The Pitch: Mad Men Pitching For Ad Agency New Business

Real ad agencies take the veil off the new-business-review process and it isn’t pretty.

“The Pitch”, is a new reality show featuring two agencies, McKinney and WDCW, who are competing for a Subway assignment. The new business pitch is the way agencies win most of their business and grow.  The sneak peaks of The Pitch is an edited version of the creative process of both agencies that builds toward the pitch and then declaration of the winner.

Subway ends up choosing McKinney and CMO describes how he and his marketing team reached their decision. The program hopes to capitalize on the popularity of Mad Men with a “reality TV” version that will premiere following an episode of Mad Men.

Neil Genzlinger in his blistering New York Times article says,

“The ideas that multiple, fully clothed teams at the two agencies produce may leave you wondering why it takes so many people to come up with relatively unexciting stuff. McKinney’s biggest inspiration isn’t even its own; it plucks some home-made rapper off YouTube.”

From an agency’s perspective, the show vividly displays the inequities of the free pitch process. Avi Dan, former New Business Director for three global agencies, Saatchi & Saatchi, Berlin Cameron United, and Euro RSCG stated in a recent Forbes article,

The worse thing about pitching is that agencies give away for free their highest value product – their strategic thinking. Attempting to make up for the financial gamble that participating in a pitch entails, agencies try to make a profit off implementation work. The problem is that the implementation is often a commodity. It reduces the client-agency relationship to a more transactional level, of buyer and vendor. And as time marches on and agency margins drop, the cost of doing business for the agency goes up, putting further strain on the relationship. That can be directly traced to the willingness of agencies, unique among service providers, to give their product away for free.”

Both principals of the winning and losing agency shared their thoughts after reading Avi’s article:

The Winner

“The only thing I take issue with is the notion that our highest value product is our strategic thinking. As much as we value strategy, it’s just a path to great work!

Short of dramatic changes to the anti-trust laws, there’s no way our industry can come together to battle the issues you outlined.

So your solution is the only viable choice: do as much as you can to qualify whether the prospect is worth pursuing, say no to those who aren’t and commit to win the ones you go after. It’s a formula that has worked well for us.”

Brad Brinegar
Chairman & CEO

 The Loser

“Our agency was one of the competitor’s on last night’s peek of AMC’s “The Pitch.” I agree that the current pitch process is insidious. But the truth is this process won’t stop until all of the ad agencies in America unilaterally agree to stop giving their ideas away for free in hopes of gaining an advantage in a pitch. I spent my formative years at Ogilvy/New York and Goodby, Silverstein & Partners/SF. I know the game.

I also know that “The Pitch” is the picture you get when you edit dozens of hours of video footage into 42 minutes, not including commercial breaks. And that viewers want “drama.” The ad industry seems to be coming down a little hard on the show … we should all lighten up.”

Tracy Wong, Chairman, WDCW

The following fifteen agencies agreed to appear on ‘The Pitch’:

The agency pitch process is long overdo for an overhaul. It is no surprise that a considerable number of agencies are venting their repressed anger through social media channels, after the airing of the sneak peek of The Pitch. The show vividly displays the inequities of the free pitch process and how it devalues our thinking.

For the small to mid-size agencies a “pitching for new business strategy” is certainly is not in their best interest. I invite you to read “Blair Enns: 12 Revolutionary Proclamations for Ad Agency New Business.”

What are your thoughts about the pitch process? What solutions do you suggest? Feel free to share your comments below.

You may also be interested in some of the following articles on ‘The Pitch’:

Follow on Twitter: Brad Brinegar Tracy Wong  McKinney WDCW The Pitch

Check out and vote: Poll: Who Should’ve Won The Pitch

In case you missed it: Season 1 Sneak Preview: The Pitch

About Michael Gass

Consultant | Trainer | Author | Speaker

Since 2007, he has been pioneering the use of social media, inbound and content marketing strategies specifically for agency new business.

He is the founder of Fuel Lines Business Development, LLC, a firm which provides business development training and consulting services to advertising, digital, media and PR agencies.


