AMC’s “The Pitch:” The Real Mad Men?
Have you seen AMC’s reality show “The Pitch?” It documents a competitive advertising agency pitch each week, pitting two rival agencies against each other to compete for a very lucrative piece of business, such as Subway sandwiches and Frangelico liqueur.
Since I’ve been in the agency/consulting business for a while, I was curious to watch the series to see if it realistically depicted the process agencies and consultancies go through to win new business. It was interesting to observe how different agencies approach developing marketing solutions. Some have a very formal process, using a lot of “whiteboarding” and large group brainstorming. Others utilize copywriter/art director teams. Still others have dictatorial creative directors who subjectively crush ideas like ants. So if you’re a client about to send out an RFP, whether for a million dollars or a significantly smaller budget, this show will give you an idea of what goes on behind the scenes so you can better appreciate the importance of your role in setting the agencies up for success.
Right off the bat, I have to call AMC out on their depiction of the process. Through the magic of editing, AMC has turned it into a high drama, almost personal battle between agencies, complete with close-ups of rival furtive glances during the initial agency briefing, down to crazy all-nighters where agency folk have to sneak out to kiss their kids goodnight. This is probably a result of the one-week time frame the agencies are given to develop their pitches, which, I suspect, was purposely manufactured to create and enhance the drama. While I’m sure it’s happened, rarely would a company expect a pitch of this magnitude in the time span of a week.
- People who are dedicated and passionate about their work. As one of the ad execs simply put it: “The stakes are high. It’s not easy being in advertising now.” A skittish economy has many companies tightening their belts. Advertisers want more for less and the rewards are not as big, but dedication and passion, more than monetary rewards, are what continues to drive agency folks to produce great work.
- Coming up with The Big Idea. There is definitely a sense of satisfaction one gets from seeing their ideas “up in lights” so to speak. But only if it’s the right idea. As one ad exec from the show put it, “This needs to be about them, not us and our neat ideas. That’s suicide in this business.” ‘Nuff said!
- Competitiveness. Agencies want to win. Winning big business means they can keep the agency going and keep their jobs. If that isn’t motivation, I don’t know what is!
- The creative process. There is more to brainstorming than just sitting around a table randomly tossing out taglines. Strategists are researching competitors and the industry to inform the creative. Copywriter/art director teams work together to ensure messaging and visuals are integrated. It’s truly an iterative process with a lot of trial and error.
- The investment. When agencies pitch work, they’re taking a risk. They’re investing thousands to tens of thousands of dollars for a chance at winning. Time spent on working on a pitch is time that cannot be billed to current clients. Is it worth it? If you win the work, typically yes. When is it not worth it? This is a strategic decision that every agency’s management should consider before accepting the challenge. Does this work support our business goals and mission? Do we have the staff and expertise to effectively and efficiently support the work? Does this work bring with it the opportunity for more work? All of this must be considered before making the investment.
What’s Not Real
- The one week time frame. While many agencies will go hard for one week to win important work if that’s their only choice, having the opportunity to let ideas “bake” almost always produces far better results. As I mentioned earlier, this time frame was likely manufactured to heighten drama, and possibly, to limit (AMC, not agency) production costs.
- Locking-in the staff for 24-hours and taking their phones. Need I say more? I’m willing to bet this was the show producer’s idea and not the agency’s!
- It’s all about the creative. For the most part, the “creatives” were the focus of the show: the creative directors, the copywriters, and the designers and their ideas. But what do you think they base their creative ideas on? Competitive research and industry data that was painstakingly gathered by strategists and account managers. In my opinion, this part of the process was sorely underemphasized. Successful, results-producing creative is always based on solid data.
- The big TV commercial. Let’s face it. Not many companies are spending big bucks on national television ads any more. (See first bullet under “What’s Real” above.) Sometimes the “creative” is all about coming up with the most efficient ways to meet marketing objectives. And these may be quite unconventional.
- Ignoring the client’s directives. If the client clearly states not to combine his businesses into one concept, then don’t do it (see episode on Clockwork Home Services). Agencies who think they know more than the client are shooting themselves in the foot.
- A whole week in one hour. Finally, understand that what you’re seeing is a whole week’s worth of work (which should more realistically take place over two to three weeks) crammed into one hour. You’re not seeing all the details…just an abbreviated view.
If you missed “The Pitch” when it ran on AMC, all of the episodes are available on iTunes. Additionally, check out YouTube for clips from all of the episodes, some of the winning commercials that were produced as part of the show, and even some critical commentary. Even though I found it somewhat contrived, I enjoyed it purely for its entertainment value and, or course, because I’ve lived it!
SOUND OFF: I’m interested in what YOU think of “The Pitch.” If you’re a company that advertises, what did you learn about the “Pitch” process? Or, if you’re in the ad or consulting “biz,” how does the process depicted in the show compare with the “real life” Pitch process that you’re familiar with?