Speaking in general terms, AMC’s “The Pitch” is the smartest and most entertaining new reality series of the year. On a more specific note, it is also the most enlightening, at least for those of us who often wonder about the creative side of advertising.
Handsomely filmed and expertly edited, and enhanced by gripping mood music and stark graphics that give it the feel of a suspense thriller, each episode of “The Pitch” makes for an hour of surprisingly human drama as teams from two advertising agencies scramble to develop new campaigns for a large company and then convince its top executives that they deserve the account. Some of the agencies involved are strong and stable (though no less desirous of new business) while others are suffering the debilitating effects of a prolonged recession and are desperate for the kind of lucrative new professional relationship that a perfect pitch can provide. The scent of nervous determination wafts through the screen at the start of each episode when the teams are made to sit together in conference rooms while waiting for a joint briefing with the potential client they will be competing to impress. The flop sweat at each episode’s end can be even more pungent.
Boldly going where surgically altered housewives, desperate singles and singers of questionable talent no longer fear to tread, the executives and employees at the agencies in play put their professional strengths and weaknesses on sometimes unforgiving display for all to see. It’s easy to dislike a number of them right from the start. For example, it takes very little prodding for the people at the top to begin boasting that their agency is simply the best in the business, nationally or internationally or both, and bla, bla, bla. But many of them come off as fine, hard-working folks.
As the episodes play out, it becomes clear that work in creative environments tends to expand to fill the amount of time available. It also seems that time with spouses, children, families and friends is imminently expendable because as the days between the briefings and the all-important pitches are counted down, the people on these teams all but live in their offices. Indeed, in one episode, the team members at the FKM Agency in Houston (who were competing with The Hive in Toronto for the Sarasota, Fla.-based Clockwork Home Services account) were actually held in the office and made to brainstorm for 24 hours. They were well-fed and well-caffeinated but, in a shocking move, agency president Scott Brown ordered them to surrender their cell phones during that time. (Imagine the horror!)
Brown must know what he’s doing, because it appeared that everyone at FKM was much harder-working and much less self-impressed than the people at The Hive, and FKM ultimately won the account. Now, I’m not saying that the FKM team is smarter or nicer than the Hive group, it’s just that they came off better on the show, and as anyone who has ever appeared on a reality show will tell you, the end result can be wholly inaccurate, and that’s the risk people take when agreeing to participate in one.
What each and every person on these sometimes very large teams is actually doing during the preparations for the pitches isn’t always made clear. Again, this may simply be a problematic aspect of reality show editing. The pressure they are all under, however, is always palpable. As Los Angeles-based WDCW Advertising founding partner Tracy Wong said in the episode about the competition to win a new account at Subway (the Milford, CT-based international fast food giant), “This world is not kind to advertising agencies.” WDCW was up against Durham, NC-based McKinney Advertising, and it was interesting to compare and contrast the inner workings of a big agency in a major media market and those of a more modest firm in a smaller city.
“The Pitch” becomes even more effective when it slips away from agency offices and corporate command centers and takes viewers into team members’ homes, which it doesn’t do often enough. In the episode that found Las Vegas-based SK+G competing with New York City’s The Ad Store for an account with Houston-based Waste Management, one fellow from SK+G slipped out of the office to run home and have dinner with his wife and two small children -- with only 38 hours remaining until the pitch! The boss called and told him to get his tail back to the office, which he did, leaving behind two devastated kids who were crying for their daddy and pleading with him not to leave. It was heartbreaking to watch.
Each episode excitingly climaxes with scenes in which we learn which pitch the client actually goes with. By then, the viewer has undoubtedly made his or her own choice, and it can be exasperating when the client picks the other agency. Taken on an episode-by-episode basis, this show is decidedly more substantive than most unscripted fare but just as much fun. Collectively, it goes a long way toward explaining why the number of underperforming advertising campaigns in this world far exceeds the short list of the truly effective.