“The Pitch,” the new AMC reality show about the world of advertising, is fascinating less for what it is than what it represents. Unlike the show that it follows, “Mad Men,” or the scores of other fictional programs about adverting agencies, “The Pitch” is a real glimpse inside the inner workings of a client pitch, and it is decidedly unglamorous. The process itself is surprisingly dull, and where “The Pitch” succeeds, even unintentionally, is in the way it reveals the advertising profession for exactly what it is: Complete and total bullsh*t.
In a way, “The Pitch” does for advertising what stepping inside an actual courtroom can do for the legal profession. The first time I worked a case in a courtroom, I was surprised to find that most of the lawyers in the room were stammering, inarticulate, slovenly people that wore ill-fitting suits. It was nothing like the legal dramas we see on television. There are rarely eloquent closing arguments or challenging cross examinations; it’s mostly dudes shuffling papers and asking tedious questions. (Also, courtroom acoustics are terrible.)
Likewise, what we learn in “The Pitch” is that the advertising profession mostly entails normal-looking, middle-aged people sitting around desks and shooting the sh*t. It requires an unimaginably large number of employees blathering back and forth to come up with something as simple as a tagline for a potato chip. It looks a lot like what I imagine “consultants” do, which is to say: Not a whole hell of a lot. Yet, both consultants and ad execs are paid obscene amounts of money to come up with relatively banal ideas that you might imagine most of us could come up with in half an hour over a lunch. These agencies are teeming with idea people who sit around a table and talk, writing their thoughts on blackboards, and waiting for inspiration to arrive. They will literally spend hours talking about the importance of a certain word that tests well, like “premium.” (It reminds me a lot of this George Carlin bit.) There’s never an epiphanic moment. In fact, in many cases, the agencies seem to resignedly end up with a campaign not because it’s great, but because it’s the best thing they can come up with within the time constraints.
The show itself has nice production values, and it’s structured so as to eke out the maximum amount of drama. The gist of it is this: Two ad agencies compete over a client. The most interesting parts — really, the only parts worth watching — are the first ten minutes and the last ten minutes. In the beginning, we are introduced to the client who lets each agency know what it wants (often keying in on certain words, phrases, or messages that they want highlighted, or color schemes important to them), then the members of each agency go back to their offices to talk it over for the next week. At the end of the show, they meet with the clients again and give their inarticulate spiels using slideshow presentations and poster boards. The producers attempt to wrest as much drama out of the pitch as possible, but reality of any workplace is rarely that compelling.
Typically, the show likes to focus much of its attention on whoever it is that will be giving the presentation, and the producers will take pains to create drama out of what’s typically no more than a bad case of the jitters. The presentations themselves tend to be somewhat interesting, but only in the dumbstruck sense that it took seven days, 50 people, and an around the clock effort to come up with these simple campaigns, although I will admit that they are more impressive once they’ve been executed (they will often air the winner’s finished ad at the end of the show).
I don’t want to sound like I’m being too hard on the advertising profession — it looks like a fun job that allows for the occasional, isolated bursts of creativity, and it is certainly a lucrative one. It just looks like they make a lot of something out of nothing, which I suppose is the point of advertising. In that respect, “The Pitch” is quite a success. More than that, we needed a reality show about advertising because, as George Carlin once noted, the packaging, distribution, and marketing of bullsh*t is America’s leading industry.