  1. Charlene Prounis says:

    I totally agree that pitches for free are totally wrong and it’s time our industry does something about it. There was a time, when companies did pay a small stipend (10-15k), and we should as an industry push this forward. Whenever you give anything away for free, you devalue it and clients don’t give us the respect we deserve. I for one, would be very interested in working on this with other agency leaders in the pharma market.

  2. Thanks for sharing your thoughts Charlene. Hopefully these discussions will lead to some real action addressing the unfairness of the current pitch model.

  3. I understand, truly, the feelings behind much of this criticism of the pitch process as many agencies experience it. The sort of rules “the industry” might create would only serve to protect and enrich a guild of established agencies, while it would raise the barriers to entry for entrepreneurs. DIGO is sixteen years old. I remember what it was like to start and it was hard enough. It doesn’t seem fair to upstarts or clients, especially entrepreneurial clients, to take the nearest thing to pure evolution and ossify it, even a little. We chose to participate in The Pitch for our own reasons, and have so far really enjoyed and benefited from the experience. We’ll see how we feel after our show airs on June 4th. We participate in relatively few formal pitches – maybe one or two per year – and yet have grown every year since 2003. When we do pitch, we first carefully vet the client and the process, and we set our own rules of engagement, before committing. Frankly $15K doesn’t make a difference in our world. Time is much more valuable than a few bucks. Our strategic thinking may be our most valuable product, but we give it freely and without concern every day. There isn’t some storeroom with a limited inventory of smart ideas. We are smart and strategic every day and if you’re having lunch with us, you get us. Your ability to implement our strategic ideas and your ability to execute on them successfully — well, that is typically the outcome of an uncommon partnership. It’s much more rare. If you’re the sort of person or organization that wants to try it without us, that’s ok. There are plenty that will pay a fair amount for that partnership. Beyond that, anyone who thinks the implementation of strategic ideas — the media, reporting, optimizations, creative, design, production, development — is a commodity, just hasn’t seen it done right.

  4. ‘The Pitch’ as produced is a debacle. The structure of the show itself is a mistake as it attempts to document the process of pitching and winning an account in just one episode. That in itself minimizes our art and therefore presents it in an unfair and simplistic light. In my initial concept for the show, nearly four years ago, and written at the link below in 2009, demonstrates how the concept needed to be produced. By what I’ve seen so far, I am extremely disappointed in how our ‘amazing and necessary’ business is presented. To make this idea work, you need ‘A’ players, both from the agency side as well as the client side. And that unfortunately isn’t the case. The premiere was said to be the best in the series. Oh dear, what have we done?

  5. Peter, I like that ‘The Pitch’ has helped to start discussions within our industry about the unfairness of the current system for the agencies that feel compelled to pitch for new business. My hope is that it will help to lead to real change in what we are willing to do for new business opportunities.

  6. When an ad agency loses a pitch, like The Ad Store did with “Trash Can.” (which I loved), who owns the right to “Trash Can.” ? Can Waste Management eventually use it or is The Ad Store free to take that to a competitor? How does that work?

  7. Mike, most agency pitches that I have been associated with the losing agency didn’t lose its right to the creative it presented. That said there are rare exceptions where agency’s are asked to sign away their rights.

  8. Your Hive link is wrong. It’s

  9. We’ve watched every episode so far- with predictions before and reviews after each episode. We’re 1-5 on picking the winners- and with no regrets so far.
    The sophistication of the clients and their briefs have been the major problem, along with the overly dramatic edits by Studio Lambert.
    If this is how you are going to pick an agency to help grow your brand- you deserve to fail. The Pitch process is broken- and so is the show.
    We don’t think this has hurt any of the agencies – winning or losing- in fact, it may be the best PR they could get for a weeks work. The Ad Store showed us incredible brilliance not once, but twice- Boone Oakley and WDCW both reminded us what fun you can have going to work every day- and we’re looking forward to seeing Mark DiMassio’s DIGO have their turn tonight- here’s our prediction:

%d bloggers like this: