The Real Reason The Big Ad Agencies Avoided AMC’s ‘The Pitch’


AMC has a new reality show coming out in April called, “The Pitch.” It’s billed as a real-life advertising agency pitch-scenario with real agencies and a real client (Subway). AMC will give us a sneak peek on April 8th after a, you guessed it, Mad Men episode (smart). But what’s interesting to me about this new show is that the big agencies, like BBDO, DDB, McCann, and several others, were approached by AMC to participate, but they turned it down.

The speculation as to why they turned it down, according to the New YorkTimes, “Getting Ad Agencies Into Reality TV,” by Stuart Elliott, is that the big agencies didn’t want to expose their “secret sauces” for all, including competitive agencies, to see. They have proprietary strategic processes to protect. One-of-a-kind brand planning techniques to keep secret. Trademarked brainstorming methods that were invented here. Right?

I had to laugh.

You see, I’ve worked at, and been a pitch guy at, many of the great agencies over my two decades in advertising – Goodby SilversteinWieden & Kennedy,ArnoldMullen, and others. And I’ve pitched against all of the greats at one point or another when I was at Arnold. One thing I’m quite sure of is this: the greats didn’t refuse this reality show because they were afraid of exposing their secret sauce, they refused it because they were afraid they’d expose the fact they have no secret sauce.

Now, before you perceive that last comment as a cheap shot against those agencies, it is not. It is said with the utmost respect. Let me explain.

Advertising was, is, and always will be, a result of people. Human beings. Creative minds that can uncover insights and then turn those insights into something magical. “Trademarked, proprietary processes” are a fancy-pants device used by new biz wonks like me to create the perception of differentiation in a pitch. Fact is, clients at the beginning of a pitch-process look for such differentiators when trying to weed out the riff-raff and get the agency list down from twenty-five to five. So, as an agency, you need those fancy-pants, trademarked, proprietary processes in order to get the proper boxes checked.

Now, if an agency who’s spent years’ worth of pitches selling those fancy-pants processes were to agree to do this show, then that thick, meaty, “secret sauce” would be seen for what it is: watered down broth so thin you can see through it.

And therein lies the great irony. These great agencies are not great because of their “secret sauce” at all. Never were. They are great because of their great people. Their great talents. Their great human minds. A show like “The Pitch” would have been the perfect stage for a Goodby or a Chiat or whomever to finally expose our business for what it is. Not one of fancy-pants processes and superficial perceptions, but one of human magic. Magic made by creative magicians.

Put another way, in their fear of exposing their false-greatness, I believe these agencies succeeded in keeping their true greatness a secret.

Is there a risk another agency will be watching and wowed by their people, only to try and poach them? Sure. But I’m assuming the participating agencies have the creative cache and financial resources to keep the best talent happy.

Now, I have not, obviously, seen the show yet. But just watch. I’ll bet at least one of the agencies who had the guts to participate in this show will reap huge rewards. No, not the Subway assignment, though there is that inherent reward as part of the show. But these brave agencies will, in the context of one of their “fancy-pants, trademarked, proprietary processes,” necessarily expose one or two of their great people. Humans. Magicians.

Then, one of you – one of you reading this article on the Forbes CMO Network maybe – will see that human magic unfold on TV.

You’ll be intrigued.

And, poof, like that, you will put a rabbit in their hat.

But it won’t be because of the fancy pants. It’ll be because of who’s wearing them.

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