DURHAM — How’s this for irony? This Sunday’s premiere episode of AMC’s new unscripted series based on competing advertising agencies, features McKinney, the Triangle firm whose offices are housed in Durham’s old Lucky Strike factory.
Roger Sterling, the fictional ad man famously jilted by that cigarette maker in a Season 4 episode of AMC’s “Mad Men,” would be proud. Or appalled.
“The Pitch,” a reality-competition series designed to capitalize on the cult-like following of “Mad Men,” aims to show fans of that series what it’s like to work accounts and present winning ad pitches in the modern world.
McKinney, a nationally prominent agency that relocated its offices from downtown Raleigh to the American Tobacco complex in Durham in 2004, will appear on the first season of “The Pitch,” along with 15 other firms from across the country.
The AMC network in recent years has become synonymous with high quality television, thanks to prestige dramas such as “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad,” and “The Walking Dead.” The cable network ventured into non-scripted programming with “Comic Book Men,” based on happenings in a comic book store owned and operated by filmmaker Kevin Smith. Now, AMC has “The Pitch.”
The McKinney episode airing 11 p.m. Sunday is a sneak peek before the series returns in an earlier time slot on April 30. For many “Mad Men” fans (and they are a passionate lot), it will be a first taste of reality programming on one of their favorite networks.
So, no pressure.
‘The Pitch’ concept
In each installment of “The Pitch,” two ad agencies get one week to develop an ad campaign for a major client. It begins with a briefing from the client, followed by a hectic week of work, then ends with each firm back in front of the client to make its pitch. The client chooses the winner.
“The Pitch” was produced by the company responsible for “Undercover Boss,” a business-friendly reality show on CBS, and filmed by crews who worked on acclaimed documentaries for ESPN’s “30-for-30” and HBO’s “24/7” series.
Jonathan Cude, McKinney’s chief creative officer (their Don Draper, in other words), figures prominently in Sunday night’s episode. He says McKinney was approached about taking part in the series last year, and after weighing the pros and cons, the company decided the chance to show the world what kind of agency it is on national television was worth any potential risk.
“We were ourselves, but the reality of reality TV is that you never know how you’re going to come off looking,” Cude says. “We ask our clients to overcome their doubts and sometimes push into areas that are uncomfortable for them in breaking new ground, so we thought it was only right that we did the same for ourselves.”
BooneOakley, an ad agency in Charlotte, competes in the May 14 episode.
Filming began at McKinney’s offices in December. Five members of the McKinney team flew to Milford, Conn., to get briefed alongside their competing firm, WDCW out of Long Island, New York. Their client: Subway.
Cude says the show’s accelerated timeline meant work on the campaign actually began in the car on the way to the airport, immediately upon leaving the Subway offices.
In a real-life situation, an agency would get much more than one week to produce an entire campaign, but Cude says the ramped up deadline and all-nighters and didn’t faze his team.
“The Pitch” crew filmed more than 100 hours at the Durham office. All of that, plus comparable filming at their competitor’s office, will boil down to about 42 minutes of television. Cude estimates at least 40 of the McKinney’s 200 employees worked on the Subway pitch, but fewer than 10 of them are featured in the episode.
Is it like ‘Mad Men’?
Apart from a few pieces of midcentury-modern furnishings in McKinney’s lobby, its space in the old Lucky Strike factory bears little resemblance to the 1960s offices seen on “Mad Men.”
There’s no bickering at McKinney over who has the larger office, as there is on “Mad Men.” With the nearly 70 different communal meeting spaces and work nooks spread out across the firm’s 72,000-square-foot space, there’s hardly a need to be in your office at all.
The hard-drinking ad men (and women) at “Mad Men’s” fictional firm would certainly appreciate McKinney’s in-house pub, but probably not the restrictions on it. The bar serves only beer and wine – sorry, no highballs – and exists primarily for the company’s Pub Thursday events, weekly gatherings for the entirely 21-and-older staff that last just two hours.
Cude thinks one of the biggest differences in the ad world now and the one depicted in “Mad Men” is pace.
“It was a very different time,” he says. “The speed with which the world operates now is so much greater.”
In the days of “Mad Men,” most of the major ad agencies were located in Manhattan. (The title comes from the fact that many were on Madison Avenue.) But all of that began shifting in the 1980s. Now, Cude says, “Great advertising can be born anywhere.”
“The Pitch” includes agencies from New York; Toronto; Seattle; Los Angeles; Austin, Texas; Las Vegas and Omaha, Neb., in addition to Durham and Charlotte.