In May, the Dish Network (DISH) introduced a new DVR function called Auto Hop, enabling viewers to skip ads instantly on prerecorded prime-time shows. Television and ad industry executives were horrified. But Dish’s customers immediately started placing orders for Auto Hop. If it’s not obvious why, you should watch AMC’s The Pitch.
The Pitch is a weekly reality show in which two advertising agencies battle to come up with a winning campaign. It makes for lousy television, but it reveals quite a bit about why there is so much execrable advertising. In the first episode, McKinney of Durham, N.C., and WDCW, a West Coast shop, compete for the Subway breakfast sandwich account. Executives at both agencies talk about wanting to do culture-shifting work. Yet Jeff Larson, Subway’s vice president of global marketing, makes it clear that neither firm would win if it tried to make original, award-winning ads. “You know, we are selling food,” Larson said. “There has got to be a lot of ‘Mmm, that really looks great, I gotta get that today.’ ”
In an age of wall-to-wall reality shows about virtually every profession, we were bound to see one about the advertising industry. What’s notable about this show is that it appears on AMC, the network that brought us Mad Men. AMC runs commercials for the show during almost every Mad Men break. It airs The Pitch immediately after Mad Men at 11 p.m. on Sunday nights to lure the show’s fans. The message is unmistakable: If you are fascinated by the inner workings of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, the fictitious agency on Mad Men, you will love The Pitch.
AMC’s cross-marketing efforts only highlight The Pitch’s flaws. Those of us who have fallen under the spell of Don Draper are only too aware that Mad Men is a show about selling that is brilliant at selling itself. We adore the burnished production values, the way the show painstakingly recreates a vanished era and fetishizes the politically incorrect period behavior, the nonstop smoking, the midmorning cocktails, the office liaisons.
You would think the network that hosts Mad Men would give us a reality show about the ad world that is as bold as Mad Men, one that pits major agencies like JWT and BBDO against each other for the Coca-Cola (KO) account, for example. Studio Lambert, the producer of The Pitch, approached some big-name agencies to participate on the show, but they demurred. Being on a reality show “just didn’t seem like something a world-class agency would want to do,” says Rob Schwartz, chief creative officer of TBWA/Chiat/Day, whose clients include Visa (V) and PepsiCo (PEP). “I don’t think we want our agency mentioned in the same sentence as ‘Snooki’s pregnant.’ ” That meant Studio Lambert was forced to go with second-tier shops that are more willing to play along.
For all the agencies’ studious efforts to appear eccentric and intensely driven, The Pitch is unforgivably dull. The admen and adwomen have great haircuts and fashionable eyewear, but they are uniformly inoffensive. When Paul Cappelli, founder of the Ad Store, mixes himself a martini in the office in the second episode, you want to cheer. Perhaps that’s why the Ad Store is the only agency that appears in two episodes. Cappelli may be a morose, middle-aged gay man, but he’s the closest thing on The Pitch to Don Draper.
This leads to a larger problem with The Pitch: There are no psychopaths. There aren’t any vindictive contestants stabbing nicer ones in the back. There are no histrionics that can make for great promos. Every week, two different new agencies compete for a new account. That’s pretty much it. There are no exquisitely unfolding plots and subplots, no escalating rivalries or festering sourness and resentment. The livelier shows are the ones where agencies battle to make ads for recognizable, lighthearted brands such as Popchips. The drearier ones involve agencies creating campaigns for staid clients such as Waste Management (WM), the garbage disposal giant. On one show, the Ad Store actually crafted a campaign with the slogan: “Trash Can.” Read it as a sentence. It lost.
Successful reality shows not only cultivate outlandish characters—and vicious editors—but make the stakes clear by enlisting industry stars to judge the proceedings. The contestants on Top Chef all want to be a star restaurant owner like Tom Colicchio. Those on Project Runway would kill to be a rich designer like Michael Kors. The amateur singers on American Idol dream of having their own hit records, movies, perfumes, clothing lines, and reality show judgeships, like JLo. There are no advertising industry role models, at least none of that stature, on The Pitch.
Celebrity admen like those who inspired the character of Jon Hamm’s Draper—men like Rosser Reeves and Bill Bernbach and George Lois—no longer rule Madison Avenue. Faceless holding companies like Omnicom (OMC) and WPP (WPPGY) do. Consumers are getting harder and harder to reach. They are spending increasing amounts of time on the Internet. Those who still watch TV are no longer obliged to watch commercials—thank you, Roku, Hulu Plus, Auto Hop. This makes clients uneasy. They are quick to switch agencies if they aren’t getting the desired results. The Pitch does capture some of the angst that pervades the ad business. But it becomes tiresome as the show progresses. “For the most part, it’s earnest young people working their tails off for scant rewards,” Steve Hayden, vice chairman of Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, says of The Pitch. “I’m old enough to remember when my agency was still rich enough to charter a 727 just to give the creative department an extra day to work on a pitch, and winning meant spot bonuses for everyone involved. Nowadays you’re lucky if you can ride an airline that doesn’t charge for peanuts.”
There have been a few good moments on The Pitch. Early on, a young copywriter at McKinney proposes an ad about a dating service that would match people based on their breakfast sandwich preferences. It would end with a couple taking bites out of either end of a Subway footlong. “That’s disgusting,” says Jonathan Cude, McKinney’s chief creative officer.
In the Popchips episode, the copywriters and art directors at Conversation, a New York agency, bicker about a proposal to make the longest, most widely shared viral video ever. “There’s no guarantee anybody is going to watch five hours of content,” someone says incredulously. “Yeah, I probably wouldn’t watch a five-hour video either,” concedes Frank O’Brien, the Conversation CEO who pitched the idea in the first place. Nevertheless, the agency ends up building a winning campaign around this unappetizing concept.
On May 13, 2.1 million people watched Mad Men, according to Nielsen (NLSN). That same night, only 286,000 tuned in for The Pitch. The series will have to do better for AMC to order up a second season. The network might want to consider a reality show inspired by its other hit series, Breaking Bad, instead. Somehow, a show about the meth dealing trade sounds much more entertaining than The Pitch.