The Big Problem With 'The Pitch': It Portrays an Outdated Business Model

Reality Show Reduces Industry to a Caricature

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I'd like to propose a new parlor game. Each week when you watch "The Pitch," pick the person who most deserves to get fired. Is it the co-creative director who blatantly upstages his counterpart? The senior executive who decides to confiscate everyone's cell phone? Take your pick. It's like shooting fish in a barrel.

I've got a theory. AMC created "The Pitch" to take revenge on advertising agencies for cutting back on their media buys. A couple of lean years can piss off anybody.

At the start of each episode, I want to yell at the screen, "Don't do it. It's a trap. They will dumb you down and accentuate your worst characteristics. They're going to reduce you to a series of stereotypes and bury you in cliches."

Just like gambling in Las Vegas, the house controls the game. No matter how good the agencies, two realities can't be denied. The show makes everyone look overly desperate, and you've got a 50% chance of being a loser. Who wants those odds?

It's amazing what people will say when you point a camera at them. They share inner thoughts about their egomania, blind ambition and guilt over neglected family members, all of which should be reserved for a therapist, or at least a first date.

Of course, those exact qualities make the show so much fun. I like watching people who shape perceptions for a living get manipulated by the media. I like seeing the cool office spaces. If you love exposed brick and neon accents, "The Pitch" is definitely for you.

Those are just my opinions. But when you look at the show from a business perspective, the problem is much more serious. It makes the industry look like a caricature. That should concern us all.

"The Pitch" portrays a seriously outdated business model. Senior people fret and worry, while junior teams do all the work. Worse yet, in some cases those junior teams get pitted against each other while those senior people condescendingly dismiss their ideas. Consistently, the client gets the least value from the most experienced and presumably expensive staff.

We see a lot of large groups of people sitting in meetings while one or two people dominate the discussion. That's a lot of overhead. At a time when agencies feel tremendous price pressure, and the need to defend their value, "The Pitch" portrays bloated team structures and inefficient processes.

A bigger problem for the industry may be what the audience doesn't see. To date we see no directors of technology, programmers, analytic people, user interface designers, and very little in the way of media planning. I'm sure all the agencies have those capabilities. They're just hidden from view.

We've spent the better part of the decade reinventing the agency model, moving away from an advertising-centric view of the world to one that thinks more deeply about the customer experience and emphasizes an integration of advertising with social media, content programs and lead generation. All that sophistication that good agencies deliver gets glossed over.

Maybe the most disheartening sin is that of being obvious and never diving beneath the surface to look for insights that make the client truly unique. In the first four episodes, none of the agencies pursues research beyond what the client offers in a short briefing. We see no exploration about the products, the competition, the industry and the client's culture. That total lack of curiosity gets reflected in the final work.

Some excellent agencies have made their debut on "The Pitch," but I doubt that we have seen their better natures. It's not for their lack of trying. It's just that the best things that we do -- collaborating, thinking, creating -- don't make for the most exciting television. My advice: watch "Mad Men" for drama. Watch "The Pitch" as a cautionary tale about what to avoid in advertising.

Phil Johnson is CEO of PJA Advertising & Marketing with offices in Cambridge and San Francisco. Follow Phil on Twitter: @philjohnson.
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