‘The Pitch’ Recap: BooneOakley Battles Conversation for PopChips

By Bob Marshall 

Just four episodes into its first season, is it possible that the days are already numbered for AMC’s advertising reality show, The Pitch? After two weeks in the Monday, 10pm/9c time slot, the cable network seems to have permanently shifted The Pitch, now scheduling it to air on Sundays at 11pm/10c.

Obviously, this is a strategic move to glean viewers from Mad Men, which airs an hour earlier. But, AMC must also be hoping that America will actually stay up watching TV until midnight before they have to go to work the next day. In any case, this abrupt scheduling change surely caused many fans of the show to miss maybe this season’s most anticipated episode, which featured one of the country’s most talked-about young agencies and a food brand that’s recently shown us it’s willing to take risks to get noticed. (SPOILERS AHEAD!!!)

New York-based “emerging media experts” Conversation (clients include L’Oreal and Children’s Place) and Charlotte, NC-based BooneOakley, the Bojangles AOR which has done work in the past for Mizuno–now at fellow Pitch alums McKinney–and Ruby Tuesday; they literally blew up the latter’s restaurants) star in this latest episode. Both fly to San Francisco to receive the creative brief from Keith Belling, the CEO of fast-growing snack food, PopChips. Belling takes pride in his product, telling the agencies, “Our brand is about innovation and fresh ideas” before unveiling the brief: Create a digital video or interactive campaign that people will want to share. Luckily, “viral” is something that Conversation and BooneOakley count among their specialties.

At the brief, we’re introduced to Greg Johnson, BooneOakley’s CMO who came to the agency after helping build Nike’s Jordan Brand apparel line. With Johnson, we see, for the first time in this series, someone asking the client strategic questions like “Who’s the target?” After the brief, BooneOakley’s co-founders and CCOs, John Boone and Dave Oakley, both praise Johnson’s strategic thinking, considering their CMO an integral part of the agency’s success. Suddenly, while Boone and Oakley stare out at the San Francisco Bay with the moonlight aggressively reflecting off of their blonde hair, they receive a call that Johnson’s been rushed to the hospital with stomach pains.

Johnson’s illness results in getting his gallbladder removed, keeping him out of commission during almost the entire creative process. How big is the loss of Johnson to BooneOakley? Well, if we’re to believe AMC’s portrayal, both John Boone and Dave Oakley turn into confused, easily distracted children without their CMO by their side.

The duo are seen struggling to brief their agency upon returning to North Carolina, seemingly unable to verbalize what PopChips wants. Then, as the agency transitions into brainstorming mode, both copywriter Keith Greenstein and account exec Jennifer Yancey worry aloud to the camera that their bosses need Johnson to keep them on track. These concerns are interspersed with shots of Boone and Oakley playing with bubble wrap and a remote-controlled helicopter. Yancey even says point blank to the camera, “What the hell is going on?”

After we watch John Boone play guitar in his church band, we see Johnson return to the agency in a weakened state. Did Greenstein call him in with an S.O.S? It’s implied, but as Johnson is obviously in need of additional medical attention, he returns home after calling some of the discussed tactical ideas “cool.” After Oakley suggests a bicycle with vinyl records for wheels, Yancey intervenes, saying the campaign needs to tie back to a defined strategy. Greenstein, inspired by playing with his children, says, “Life needs an element of fun.” This leads to the tagline “Make Life Pop,” and both Greenstein and Yancey are invited to fly to San Francisco to help pitch the presentation.

Compared to BooneOakley, Conversation gets very little screen time over the course of the episode. CEO and founder, Frank O’Brien, is portrayed as a bit of a tyrant, even saying that during the brief, “The questions the other agency asked were kiss-ass, which is very off-putting.” Of his own agency, he brags, “We’re usually the first to utilize new forms of media.” Um, can you prove it?

Directly after the brief, O’Brien returns to the agency with an idea: Create the longest and most-viewed viral video in history. Simple enough, right? Well, apparently this pisses off design director David Orellana, who voices his disapproval. O’Brien casually tells the camera that he doesn’t care about his employees’ opinions, and the internal conflict begins. At some point during the brainstorming process, Orellana leaves work to bang out his frustrations on his drum set, apparently leading him to the campaign concept “The Year of Pop.” O’Brien approves, and Conversation heads to the pitch.

At the pitch, BooneOakley unveils its pun, “Make Life Pop,” a platform that’s focused on making PopChips about fun instead of just snacking. The agency brings balloons to the pitch, asking the client to imagine if they unleashed balloons filled with PopChips on Grand Central Station. BooneOakley also brings bubble-wrap, which John Boone actually runs around on in the meeting room.

The agency even suggests a tactic where they create pop art masterpieces out of bags of PopChips. CEO Belling smartly asks BooneOakley what, if any, consumer insight is in play with this campaign. In response, Greenstein says that consumers foremost respect companies that exude “goodness,” and that this inherent goodness consumers desire “is inside each and every one of us.” Despite this being incredibly sappy speech made during a vigorous adult show-and-tell session, PopChips seems to see this as a pretty adequate response.

Conversation then gives their “The Year of Pop” presentation, which initially (DRAMATIC) falls victim to a spotty WiFi connection. The campaign is both simple and vague: Tell consumers through digital and traditional media that they have an opportunity to take part in the biggest viral video in history. This is done by consumers uploading their own user generated content to PopChips site, which will then become part of the video.

At this point, I would ask the agency, “What kind of content are we asking consumers for? How can we guarantee people will watch a giant, super-long viral video? How can we guarantee this becomes the biggest viral video in history? Who is going to vet the content? What does this have to do with PopChips?” But, Belling and company ask Conversation none of these questions, and instead laud the agency for its big idea thinking. O’Brien also mentions to the client that the campaign is turnkey, with the necessary microsite URLs already purchased by the agency. Smart move, O’Brien.

And now, your verdict:

Really, did either of these campaigns deserve to win? Sure, BooneOakley had some fun tactics, but there wasn’t a whole lot of strategy behind them to make “Make Life Pop” much of a cohesive campaign. Meanwhile, Conversation’s viral video idea didn’t make much actual sense. But, we can assume O’Brien casually mentioning that “The Year of Pop” was a turnkey campaign pricked up the ears of PopChips’ marketing directors. As Conversation celebrates their win, one employee says that even though he can be terrible to work with, it sometimes works out for Frank O’Brien. Ouch.

Additional Observations/Notes:

  • The theme of this episode might as well be “my boss is terrible” Really, could AMC make each of these agencies’ leaders look any more inept? For Boone, Oakley and O’Brien, this episode must have been hard to watch.
  • As this was filmed a few months ago, this campaign has no connection to PopChips’ online dating videos starring Ashton Kutcher, which were recently declared by the Internet to be “RAYCESS!!!”
  • Greg Johnson’s troublesome gallbladder already has its own Twitter account. Follow @Greg_GBladder if you feel so inclined.
  • AMC also filmed a short for this episode about a BooneOakley intern who lives at the agency. Watch it here.

What were your thoughts on the outcome, dear readers? Let us know in the comments section.