Why “The Pitch” Will Perpetuate Bad Practices

Perhaps you have seen the preview episode of The Pitch, AMC’s newest show about the advertising industry, which debuts on April 30. In this first episode WDCW competes against McKinney Advertising for a Subway breakfast ad campaign. While dramatic and entertaining, the episode also perpetuates several bad practices that plague the entire marketing sector.

This “reality” TV approach focuses on the tension of competitive pitching for major accounts. It assumes that winning depends on the creative that resonates most with the decision committee. In this case a Mac Lethal video-inspired campaign from McKinney out duels WDCW’s zAMbie campaign for Subway’s breakfast line.

But nowhere in the episode do we see serious conversations about the following:

  • The target stakeholder, adults aged 18-24
  • Sales information from Subway about its breakfast line performance to date
  • Intended ROI goals for the campaign
  • Breakfast offerings, sales and ad campaigns from competitors
  • Potential media suggested by the agencies to promote the campaign
  • Integration into other marketing programs, including direct, social media, and others

These critical components drive all real world pitches, and also inform creative. The only strong verbal reference to them was Mac Lethal’s live rap pitch to the Subway team when he said McKinney is “increasing your sales.” It’s no coincidence that McKinney won, in my book. At least the show offered general discussion of Subway’s overarching branding efforts.

A Bad Pitch?

The incorrect message The Pitch sends to Americans — and more importantly aspiring marketers and communicators — is that creative ideas are all it takes to succeed in this business. Having competed for a few accounts in my day, winning requires a much stronger approach than just creative.

While the show accurately depicts the tension of coming up with good ideas, it completely failed to bring the business end of the conversation into play. Further, it failed to discuss the motives of why clients buy marketing campaigns. The psychology of winning extends well beyond good ideas and into resolving fears, economies of scale, ROI, and yes, even good old fashioned relationships.

I don’t think these errors are the fault of the featured agencies, rather the “reality” approach to creating an interesting TV show. You could see some demographic information posted on the walls during creative brain storm sessions, as well as references to tactics outside of the traditional 30 second spot. These agencies are well respected for a reason.

The barriers to entry in advertising, PR and social media are very low, creating plenty of issues, from ethics to bad practices, and an unfortunate belief that myths like “great creative is all it takes” are true. The resulting quality issues are why this sector suffers from reputation issues, and more.

Success requires significant attention to the mechanics of marketing. As Olivier likes to say, a Moneyball approach should be deployed. The math and research should inform the creative, and then support it with a selection of tactics that flow well together. Further a good pitch includes a measurement program that won’t bullshit the CMO, offering him/her real data to make decisions to invest further, adapt, or cut losses.

One other nitpick with The Pitch. WDCW’s Tracy Wong was the only minority person featured in the show. During the winning McKinney Advertising celebration scene we were treated to scores of white people cheering. Where are the minorities? Is this show saying that advertising, marketing and PR is the last professional bastion of white solidarity? Even its 1960s counterpart Mad Men is doing a better job of tackling racism.

While entertaining, I hope The Pitch improves with future episodes. For all of our sakes. What do you think of The Pitch?


  • Spot on Geoff. When you agree to the Reality TV treatment you are doing a deal with the Devil. Gross generalization, stereotypes and an absolute lack of nuance are the stock in trade. Marketing communications is a complex industry ill-suited to the lowest common denominator approach that you’re going to get, even from AMC.

    I’m a week behind on Mad Men, but the previous episode where Roger gave Lane advice on how to conduct the dinner meeting with the Jaguar exec was brilliant. The intricacies of handling a conversation in order to tease out insights is essential, but makes for poor Reality television.

    I think The Pitch would benefit from a multi-channel approach, and maybe they are doing that. Blogs, online videos, infographics, etc. in addition to the broadcast content. That would be a way to provide the richer texture.

