Why I Changed My Mind About 'The Pitch'

Four Suggestions to Make The Reality Show, Well, More Real

By Published on .

Last spring, I made fun of "The Pitch" and criticized the show for portraying an outdated business model. (In case you just joined the advertising community, "The Pitch" is an AMC reality show in which two agencies compete to win a project from a client. And it will be back for season two in 2013.)

A couple of developments have taken place since I wrote that piece that make me feel a little sheepish about trashing the show in Ad Age .

One, I've gotten to know Paul Cappelli, chairman of The Ad Store, one of the agencies that appeared on the show twice and lost both times. Of all the participants, I found him the most open and genuine. He proved to be an excellent strategist and creative thinker. I rooted for him to win in both episodes, and after he lost I wrote him a fan letter. Even though he lost, he remains incredibly positive about the experience.

The second development was that representatives from "The Pitch" called and asked PJA Advertising if we would like to participate. Ultimately we declined for reasons that had nothing to do with the premise of the show. For us, the decision came down to timing and some of our own business-development initiatives.

Skyy Spirits turned to 'The Pitch' for Frangelico work.
Skyy Spirits turned to 'The Pitch' for Frangelico work.

I did get to speak to Aaron Saidman, senior VP-development at Studio Lambert, the production company that produces "The Pitch." He showed a remarkable understanding of the trends in advertising and convinced me that reality TV does not need to be exploitive. As the producer, he's working to give the public insight into the inner workings of an industry that has tremendous influence on our culture and consumer behavior.

Paul Cappelli also backed up that point of view. He told me that he had a great time doing the two episodes and thought that the production company worked hard to capture the essence of his agency. "The whole thing was very unobtrusive; they just filmed us while we worked. No one played us unfairly," he said.

Considering that Paul lost both times that he appeared, I expected that his reputation, if not his ego, would have been battered. On the contrary, he felt the show boosted his agency's reputation, even with the losses. "In the end, everyone at home realizes what the better idea is ," he told me. "It did wonders for my PR and brought in some nice clients."

Given my about-face and newfound appreciation for "The Pitch," I'm curious about what developments will be revealed in the second season. I've also tried to imagine how I would like to see the show reflect the advertising industry.

Recognizing that there's nothing worse than unsolicited advice, here are four ideas for the producers of "The Pitch" that I think would help capture the changing dynamics of our business.

1. Pit a traditional ad agency against a digital shop. That's a dynamic that we increasingly experience in our world. While agencies claim to be completely fluent in digital technologies, they work very differently than pure digital shops, and it would be revealing to see the two approaches. It would create a real contrast and maybe add some dramatic tension.

2. Have at least some of the agencies work outside the traditional advertising box. In season one, the assignments all focused on advertising-centric campaigns. Smart agencies increasingly find innovative ways to solve marketing problems without an ad campaign as the centerpiece. They pursue experiential ideas, branded content and social programs, to mention a few. With the intense focus on storytelling, the assignment could be to create a story for a client and find ways to tell it through alternative channels.

3. Give all the agencies a media budget and see what kinds of innovative strategies they propose. A missing ingredient from the early episodes was a persepctive on media. That's where some of the most exciting action takes place in our industry and where you can see some of the most creative thinking.

4. Test the creative work. It often irked me that clients consistently picked the weakest campaigns. Of course, that 's a subjective opinion. So it would be interesting to test the creative work. This could be done with online customer panels to get very quick feedback. Or it could be like "American Idol" where the public gets to vote. Everyone would then see how the work resonated with a broader target audience.

They say it's not a good idea to see how they make sausage. You might say the same about advertising. It's a fragile and sometimes messy process. If you're going to show what really happens behind those closed doors, I would go for the innovations and stay away from the stereotypes and cliches that define "Mad Men," that other AMC hit.

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