Truth usually is indeed stranger than fiction. But in this case, when a reality show about the advertising business runs Sunday nights at 11 p.m. ET, right after Mad Men — the smart and popular drama about advertising agency execs — the non-fiction version is a lot less entertaining and illuminating.
The problem: failure of imagination. The real pitch-men and women and their creative teams don’t seem to be brimming with it … even if we don’t hold them to Don Draper standards. But the colossal failure of imagination that undermines the show is that of the show’s writers and directors. Only that can explain how a show on the modern advertising business could be so boring.
Ironically, the standard reality-show format actually tracks the way the ad biz works. Real ad men and women are forced to make a short make-or-break pitch — unlike, say, pretty people selecting lifemates (à la The Bachelor) or entrepreneurs seeking venture capital funds (as in Shark Tank). Real sharks wade through stacks of business plans and crunch numbers.
Some professions seem accessible to amateurs. Interior design, poetry, the restaurant business — the less we know about it, the more we think we can do it just as well as the so-called experts. Not so nuclear engineering or Arabic translation or piloting a helicopter.
Maybe the show would be more attractive if the agency heads were more likeable — okay, to be honest — is they were less insufferable. Consider Tracey Wong of WDCW, head of one of the two competing firms in The Pitch's season premiere.
"This world is not kind to the advertising business" Wong intones with self-satisfied gravitas, as if having just airlifted refugees out of battle-torn Somalia. "You never succeed if you go against your gut." Then he goes on about how he "hates losing." Except that when his team loses, suddenly "It’s all about the process. … You do not worry about the outcome." Hypocrisy alert!
Or take David Oakley of the Charlotte, NC, agency BooneOakley, who describes himself as bold. During one exchange with his potential client, he became so insidious that the phrase "kiss ass" tracked through my head. Three seconds later, I kid you not, the client referred to him as a "kiss ass." I cheered.
So maybe in a hyper-competitive creative business you need an outsized ego. Or maybe these folks really are geniuses. Sadly, not from what I could see.
Again, in the season premiere, the winning agency gets the contract — a campaign to promote Subway’s entrance into the breakfast market — by finding some ordinary schmo named "MacLethal" on YouTube, where he wrote and performed a clever rap video about fast food. All that high-priced talent, a solid week of brainstorming, and they clinch the deal by subcontracting an amateur YouTube rapper. Somehow I doubt they'll give "MacLethal" the 99 percent of the revenues he deserves.
On each show, we get to sit in on some of the "creative" sessions. Don’t expect much. As Oakley vets ideas from his hip-looking team of twenty- and thirty-somethings, he inspires and motivates them with gems like, to quote: "It’s hard to say" and "We’ll see how it goes." With two days to go before the pitch has to be made, the BooneOakley team concludes their work really needs focus. (Brilliant!) Except they don’t seem to have any decent ideas yet.
Meanwhile, their competitor, Conversation Advertising of New York, is developing a digital film for the campaign. ("We are the new wave in advertising," founder Frank O’Brien explains.) We get to see his hip twenty-something creative guy hunched over a screen … and that’s about it as far as knowing what he is thinking or doing.
We are ushered into a side story about how one team member has reached his "breaking point" by working, let’s see, now we are up to five days … until after 9:00 p.m. Oh, the inhumanity.
Another guy talks about how he lost his father when he was two, and so on the day of the pitch "something terrible might happen" and his father wouldn’t be there to help him. Another guy has an emergency gall bladder removal.
So we get stupid subplots and lots of atmospherics — knowing glances, throbbing music, stressed-out hipsters and their sickeningly profound senior partners. But we never get brought into the process. We don’t get an inkling of how they imagine or construct. Their clients say more insightful things about products and customers than they do. In the episodes I watched, the teams that made the better pitches weren’t selected. So rather than learning something new about this business of presumed smoke and mirrors, I was left baffled.
I said before that amateurs think they can do it as well as the pros in some businesses. Nothing in The Pitch suggests otherwise. That has to be wrong. So let us in, AMC. Show us some brains at work.
Take a look at The Pitch's premiere episode: