To pitch or not to pitch?
That's the question that many agencies have been asking themselves. Should they say "yes" to appearing on AMC's "The Pitch?" Most have loudly said "no."
The debate started last summer. Ad Age reported that scores of agencies were turning down the show, which films two agencies from the inside as they compete to win the same account. An Ad Age guest columnist worried that, among other things, his agency's "secret sauce" would be spilled by appearing. The debate continued last week in Stuart Elliott's New York Times column, "Getting Ad Agencies Into Reality TV." More agency PR platitudes. To which ad man and Forbes.com blogger Will Burns shot back, "There is no 'secret sauce.'"
So why say "yes"? If you want some exposure, you can't ask for a better lead-in than "Mad Men." The nation is going "Mad" everywhere you turn. Wieden + Kennedy does not need more visibility. But 97% of advertising agencies across America probably do.
I'm convinced that the real reason agencies turned down "The Pitch" is that they feel they have something to hide. The cameras would show the world, and their clients, who they really are.
I ask, are you working, or have you ever worked, at an ad agency with the following issues:
Employees who hate management?
Bosses who steal ideas from their underlings and take the credit?
A completely dysfunctional organization?
Sufficient interoffice drama to outdo a soap opera?
Creatives with the maturity of spoiled toddlers?
Colleagues eager to stab each other in the back with the sharpest knives possible?
Bureaucracy upon bureaucracy upon bureaucracy where nothing gets decided?
Enough bickering, bitching, hissing and attitude to light up a small town?
Departments so full of enormous egos, it's like "Clash of the Titans" on an hourly basis?
Agencies ruled by fear, egomaniacs and contemptible jerks?
Just as I thought. Who on Earth would want to expose themselves?
So, why did our agency say "yes"? Quite simply, we were not afraid to be naked in front of the cameras. We don't have a "secret sauce." But we don't work in a snake pit either. We're built around a creative process called "The Democracy of Good Ideas," the belief that anyone can have a good advertising idea, not just a creative person. We invest everyone in the process, especially the account folks and, yes, the client. No prima donnas. No backstabbing. No shouting. No scheming. No egos.
The "Democracy" isn't meant to be secret or proprietary. A lot of agencies try to work this way. But it's hard to pull off, simply because creative people are by their nature ego-driven. We wanted the world to see our process, experience our "Democracy." That is why, after weeks of internal debate weighing the pluses of publicity for our work against the possible minuses of embarrassment or failure, we said yes to "The Pitch."
There was a lot of handwringing before the cameras started to roll. Would the crew impede our process? Would they mess up our rhythm and cause us to fall short creatively? Would the work of our clients be compromised?
The producers, Studio Lambert, promised that their crew would not get in the way. They were clear up front and set good boundaries. They would not shoot us working on our existing clients' businesses and would stick to the competition created for television. They would focus only on the team that was on the "Pitch" project. They would respect our privacy (no following us into the restroom), but asked for full access to conversations and meetings about the project. They promised to be as unobtrusive as possible, and for the most part they were.
Of course, there were a few times when we wished they weren't around. We started with 20-plus ideas for the project and ended up presenting three. Getting to those final ideas did arouse some heated debates. But we never asked them to turn the cameras or our mics off.
At first, the effect in the office was a little unsettling. We weren't used to having cameras, mic booms and lights in our faces. But after two days of shooting, everyone in the agency seemed to settle in. We were competing head-to-head for a Subway project with McKinney. Yes, there was a lot anxiety about winning or losing to them on national TV, but this is what we do for a living. The stage may seem bigger, but once we were in the flow of the pitch, it was business as usual.
We got along great with the TV crew. Producer/Director Steven Garcia called it a case of "Stockholm Syndrome," the phenomenon where hostages develop empathy and positive feelings toward their captors. We ended up inviting them to our holiday party and have stayed in touch.
I'm sure that all along they were searching for oddball characters, tension and/or scintillating story lines, but without much success. What the cameras captured were junior and senior creatives, interns, account folks, producers, digital, social and planning departments collaborating in conference rooms, hallways, even in the parking lot shooting baskets. There was no real drama.
At the end of the shoot, the crew said that our process was different than others they had filmed. Our "Democracy" managed not to flinch in front of 24/7 cameras. The agency may not make great reality TV, but we did produce interesting ideas for the client, Subway. And I don't think we came off like repulsive jerks.
Following our group's positive experience, the producers asked if I would encourage other ad agencies to sign up for the show. I have talked to multiple agency principals and heard the same question over and over again, "Are we going to come off like idiots or jerks? We're worried." My response is always, "If you're not idiots or jerks, why worry?" They are confirming my belief that most everyone who refuses to appear thinks they have something to hide.
Come the premiere April 8 our agency will be exposed with full frontal agency nudity to millions of TV viewers and, perhaps worse, to the entire advertising industry. Our biggest worry is the final edit of the show. We have no control over it, and we know what an editor can do to a story. (Just think how Stephen Colbert can skewer a member of Congress with the splicing of a few choice sound bites.)
But in the end, I think that a lot of agencies that said "no" will wish they hadn't. Being honest and real makes for the best client/agency relationships. Having those qualities revealed about yourself on national television, showing that you have nothing to hide, is some of the best publicity anyone can get.