    • I totally agree, Rick. They do have a multichannel approach, but it still seems to be pretty creative focused, showing the ads online so you can share them.  This is not Mad Men unfortunately.  And yes, I have to still watch this week’s episode, too!

  • Geoff, I’m impressed at your ability to absorb reality TV, or any TV for that matter. As I get older, my desire to watch TV seems to be inversely proportional to the amount of content available to me.

    You’re right in your description that advertising starts with more fundamentals. The paradigm that I use is Brand > Corporate Strategy > Marketing Strategy > Advertising Strategy > Creative.

    I see Brand as a promise that an organization is always trying to fulfill. And the purpose of marketing is to promote that promise. The content of creative is way down that list.

    What’s the Brand promise that Subway delivers? That’s the key question, and something that an agency can help an organization discover, but can’t deliver on its own.

    For Subway, their brand promise could be healthy fast food (e.g. Jared). Or it could be cheap eats. Or fresh bread (the only food that’s actually cooked on premise). Or entrepreneurship from an expanding franchise operation. Or some combination?

    From the Subway marketing their brand promise isn’t clear. How does their Battleship tie-in promote their brand? Do you think anyone at Subway can tell you?

    I’m not predicting success from any creative, whether on reality TV or not, until Subway better understands their branding. Unless that would be pushing out more franchises, which is kind of short term and cynical.

    • I agree with you. I think Janet hit the nail on the head. Now all campaigns aren’t necessarily brand campaigns, but they do need to fit within the umbrella as you point out. 

      I’m not very familiar with the whole Subway/Jared branding effort, so I can’t offer an intelligent response to that.

  • Geoff, what The Pitch is going to perpetuate is the notion that Advertising is not grounded in strategy and data.  Reality TV finds that “boring” analysis and not worth air time. Even The Apprentice focuses on using creative and marketing assignments that don’t showcase the data, competition, sales and consumer insights needed to create a real campaign.  Would be interesting to analyze how these types of shows (even Mad Men) influence up and coming students that want to enter the industry…

    • Strategy?  What’s that?  You mean I am supposed to achieve something? Go from A to B? And have a plan for it? OMG!  Totally on point!  Great comment.

  • Great post.  I watched that preview episode – expecting to be impressed by creative ideas, since I had no illusions about any of the business side of things that you mention being portrayed – and came away depressed at the state of the world.  I thought everyone in it was hateful (except the blonde chick whose silly but enthusiastic ideas all get ignored). I thought the pitch itself was depressing (more fast food aimed at kids? really? WTF?) and I thought this proves why advertisers are hated so much.  Advertising truly is the cost of being boring.

    • I mean the winning campaign was basically them getting some creative talent outside of their firm, a rapper, and praying he’d come up with something brilliant. At least that’s how it was portrayed. OK.  I agree.  It wasn’t at all what I like about this business, and everything I dislike!

  • What I hate, GL is that this perpetuates the idea that ALL agencies suck and that ALL marketers suck, which is not true. The ones of us worth our salt look at the things you mention and very much know that it’s not all about great creative. Although, I have to admit, there are many agencies out there who still believe that great creative is all it takes. And those agencies are the ones who aren’t using strategy and, equally as important, data, to drive marketing decisions. Sigh.

    Great post – as always.

    • It all depends on the team, right?  Great team, no problem. Lame team and you are shot!

      • Same is true of any business, anywhere. Fundraising, marketing, sales. You get a great team working on something, people who know what they’re doing and know how to deliver results (and know what good results look like – for their clients, not themselves), you’ll typically get great results. If not, you’re shot :)

  • Much of what you say here reminds me of a post I wrote a while ago about “Undercover Boss.” That show, and I’m guessing “The Pitch”, too, have a way of reducing reality to “reality.” I know firsthand that the versions of reality peddled by shows like this don’t resemble anything in my two decades in journalism, PR, and now social media; I suspect they don’t resemble anyone else’s experiences either. 

    Shows like this are meant to resemble or to approximate a reality in the same way that fairy tales do — highly symbolically, with generalizations, broad brushstrokes, and stereotypes. The sad part is that we used to be able to recognize fictional material as fictional. Now we (or at least the networks tell us we) want our symbolism and fictions couched in terms of reality. 
    Too bad for us. 

    • It’s cheap, bad entertainment. And so AMC took a shot on it.  I just don’t think it can continue though.  At least Mad Men has charactersand nostalgia set in an authentic period piece. This is – as you say — fiction! Boo!

  • What is ironic is the creative for most ad campaigns sucks. It is usually saved by the rest of the campaign like media planning/buying and integrated strategies.

    Doesn’t sound like a show non-marketing people would watch though. I mean Madmen is a niche show even with all it’s accolades. While the premier this season broke records at 3.5mil viewers which is really about 1.5% of TV viewers. Similar to Fox News. So how many will watch this 500,000?

  • Let’s not sugarcoat what’s really happening here. Nobody at the network cares about “reality.” The Pitch (and Undercover Boss… and the whole ilk) are pay-to-play propositions for the brands represented in the show. Pure advertorial. Truth is secondary. Just make sure you say “Subway” 10 times per minute. Collect your paycheck. Move along.

  • Interesting points raised here. I just hope those in marketing have the sense to ignore another ridiculous reality TV show.

  • I read you often.. and only disagree 5% of the time.  This is one of those times.  “The Pitch” doesn’t accurately depict the process, really, whatsoever.  However, the process is rather disinteresting to a majority of people who tune in.

    What “The Pitch” does do is shine a little spotlight on the industry.  And for that… I am in favor.  You are looking at this from the inside-out, which in understandable.  BUT – to the average consumer, even the events in “The Pitch” are interesting.  I’ve had calls from old friends saying things like “wow, I didn’t know teams competed against each other internally,” and “is the final presentation really that tense?”

    I’m happy about the air time.  I’m hoping it motivates the youth and develops interests of future bright minds to consider entering this industry.  Times are tough ahead, media continues to fragment, competition is stiffer, and more and more is being kept in-house.  We need all the help we can get.

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  • Great clients who want to be great pick agencies based on the creative idea.  Period.

    No one ever won a ad pitch based on a media idea or a strategic insight that wasn’t backed by stellar creative. 

    Everything in the ad business is there to support the creative idea.  Geoff must be a planner.  I’m sure there’s another blog written by a media guy who is saying the same thing. 

    Sour grapes.  Bad show yes.  But it is focusing on the proper thing.

    • Bullshit. Great clients want to pick an agency that’s going to deliver an idea that will resonate and bring home the bacon.

      • And to further add to that idiot clients pick ad agencies solely on creative. You can’t tell me  great creative isn’t informed with the homework.  I completely disagree with you.

  • I like what everyone is saying here…however i am an idea guy and my disappointment was the campaigns themselves, both missed the obvious, I was shocked to listen to the ideas produced by companies who have such strong reputations…zombies and food?  The other lucked out with a third party wrapper found by a surfer, other wise I am sure they would have bombed also.

  • I couldn’t agree more. To me it is designed to convince newbie graduates to join the fun and exciting world of advertising. And those people will think, as you so correctly pointed out, that it is all about being creative, when in fact, what the profession needs is more statistical analysts and people with some sense of business.

  • the gruen transfer beats this US crap hands down!

  • I am a breakfast zambie.

  • Wow talk about dramatic. I’m hoping this blog post is a mere satire as it reeks of exaggeration. No one is watching these dramatized, unscripted shows as a form of education or information. They are meant purely as entertainment and perhaps they’ll inspire someone to get into marketing or advertising but surely they aren’t coming back to certain episodes taking notes on how to start and run their freshly minted ad-firm. Lastly lets not forget where your ads go – during the commercial breaks of these shows!

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