In Depth

Why Some Advertising Agencies Aren't Buying 'The Pitch' -- Reality Show About New Business Pitching Makes Shops Nervous

By Rupal Parekh
Advertising Age

The success of "Mad Men" on AMC has inspired the network to make its first foray into reality TV with advertising competition show "The Pitch."

But the show, announced in April, has yet to sign a contract with a participating agency. Execs from producer Studio Lambert have been pounding the Madison Avenue pavement this summer to get shops to sign on; in a single day in New York last week, representatives from the show courted as many as three agencies, Ad Age learned.

So what's the pitch for "The Pitch"? Here's how producers are describing the hour-long program to agencies:

"Each episode is a standalone competition between two or three agencies. For the series, AMC has ordered eight episodes, and filming for each episode will take place over a 10-day period. Agencies are welcome to participate in more than one episode if they so choose. The structure of the show is as follows: In the beginning, the agencies will travel to the brand's HQ to get the brief. We will then document each agency as they spend the next 10 days formulating their creative pitch. In the end, the agencies come back to the brand and deliver their pitches. The brand will decide which agency to choose. And the business that the agency wins will be REAL business."

Kodak and Yahoo on board

Studio execs are promising that the program will be of a higher standard than most reality shows, and will be shot in more of a documentary fashion. At least two marketers, Kodak and Yahoo, appear in a sizzle reel being shown to agencies in the hopes of getting them to sign on. Even so, many agencies have resisted "The Pitch."

Among prominent players in adland to decline: Omnicom Group's BBDO, TBWA, DDB and GSD&M; Interpublic Group of Cos.' Mullen, DraftFCB, Carmichael Lynch, Gotham and Hill Holliday; WPP's Ogilvy, Grey and Wunderman; Publicis Groupe's Bartle Bogle Hegarty and Fallon; MDC Partners' Kirshenbaum Bond Senecal & Partners; Havas' Arnold; and independent Mother.

Several others are still having conversations with studio executives but have not yet given AMC a final decision, among them Interpublic's Deutsch, the Martin Agency and McCann; Publicis' Kaplan Thaler Group, Saatchi & Saatchi, Publicis and Leo Burnett; WPP's JWT; Omnicom's Zimmerman Advertising; MDC-owned CP&B and Grupo ABC-owned Pereira & O'Dell.

The show is meant to begin pre-production in a matter of weeks, with a goal of being on air in the first part of 2012. Meeting that timeline seems a stiff challenge, but Eli Holzman, president of Studio Lambert, said it already has agencies and brands willing to do the show. He also noted that there's no expectation it would be an easy sell; being on camera isn't for everybody.

"For "Undercover Boss,' we made calls to 2,000 companies across corporate America to get the one for the pilot ... it took a full year to get nine companies," he said. Based on the track record for ad-themed shows and movies, it's a topic that -- apart from "Mad Men""s cult following and critical acclaim -- hasn't drawn American audiences. The Oxygen show, "Ad Fight," despite heavy production backing from Ben Silverman-founded Reveille Productions, aired just one episode. The 2008 attempt "Jingles," with judges Linda Kaplan Thaler and Julie Roehm, never saw the light of day.

But perhaps the problem isn't the topic as much as America's taste. In Australia, a more serious ad show called "The Gruen Transfer" (a nod to the disorientation a shopper feels in retail environments) that delves into the psychology and science behind advertising has, somewhat shockingly, made for compelling television Down Under. The show is prepping to go into its fourth season in August.

For Rainbow Media's AMC, the pressure is on to make "The Pitch" a success. It's had a string of hits with "Mad Men," "Breaking Bad," "The Walking Dead" and "The Killing," but unscripted shows are new territory. This is its first stab at the reality genre.

The producers for "The Pitch" have impressive resumes. CEO Steven Lambert is known for creating "Wife Swap," "Faking It" and "Undercover Boss," while Mr. Holzman is the former head and co-founder of Miramax Television, and creator of "Project Runway."

"They struck us as good, trustworthy people with a good background, and AMC is a great network," said Mullen CEO Joe Grimaldi. "I had a level of confidence with them and didn't feel like we would get miserably portrayed."

Still, "the conclusion we came to is that our people do their best work off camera," Mr. Grimaldi said. "Letting someone in the backroom of your operation—it's not that it's a sacred place, but it's the stuff that makes or breaks an agency's success and it's a fragile thing."

Potential problems

Other red flags included the problem of conflicts with existing clients with the marketers appearing on the show; not being compensated for time used to shoot the show; a question of who ultimately gets to own the ideas presented on-air; and a possible requirement that work presented has to go into testing before it airs. And for a group that is generally used to having control of the final cut, the agencies' inability to have input in how the show is edited is scary for many.

Mr. Holzman said that as it stands right now, the agencies will get to own their intellectual property, but there is potential for clients to try to write into their contract a fee of, say, $10,000 to get to keep the ideas. he show is committed to paying for agencies' travel expenses, he said, while brands that participate won't pay for anything except a project for a winning agency.

"We looked at the format and felt it was very misaligned with the way that we work with clients," said Doug Scott, president of Ogilvy Entertainment. "We didn't feel that the pitch was staying true to the process in which our [industry] works. What we were presented format-wise felt forced to be a dramatic competition, in a soft-scripted manner, vs. a more natural way that agencies work with clients and how a campaign is born."

Doug Spong, president of Carmichael Lynch, said in an email that they weighed the idea but "at the end of the day, we decided that the tremendous time commitment, lack of anything financially tangible at the end (even if we were to 'win' the assignment against the competing agency) and risk to our reputation as an agency simply outweighed any reward for participating. Personally, I was worried that the drama involved in reality programming today would alienate and offend some of our clients, turn off blue-chip prospects, and leave everyone with the question of 'Why do we have so much time to play make-believe when there's so much deserving client work to be created and produced.'"

Another concern: that clients wouldn't appreciate company time being used to promote the shop over the brand.

"We were certainly intrigued by the premise," said a spokesman for DraftFCB. "In the final analysis, we decided our time would be better spent focusing on current clients and building our business rather than being distracted by a television crew." Said a Grey spokesman: "We want our clients' success to be the story."