"The Pitch" - When a Win Isn't a Win

by Brian Castle

As we’ve expanded our work in the area of marketing services for the companies we serve in other areas such as industrial design, ideation, and other aspects of product development, we often turn our admiring eyes on the work that other fine companies do in marketing, advertising, and public relations activities.

Recently, AMC, the network known for its 60s ad agency drama, “Mad Men,” launched a new agency reality series called “The Pitch.” While most reality television involves people who really shouldn’t be on television in the first place, the participants in “The Pitch”—creative professionals representing mid-sized agencies from across the country are offering a window into their intense, inspiration-fueled world where the next big idea can make or break a company’s future.

In the pilot episode, Durham’s own McKinney battled against a Los Angeles-based agency, WDCW, for a new piece of business at Subway aimed at getting 18-24-year-olds to eat breakfast.  In last week’s premiere episode, SK+G of Las Vegas battled the Ad Store of New York for the opportunity to rebrand global garbage giant Waste Management.

It’s readily apparent, in just minutes of watching, that these agencies are loaded with great talent. They’ve all won multiple awards for branding and advertising Fortune 500 companies and their products and services, and in recent years, they’ve flexed out their services to capture hearts and minds in interactive spaces across the internet, leveraging sites, video, animation, and social media.

What’s interesting to find at this level of the advertising/marketing world is how the high stakes and resulting pressure affect the creative culture of the respective firms involved in the series. While all of the agencies exhibit masterful levels of collaborative force in the end, they seem to all embrace a spirit of competition in order to get to a collaborative point to reach creative assets and deliverables.

More simply put, they seem to pit the sometimes willing and other times unwilling egos and personalities of individual people against each other.  In effect, they are transferring the high stakes and competition that the agency faces versus the opposing agency to their own creatives, forcing an internal battle of wills. The results of this stress transfer are telling—a slew of negative emotions, backroom meetings, and ill will toward colleagues viewed as obstacles between creatives grabbing a win for themselves, and, thus, the agency.

With every agency involved, it seems, the people are put at risk as potential collateral damage—someone always loses in a competition, after all—to the agency taking the battle. The individuals end up sacrificing their families, experiencing sleep and eating deprivation along the way, and souring existing relationships.  It should be noted that in the end, everyone seems okay, but as a viewer, you have to wonder about the obvious groundwork that’s been laid for heavy blows to self-esteem, team demolition (as opposed to team-building), and creative firepower.

We view all of these dynamics, of course, through our own lens at Trig Innovation, a place where we’ve carefully cultivated a set of values that we not only uphold, but are completely unwilling to sacrifice. One of those values, collaboration, is perhaps the one we hold most dear, especially as we think about our team and the individuals who are so critical to its success.

We’re not a group of Pollyannas who view collaboration on critical client projects—or internal projects that promote our company as walks in the park. The clash of ideas is often that—a clash.  We agree that tension has a place in the creative process—it’s natural that, in order to brew up a set of good ideas and distill down to the great ones, companies must require people to assert and defend their ideas with an almost assault mentality.

However, we all still have to remember that we’ll all be here, living together, working together, when each piece of work reaches completion. To that end, we require, with the same amount of force, a true spirit of fun and collegiality during the heat of battle.

We know from seeing several firms duke it out that high levels of tension in these types of organizations are almost allowed as “part of the game.” And we also know that there’s a potential in us not accepting that norm, that we may lose something in our work. If that’s the case, then so be it. But we like to think that our work is not only quite good, that it’s great. And it’s great because of the way we collaborate, taking the best inspiration from our people and from our clients. We think having fun, being collegial, and challenging people lift each other up—even during the hottest times of a battle for great ideas—is a winning formula.

Brian Castle