Stay Tuned: Real 'Mad Men' on 'The Pitch'
On AMC's award-winning series “Mad Men,” the advertising business of the 1960s is populated by angst-filled men (and a few women) in sharp suits who toss back drinks mid-afternoon while creating clever ways to sell things. The series and its characters have made an impact on popular culture from reigniting interest in ‘60s design and fashion to stirring debate about nostalgia for the era. It would seem easy then, to imagine that AMC's new docuseries “The Pitch” is meant to capitalize on the idea that ad agencies are intriguing places to work. After watching a few episodes, I have to agree.
“The Pitch” is a competition between two advertising companies who each meet with the same client in the hope that their idea or pitch will be the winning one. After receiving a brief on what the client wants for their brand messaging, the action follows each agency as they return to their offices to create a campaign. One week later they present their idea and find out who wins the contract.
As a behind-the-scenes look at advertising, “The Pitch” documents the difficult process of how an idea is translated into a usable marketing strategy. Agency staff propose concepts to a roomful of their colleagues who are not afraid to dismiss them as garbage. Money and reputations are at stake, so people argue, interrupt, yell and fight. The vulnerability inherent in the creative process combined with the pressures of sustaining livelihoods generates very personal drama for the participants.
Another way the show generates drama is by using a documentary production style. Scenes are filmed in real offices, hotel lobbies, conference rooms and people's homes, which helps to heighten the natural tension between creativity and industry. In addition, narrative exposition takes the form of sentences that appear across the screen. The technique is mainly used to establish the timeline (“ 'ABC' agency has been working for two days”) but it also sets an ominous mood (“They haven't settled on an idea”).
The tone of the series is also set by participants who aren't polished on camera. In one episode, the head of an agency is upset with his colleague and tries to take him away from the cameras to talk to him. The camera keeps them in long shot to stress its non-intrusiveness, but this only makes the scene more voyeuristic, as if you are eavesdropping on a conversation. After having an animated talk with his subordinate, the boss asks him if his mic is on. When he realizes he was recorded, he is embarrassed. It's an interesting moment because it's so rare in unscripted TV where it seems like everyone knows their best camera angle and what they're expected to say.
When the show juxtaposes the reality of long working hours with the reality of family life, it is capable of compelling moments. In one scene, an agency director who tells the camera he hasn't spent time with his children in four days goes home for a brief visit. When it's time to go back to the office, his toddler son is inconsolable.
The payoff of “The Pitch” is not really who wins or loses the campaign. You want to know, but it's only one part of the more interesting story of what's at stake when art and commerce and work and life are difficult to separate.
Melissa Crawley credits her love of all things small screen to her parents, who never used the line, "Or no TV!" as a punishment. Her book, “Mr. Sorkin Goes to Washington: Shaping the President on Television's 'The West Wing,’” was published in 2006. She has a PhD in media studies and is a member of the Television Critics Association. To comment on Stay Tuned, email her at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter at @MelissaCrawley.