Advertising not shown at its best on ‘The Pitch’

Scene from ‘The Pitch’ pilot

How depressing.  For several weeks we studiously avoided watching the pilot for “The Pitch,” the new AMC cable series that takes us inside the ad industry to see how agencies land new business.

But over the weekend our resolve began to weaken, and we plunged in. Boy, are we sorry we did.

The pilot for “The Pitch” proved as dreary an exercise in reality TV as we’d ever want to watch. Everything we believed to be true about the current state of today’s advertising industry — more specifically the way the creative end of the business works — was borne out in the 40-minute pilot.

Yes, it wasn’t pretty.  We’re sorry McKinney in Durham, N.C., and WCDW in Los Angeles, bit at “The Pitch” bait and decided to show the public a little about the process of developing an ad campaign and then pitching it.

McKinney, which we know well, is known for the traveling gnome it developed for Travelocity.  It has also done work for Sherwin Williams paint.  WDCW previously worked on an animal-themed campaign for Quiznos that failed to catch fire.

We can say this much for the two agencies involved.  They at least got to work with a high-profile client, the Subway restaurant chain.  Their assignment was a campaign to entice 18 to 24-year-olds to have breakfast at Subway. 

Dispiriting aftermath of Subway pitch

But it’s what happened on “The Pitch” after Subway chief marketing officer Tony Pace gave the two agencies their marching orders that was so dispiriting.  We won’t soon forget the looks on the faces of the young copywriters and art directors sitting around the table with their superiors at McKinney as they tried to figure out what they were going to do — with time tight — for their pitch.

The more we watched, the more we couldn’t decide if the blank expressions reflected real fear or utter boredom.  But as the young creatives struggled to talk through various campaign concepts, it became clear they were flailing around — trying to find something that would make their bosses’ eyes light up with approval.

Only after Internet searches led them to Mac Lethal — a rapper who got million of hits for rapping about making breakfast — did the McKinney crowd agree they had something they could use.

Over at WDCW, the creative brainstorming was a disaster from the start.  The only idea anyone had any interest in pursuing was a campaign built around the “big idea” of a “zAMbie.”  That would be a zombie-like young person who is too zonked-out to try something new or different for breakfast.

Neither shop delivered a real winner

As the WDCW concept took shape in quick flashes of activity on “The Pitch,” we could tell it was going to be loud and garish.  And totally stupid. Watching WDCW pull together their pitch left no doubt why advertising has sunk so far as a craft and an art.

But before we could grow too downhearted, it was time for the two shops to actually pitch their work to Pace and his marketing cohorts at Subway.

The camera, as they say, doesn’t lie. And indeed it didn’t, as we watched Pace and his fellow marketers try to muster at least a minimal amount of enthusiasm for the two pitches.

But it was obvious, painfully so, that neither shop delivered a real winner.  More than a little reluctantly, it seemed, Pace opted to award the assignment to McKinney, which, of course, used the win to celebrate itself. 

First episode captured internal dysfunctions

While the pilot of “The Pitch” was bad on many levels, we aren’t ready just yet to write off the entire series. Because the first actual episode that premiered Monday night was much better than the pilot.

It did a great job of capturing the fascinating internal dysfunction at two very different ad agencies — The Ad Store in New York and SK+G/Las Vegas.  The two shops were vying to handle a brand campaign for Waste Management.  Each shop had to execute an integrated campaign to enlighten the public about how WM turns garbage into energy.

In just a few deftly-rendered scenes, this edition of “The Pitch” revealed the real and unpredictable personalities within both agencies as they tackled the WM assignment.  Kudos in particular to Ad Store founder and chairman Paul Cappelli for outing himself as a gay man so movingly on national TV.  That took guts.

Both agencies in this pitch also — much to our surprise — took an unglamorous assignment and did something rather interesting and engaging with it.  Even though the campaign didn’t win (probably because it wasn’t nearly so flashy as what the Vegas shop served up), we especially liked the intelligent “Trash Can” concept from the Ad Store.

So while “The Pitch” may not do much to disprove our long-held theory that too many lousy agencies turn out really lousy work nowadays, the cable series, if it lasts long enough, just might go on to underscore another important fact of life in advertising: Not all ad agencies are created equal. 

Contact Lewis Lazare at