Salesmen in Art

Somewhat belatedly, I finally watched the movie “Glengarry Glen Ross” – whilst enjoying/enduring an enforced ‘film festival’ on the long-haul from Zurich to Melbourne (I never could sleep on a ‘plane). The film, released some 20 years ago, was based on David Mammet’s play of the same title from 1983. With a truly stellar cast (Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Ed Harris, Alan Arkin, Alec Baldwin, Jonathon Pryce and Kevin Spacey) and great screenplay, it was a critical success – ‘though not a commercial one, which may be a commentary on the public’s opinion of ‘the salesman’ as subject.

I was effected by the film as powerfully as I was when I saw Warren Mitchell play Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” at the National Theatre, London in 1979. Back then I was just starting out in my sales career in Commercial TV. “Death of a Salesman” had been written 30 years earlier in 1949 and it has been produced many times over the years, by some of the best theatres in the world, such is its reputation.

Both plays resonate with the period they were written in – yet both contain messages relevant to today. Neither paints a particularly rosy portrayal of the sales profession, but then neither is attempting to recruit. They use the personal pressures and stresses that, as we all know, are heightened in sales, to explore the breakdown behaviour of the individual.

Whilst both plays end in the abject collapse of their subjects – they both touch on some of what makes selling a challenging, exciting and, when you get it right, rewarding career. To my mind however, they both also fail to even hint at the true ‘value of selling’ as perceived by customer and supplier alike. They are one-eyed, typecast reinforcement of the widespread notion that “salesmen always try to sell you something you don’t need” (or insert similar pejorative statement of your choice).

Before I expand on what I see as the root cause of this persistent notion, I invite you to research the two films/plays – and any other ‘sales’ related art-pieces – to contextualise your understanding of yourself and how your profession is being portrayed in the media.