April 12, 2016

An Interview with Cali Pitchel

“I Live by My Wits,” an Interview with Cali Pitchel

Cali Pitchel interview illustration

Cali Pitchel is the Director of Marketing at Analytics Pros, a digital analytics consultancy in Seattle, WA. She studied history as an undergrad, wrote a Master’s thesis on Rachael Ray and the sociology of nostalgia, and dropped out of a PhD program to channel her inner Peggy Olsen. Although not technically a Phoenix native, she spent over 20 years in Gilbert, and has a real fondness for blue skies, cacti, cattle, and Liberty Market.

Monomyth Studio: Could you tell us about your background?

Cali Pitchel: In kindergarten I changed my name to Sarah Dunlevy-Michaelson. This was a hybrid of sorts, the first and last names of classmates and friends. Upon changing my identity, I told my teachers and fellow kindergarteners that my parents were dead, and I proudly announced (inspired by my favorite storybook at the time, Charlotte’s Web): “I live by my wits.”

Storytelling comes naturally, and it’s a clear through line in my life. A few years ago I made what might look like an awkward transition from academia to marketing, but at their essence, both are about telling stories. I really hate how marketers co-opted “storytelling,” because we have a tendency to chew things up and spit them out. But the power of story is undeniable, whether you’re selling products or reconstructing history. And my belief in that really informs where I’ve been, where I’m at, and where I’m going.

How did you get into copywriting and content strategy? What interested you in content strategy as a career?

I spent most of the last 10 years thinking I wanted to be a history professor. After two years of coursework in a PhD program in urban history, I took a one-semester leave for a much-needed mental break. I (miraculously) landed at Moses Anshell, and that was my first exposure to advertising outside of AMC’s Mad Men. My one-semester leave turned into an indefinite leave when I realized just how well my history education prepared me for a career in copywriting and content strategy.     

How has a degree in the humanities given you an advantage in your career?

In so many ways! But it took me a long time to articulate that advantage. I let momentum, and in some ways the expectations of others, keep me from seeing the possibilities available to me as a humanities student. I bought into the narrative that the most acceptable place for a history major (or any other humanities student for that matter) was the classroom, the library, or the archives.

But I had sharpened very important skills as a history student, ones that applied outside the classroom. I could read. I could research. I could write. I could tell stories — stories marked by empathy and stories that accounted for context. In essence, I had the most practical education possible: I could listen to, interpret, and understand other people. And these weren’t just any people, they were people from the past. They didn’t look like me, think like me, or act like me — but my discipline required that I learn to understand them.

Studying the past was essentially a proving ground for how to relate to everyone around me, not just historical actors. From the back-of-house in a restaurant to the boardroom or corner office, empathy and an ability to communicate clearly are requirements for any job.

I’m personally curious, what does the discovery process for your writing look like? How do you go from idea to fully structured article/post/etc?

I have two things to say about this. First, I love this video of John Cleese talking about creativity. He contrasts two modes: open and closed. The closed mode is hostile to creativity. The open mode, however, is where we are more creative. In the open mode, we’re relaxed, contemplative, and my favorite, less purposeful. We’re curious, but only for the sake of being curious. When we are open, we are playful—and play allows our natural creativity to surface.

Cleese talks about the five things you need to get into the open mode: Space, Time, Time, Confidence, and Humor. The gist is this: you have to play deliberately, but also spontaneously; you have to get comfortable with the time and tension of the process; and you must be open to anything that may happen. In other words, nothing is wrong in creativity.

When you are intentional about getting into open mode and you do the hard work of truly pondering, you’ll be rewarded—but not necessarily in front of the whiteboard during a brainstorming session with your team. I often get my best ideas in the shower, riding the bus, or walking to the coffee shop. 

Second, and I think this stems a bit from Cleese’s ideas on creativity, I’m not afraid to start ugly. I very rarely sit down and write an article or blog post in its entirety. Writing, for me, is always iterative. I usually start with stream of consciousness—just get everything onto the page without any real care for flow or organization. Ann Handley calls this The Ugly First Draft (TUFD). She says, “Much of writing paralysis is the result of expecting too much of ourselves the first time out.” After I step away from my TUFD for a day or two, I take another pass. I copy and paste here, drag a paragraph there, delete a sentence or three. On my second or third go-round, I pay closer attention to the structure of my post. This is when it helps to read out loud. It’s an easy way to catch mistakes, bring more clarity to my argument, or remove anything repetitive.

