Usually contestants on reality competition shows perform tasks like seeking spouses, racing around the world, eating bugs, losing weight, living in houses rigged with cameras and working for Donald J. Trump. A new series aired this week with a contest all its own: wooing advertisers to say yes to campaigns.
The series is “The Pitch,” after the pitch process by which agencies compete for assignments from marketers.
It’s not as sexy aa Mad Men but as an ad man myself this reality show hit very close to home…in fact the show was so real it made me nervous.
“The Pitch” appears on the AMC cable channel, which is seeking to increase its offerings in the unscripted genre that include “Comic Book Men” and “Talking Dead,” a live talk show about its hit scripted series “The Walking Dead.”
“What we were looking to do” in the reality realm “was to tell stories, heavily character-focused,” to echo the channel’s scripted series, said Charlie Collier, AMC president and general manager.
“It wasn’t born out of ‘Mad Men’ at all,” he said. “It was born out of a moment that’s universal, when you have to come up with a great idea under pressure and sell it in, lay it all on the line for what you believe.”
In each of the eight initial episodes of “The Pitch,” two agencies face off to win a stand-alone contest to create a campaign, in 7 to 10 days, for a major marketer. The marketer, if it likes, can then transform the campaign into actual ads.
The eight marketers taking part include “Whozzat?” names like Clockwork Home Services, parent of companies like Benjamin Franklin Plumbing, along with familiar brands like Waste Management, Frangelico, Popchips and Subway (the subject of the sneak peek).
“We’ve done branded message integrations for a long time, with a fair amount of success,” said Tony Pace, global chief marketing officer at Subway, including “The Biggest Loser” and “Chuck.”
There are plans to run ads “later this summer,” he added, based on the winning presentation by — no, no spoilers here.
Another reason Subway agreed to participate, Mr. Pace said, was “a very good experience” appearing in an episode of the CBS reality series “Undercover Boss.”
Waste Management was also featured in an episode of “Undercover Boss,” which is produced by the same company as “The Pitch,” Studio Lambert.
“The Pitch” was “a very, very long journey,” said the United States president of Studio Lambert, Eli Holzman, who also worked on “Project Runway” for Miramax Television, because agencies were reluctant to be involved if “we showed confidential client process, real business up for grabs.”
“One day it dawned on me: What if we first lined up an enormous brand to look for an advertising agency?” he said, adding: “If we had the brand already, it would be a big incentive for the agencies to invite us into their world, and there would be no danger of offending current clients. That made the difference.”
Fifteen agencies agreed to appear, all of them small or midsize independent shops. (One, the Ad Store, competes in two episodes, so the total is 15 rather than 16.) Many larger, better-known agencies declined, worried about revealing the ingredients in their secret sauces; among them were BBDO, Leo Burnett, DDB, DraftFCB, JWT, McCann Erickson, Ogilvy & Mather and TBWA/Chiat/Day.
The Grey Group, a unit of WPP, said no because; the story is not about us,” said James R. Heekin, chairman and chief executive, but rather “it’s about building our clients’ brands first.”
“We don’t have anything against anyone doing a reality show,” he added, “but it’s not our style.”
Another well-known giant courted by “The Pitch” was Deutsch. Although “we love the premise,” said Val DiFebo, chief executive of the New York office of Deutsch, owned by the Interpublic Group of Companies, “our ‘reality’ precluded us from participating.”
“We’re eager to see the goods and explore if there is a competitive advantage for us to participate,” she added.
The agencies in “The Pitch” are: the Ad Store, Bandujo Advertising and Design, BooneOakley, Bozell, Conversation, DiMassimo Goldstein (a k a DiGo), FKM, the Hive, Jones Advertising, Kovel/Fuller, McKinney, Muse Communications, SK&G, WDCW LA (the Culver City, Calif., office of Wong, Doody, Crandall, Wiener) and Womenkind.
“We went through several weeks of back-and-forth with Studio Lambert and AMC,” said Jeff Jones, president at McKinney, who appears in the episode in which his agency and WDCW LA compete for the Subway assignment, “but we were willing to take the risk because we ask our clients every day to take risks.”
The winning concept from McKinney for Subway.
Scott Brown, president and chief creative officer at FKM, who appears in the Clockwork episode, competing against the Hive, echoed Mr. Jones. “It was a calculated risk,” he said, adding: “The pitch process is an agency putting a big ‘What if?’ in front of a brand and hoping the brand will fall in love. We’re not doing this to become reality TV stars; it gets our brand in front of our consumers, marketers.”