The Pitch: Creativity in Advertising

May 14, 2012
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AMC is hoping to capitalize on the Mad Men phenomenon with a new reality program, The Pitch. Using handheld camerawork to signify realism and a loud music score to heighten drama, each episode presents a contest between two advertising agencies to win an account. To enliven the scenes set in conference rooms, The Pitch uses unconventional camera angles and nonstandard shot framing. Like the ad agencies they are documenting, the producers of The Pitch want to be sure we know they are creative.

In advertising, the “creative” department makes the ads. Distinct from agency account executives (who service the client) or agency media buyers (who buy media time and space), the “creatives” are responsible for generating the advertising concept and executing it textually and visually. Through the first half of the twentieth century, copywriting departments produced text (“copy”), often guided by account executives, and art departments illustrated it. Historically, what is now called the creative was regarded as a service supplemental to media buying.

Before the 1960s, hard sell advertising predominated. Hard sell’s repetitive, annoying, grating “reasons why” to buy was the favored strategy when advertisers believed consumers were “stupid” and the market an undifferentiated mass. By the 1960s, however, advertisers realized that consumers could be sophisticated and that markets are varied and segmented. Advertisers turned to the strategies of subtle, humorous, high concept, and emotionally appealing soft sell advertising. Doyle Dane Bernbach’s 1960s Volkswagen ads, a humorous critique of 1950s hard sell automobile advertising, became the iconographic campaign of the “Creative Revolution.” Copywriters such as Bill Bernbach championed the idea that advertising is an art, not a science.

The post-1960s emphasis on creativity solves a problem for the ad industry. Despite the scientistic behaviorism dominating market research, advertisers cannot predict which advertising appeals will resonate with consumers. So if advertising is not a science but an art, creative advertising may succeed where data-driven advertising may not. Hence, since the 1960s the creatives have rhetorically positioned themselves not as instrumentalists pursuing selling goals but as artists expressing authentic meaning because only though artistry will advertising succeed in touching and moving consumers.

As depicted in The Pitch, the advertising industry is a hotbed of artistic romanticism. In each episode, two agencies meet a client, who explains a marketing problem. The agencies retreat to their offices to develop an advertising concept and a pitch to win the account. Scenes of brainstorming follow, intercut with talking heads explaining themselves directly to the camera. Finally, each agency presents its pitch and one wins the account.

Dramatic tension centers on which agency can prove they are the most creative. Their creativity, however, must be rooted in authenticity, as one agency leader explains in episode 102: “It doesn’t need to be clever, it needs to be honest.” In fact, being glib could undermine them: “We don’t want to outsmart ourselves with clever lines.”

Creative success in advertising should reflect a commitment to meaning; referring to a creative director, another explains, “He’s not in it for the power or the ego, he’s in it for the work.” Referring to careers in advertising, one man explains, “If you’re not committed, if you’re not passionate, you’re not going to be here a long time.” Passion, the byword of the creative industries, is something that cannot be learned. As one agency director explains, “You can’t teach passion, you have to hire passion.”

For one creative director, “The creative process is baring your soul.” Describing pitching to potential clients, another explains, “When you get up in front of them to present your ideas, it’s like being naked and hoping they don’t laugh at you.” Hence, whatever instrumental goal they may be working towards, such as improving the public image of a trash company or selling Subway breakfast sandwiches, these advertising makers insist on their artistic integrity, claiming “the work” is an authentic revelation of self.

The cult of romanticism, and its rhetorical strategies of passion and soulfulness, will continue to thrive in advertising because advertisers are not able to predict which ideas resonate with consumers, despite market research data. The Pitch documents the legacy of the Creative Revolution by showing proponents of creativity in advertising insisting on the value of artfulness over scientism.  Whether or not we believe that the advertising creatives featured in The Pitch believe in the authenticity of their creative work, they are certainly selling it. Hard.


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3 Responses to “ The Pitch: Creativity in Advertising ”

  1. Erin Hill on May 14, 2012 at 10:56 AM

    I am watching this show, too, and think it’s interesting. Liked the perspective offered here on art v. science and advertisers discussions of their creativity. Have to say that I absolutely believe they believe in the authenticity of their creative work. I think believing that their work is creative is what makes it possible for them to do it. If they think of themselves as schills, they don’t have the same sense of purpose. You can see this to lesser extents in all sorts of ancillary areas (agencies, marketing and research, etc.) of creative industries, where people rationalize the work they do by saying it allows them to be creative, or to work with creative people.

    I think the creative teams at these ad companies are absolutely creative. Far more debatable to me is the question of whether what they do is art, or whether it’s as purely creative as their self-theorizing holds. So I really appreciated the use of the words art and artful here, as well as your discussion of these creative teams’ rhetorical framing of the work as passionate and message-focused.

    • Cynthia Meyers on May 14, 2012 at 3:47 PM

      Thanks for your comments! Romanticism emphasizes “art for art’s sake” and so I’d argue it is often deployed to downplay the more instrumental aims of art making (such as profit or fame). Obviously, admakers aren’t making “art for art’s sake,” but then, neither are most “artists.” Commercialism supports most culture production, and the persistence of the romanticist discourse in creative industries is one way to have that cake (of being creative) and eat it too (make a living). I have argued elsewhere that commercialism itself does *not* degrade culture (

      Ad creatives sometimes compare themselves to Michelangelo and their advertising clients to the Pope. Yes, advertisers pay for the creation of new culture and that economic relationship might include some constraints on creativity. But look at the Sistine Chapel!

      Despite the self-importance of many of these creatives–are they really creating the contemporary version of the Sistine Chapel?–I think we should be careful not to laugh too hard at their efforts to find meaning in their work. As academics “pitching” our work at conferences and publishers and colleagues, maybe we can find more to relate to than not!

  2. […]  here to read my blog post about  The Pitch at the University of Wisconsin’s media blog, […]