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The Desperation of AMC's The Pitch Hits Close to Home for Real-Life Ad Men

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If Mad Men is an adman's dream*, then The Pitch is his nightmare. I speak from experience, being a guy who works in advertising, at an agency. In fact, the mere concept of The Pitch is so depressing to me that I actively avoided season one, as did most of the industry colleagues I know.

The reason? A sense of desperation that hits too close to home.

Sure, desperation is a built-in component of nearly every reality show there is. How else do you explain the behavior of people who flock to be cast members of programs with the full knowledge that they will be humiliated, if they're lucky, in front of millions? The modern-day freakshow, reality shows exploit multiple sources of desperation: for fame, for riches, to lose weight, and to succeed in business.

With other programs, I am completely disconnected from the cast and therefore free to enjoy the train-wreck like everybody else. But when the entertainment is extracted from the real issues that plague my industry, then my enjoyment dissipates and it's replaced by sadness. I feel more shame than schadenfreude. It's impossible for me to think about The Pitch without wondering what awful circumstances motivated these professionals to toss out their self-worth and let the network who made an actual reality show about freaks have a laugh at their expense.

Of course, The Pitch uses that desperation to mine juicy storylines. While most of the agencies featured are just small, scrappy shops with grander aspirations, episode two of the coming season features an agency owner who lost his home and was forced to move into the office after two ex-employees were caught stealing from him.

But the cynicism that's found in most reality television is not the real culprit here. The truth, which The Pitch has no trouble exposing, is that there is actually a lot of genuine desperation in advertising. The process of finding "the big idea" is a lot like groping around in the dark. It's clumsy and unpredictable. And then there's the selling of an idea, wherein you try to convince a client to invest real dollars in an idea that, like all ideas, is really just gamble.

This desperation is heightened in a new business pitch. The agency and the client don't know one another yet, and so the agency is often left trying to guess what the client wants. Though The Pitch tends to focus on which agency comes up with the best idea, most people in advertising will tell you that pitches are won and lost based on chemistry. It's less about which agency went away and came back with a great idea, and more about which agency the client wants to work with.

Additionally, the new business pitch process is also the source of considerable frustration within the industry. Amongst the most serious grievances are the fact agencies work hundreds or thousands of hours, for no pay, and the client is free to use all ideas even, even those submitted by the losers. When you consider that clients are firing their agencies faster than ever before, you can understand the why the small agencies featured on The Pitch are willing to risk their reputation in order to gain national exposure.

So for all of my skepticism going in, it was much to my surprise that I found myself actually enjoying the first couple of episodes of season two. One of the shows strengths is that, unlike most reality television, much of what's captured actually seems authentic. Absent are easy, contrived storylines like bickering co-workers, or inter-agency rivalries. And rather than poke fun at the people who come up with the duds that are inevitably part of every creative process, The Pitch takes the high road and celebrates the stumbles that lead to the a-ha moment.

Unlike the embarrassing season one promo that featured overly dramatic, made-for-TV characters who spoke of their jobs in life and death terms, the people in season two seem, by and large, pretty normal. They know that advertising is meant to be fun, and co-workers seem to have a genuine rapport.

If all that sounds a bit too dry, that may well be true. As much as I enjoy working in advertising, I'm not sure how much entertainment value there is between two small companies trying to win a minor, one-off project. But I like my reality shows to be real. I generally would rather find the good in people than exploit their flaws. And I'm sort of relieved that The Pitch is way better than the blight on our industry that I'd taken it for. Perhaps last year's promos are to blame, in which case AMC really needs to find a new advertising agency.

*Only if you're white, male, and unfazed by discrimination.