you innately do what is needed to make that community thrive. That's why each proposal task, as daunting and tiresome as it can be, can feel like a personal responsibility. Your purpose is to undertake these quests to help the community and the company grow. The other side of that, however, is the responsibility of a firm to be the kind of home that marketers want to be a part of. Some firms need more help than others, but they should always strive for that goal as much as possible. Practice leadership like Aragorn, dedication like Sam, wisdom like Gandalf, precision like Legolas, encouragement like Galadriel, and when you can, (win or lose) drink like Gimli. Marketers, be like Frodo. Step up to the challenge, see where it leads you, and find out what strength you have in you to go the distance. Even if you lose your proposal, I promise if you follow these examples, you will always win in your career. Most importantly, A/E/C firms - make a home for your marketers. Practice your values and give your marketers something to hope for and fight for, and they will go there and back again for you.