But the truth is I’m never fully satisfied with anything I push out the door. I think that’s part of the process as well. I take a lot of pride in my work, but I can’t be too attached to the outcome. There’s a difference between doing the Best Work Ever, and doing the best work for the job within the particular constraints. I strive for the former, but accept the reality of the latter.     

What is the most significant thing you learned working in a creative agency?

I risk sounding trite, but the value of collaboration. Creativity truly is collective, and you increase a campaign’s depth and distance when you bring a degree of humility to your work and acknowledge that the creative process is built on the efforts of an entire team. But there’s a hard truth in there as well: it’s really, really difficult to subordinate yourself to the team, especially when you are prized for your personal creativity. And it’s even harder (and humbling) to acknowledge your own creative narcissism—to admit that you do want the accolades and the praise. And at the same time, it’s terrifying, but necessary, to make yourself vulnerable in front of your colleagues! But in my own experience, I gain more than I lose. The struggle refines, hones, and sharpens. My best work always comes from collaboration. I can’t point to one single occasion when my work has gone out the door untouched, so it’s never completely my own, and it’s always been better for the critique.

Could you tell us a bit about what you’re doing now?

I’m currently the Director of Marketing at Analytics Pros, a digital analytics consultancy based in Seattle, Washington. I lead our brand and marketing efforts—things like social media, training programs, lead gen, and email marketing—and I support our Sales and Client Services teams. It’s been an interesting transition, moving from an agency to in-house, especially going from mostly B2C to all B2B work. Some people say there is no difference between the two. We’re all people after all, right? But I spent a lot of time studying consumer behavior, and the reality is that consumers and enterprises don’t think or act the same. The enterprise has a fiscal year and a procurement department; the consumer has wants and needs. Right now I’m trying to navigate this new world of marketing, and I’m thankful to do it in a setting that allows for freedom and flexibility. It’s like getting paid to learn!

What are the most common misconceptions people have about what you do?

A lot of people are intimidated by data analysis, but the reality is we’ve been collecting and interpreting data since the beginning of time. Analytics Pros’ icon, Thales, was a Greek philosopher. He used mathematics to calculate the distance between a boat and the shore. Thales represents the human element of data collection.

What interests you about data analysis?

I see a lot of similarities between data analysis and the study of history. A historian requires a posture of curiosity, an open mindset, and also a strong sense of humility. You have to arrive at the text without all the answers. The sources can (and almost always will) challenge your assumptions.

Is this not true for data? All too often we see data as a capital T truth—hard numbers, fact, science. But even data is meaningless without interpretation, and because so much depends on that interpretation, data analysis demands the same integrity required of a historian.

I recently asked a college professor of mine, Dr. John Fea, about truth, data, and analysis. He suggested that, “Data means nothing until it becomes part of the story that the analyst wants to tell. This does not mean that the facts are not important. If the story that the analyst tells is not based on evidence, it will be a bad story and irresponsible analysis.”

In the discipline of history, you’d be hard pressed to find a historian who believes in an objective interpretation of the past. It’s impossible to capture a historical event or actor and call it truth. Data is much the same. There is indeed an objective truth in data, as there are certain objective truths in history. “But [a] historical fact is only useful when we explore what it means. And it is possible that two different historians might come up with two different, even contradictory, stories about what this fact means.” We have to keep this in mind when we look at the analysis of data. I think our industry will be better for it.

Outside of writing, what are you passionate about?

I’m easily excitable, so I have this proclivity to get passionate about everything that is interesting. But I’m consistently passionate about reading and french fries. I can’t get enough of fiction and nonfiction alike. My favorite books of all time are Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence (is there really a more tragic love story?) and Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (equally tragic, but in very, very different ways). My goal this year is to read two books a month, which sounds easier than it is. My April picks are Slouching Toward Bethlehem and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. And as for french fries, I consider myself a connoisseur. If there are french fries on the menu, it’s basically a requirement that I order them—for the sake of research, as I’m on a quest to find The Best French Fries in the World.

What has been your experience living in Seattle?

I think I could be an ambassador for the City of Seattle. Phoenix will always be my home. It’s familiar, it’s where I grew up, and my family is there. But I love this city so much. There aren’t many other places where you can have such close proximity to lakes, the ocean, hiking trails, ski slopes and all that a city has to offer, like museums, live music, and great restaurants. I’ve also found this to be a very creative place for me—partly a product of this moment in my life, and partly because there is inspiration everywhere.