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September 18, 2014

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In winning ‘The Pitch,’ SK+G makes Waste Management an offer it can’t refuse

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Kim Christensen / AMC

SK+G executive Doug Hentges, shown during a scene from “The Pitch,” filmed at the Waste Management Corporate Offices in Houston, Texas, on Nov. 19, 2011.

Las Vegas Sk+G on AMC's 'The Pitch'

The SK+G team, shown in a scene from Launch slideshow »

SK+G "The Pitch"

Jim Gentleman, Ellen Curtis, Jerry Kramer, John Schadler and Doug Hentges of the Las Vegas-based ad company SK+G on Monday, April 23, 2012. SK+G is going to be featured on AMC's new TV series Launch slideshow »
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John Schadler, left, and Jerry Kramer are the founders of the Las Vegas-based ad company SK+G. SK+G is going to be featured on AMC's new TV series "The Pitch."

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The SK+G team, shown in a scene from "The Pitch," filmed at the Waste Management Corporate Offices in Houston, Texas, on Nov. 19, 2011.

Click to enlarge photo

Jim Gentleman, left, and Jerry Kramer in a scene from "The Pitch," filmed at the Waste Management Corporate Offices in Houston, Texas, on Nov. 19, 2011.

Click to enlarge photo

SK+G's Jim Gentleman, shown in a scene from "The Pitch," filmed at the Waste Management Corporate Offices in Houston, Texas, on Nov. 19, 2011.

If for no other reason, feel happy for Doug Hentges that Las Vegas advertising agency SK+G won tonight’s faceoff with a top New York firm in the unscripted AMC series “The Pitch.”

A creative director at SK+G, Hentges is not a TV personality and has never sought a role in which his life would be recorded purely for entertainment purposes. Nonetheless, Hentges was treated to quite a ride in the two-week filming process conducted by Studio Lambert, the production company contracted by AMC to video-stalk the staff at SK+G.

Somehow, the cameras loved to capture the guy with the tousled hair while he winced, glared at co-workers (or at least one co-worker), sighed, ducked out of the office to see his frustrated family and tossed out ideas (chiefly, suggesting “Join the Evolution” as the campaign tagline) that were met with grim silence.

But in the end, it was a game-changing presentation fronted by Hentges that led officials from Waste Management, the country’s largest collector of waste materials, to choose SK+G over the Ad Store of New York in the documentary-style competition.

“I watched the show with my hands over my eyes, peering through my fingers,” Hentges said during a phone interview this week, having long known SK+G was awarded the Waste Management contract. “During the course of the show, I might have said a thousand brilliant things, but you have no control of the edits. So, yeah, they pick the one thing that isn’t the brilliant idea, and that makes the show.”

Even so, in the show’s final moments, Hentges unrolled a multileveled campaign that featured a nifty mobile application and an effective online ad blitz, along with more traditional print and TV spots, to wow WM officials. That was the operative word — “wow” — in a tagline arrived at communally among SK+G reps: “Turning Waste Into Wow.”

In agreeing to participate in the show from the same network that airs the terrific advertising-centered “Mad Men,” SK+G partners John Schadler and Jerry Kramer were happy to give the cable show an under-the-carriage look at how the “shop” arrives at ideas and executes an ad campaign. The brainstorming process that led to “Turning Waste Into Wow” started sluggishly but was given some life after Hentges floated his “evolution” idea.

“With the cameras around,” he recalled, “nobody wanted to speak. I just threw that out there.”

The result was a campaign that included an iPhone application that would blend a print ad and video clip. The user tilts the phone sideways and places it over the mouth of a celebrity spokesman shown in a full-page print ad. When launching the app, you see and hear the spokesman shout, “Did you know that Waste Management turns your trash into fuel? Waaaaaaoooow!”

That approach was slicker, and far more sophisticated, than the “Trash Can” tagline and more directly fashioned TV spot produced by the Ad Store. "Trash Can," as in, “What can light these four corners for a night? Trash can.” Having made it clear they wanted an entire rebranding effort produced rather than a traditional ad campaign, the WM execs were unimpressed at the two-word message, “Trash Can.”

Both agencies had to work fast and log often ridiculous hours. Kramer said it took about two days for the SK+G staff to feel comfortable in the 14-day shooting schedule, which spanned November and December. Crews often shot 14 hours per day, recording select staff members at home. When they were able to go home, at least.

The most compelling moments of the episode centered on the home lives of Hentges and the Ad Store founder Paul Cappelli. It is revealed, more than halfway through the show, that Cappelli and Ad Store copywriter Steven Crutchfeld have been romantic partners for more than 15 years. Cappelli says that if the Ad Store — a highly regarded ad agency that has developed TV spots for Coca-Cola, Mike’s Hard Lemonade, Jet Blue and Go Daddy — does not land a major account, the shop will close in three months.

“If that happens, I’m afraid Steven will think that I have failed him, and myself,” Cappelli says.

Not everyone was so thoroughly vetted on camera. SK+G Senior Vice President and Managing Director Ellen Curtis gets plenty of face time, and she was in the room at the initial meeting with WM officials and the final pitch session. But on the final edit, she says … nothing.

“I was miked the entire time and they talked to my family, but I think we were too even-keeled for the process,” she said, chuckling. “It’s just insane how many hours of footage they have.”

Hentges was shown ducking out of the SK+G offices late one night, with much of the staff poring over the WM account, so he could see his two young children. In the scene, his young daughter is clamped around his neck as he tries to return to work, and his son cries, “Daddy, I don’t want you to do that!”

“The scene was actually so much worse,” Hentges said. “They were clinging to my legs, and I looked at the camera guys. They were grinning.”

But the staging of the show is evident as Hentges’ counterpart, Ray Johnson, tells Kramer that there has been a temporary defection among the SK+G creative team. Kramer professes shock that Hentges actually left the team with so much work to finish on such a high-priority project. The problem is light is shining on both men through a large window in the background, meaning that the conversation was staged or Hentges has been missing in action for eight hours or so.

The televised tension between Johnson and Hentges, too, was highly exaggerated. At one point, Hentges says of Johnson, who is no longer with the agency and has moved to Chicago, “He’s like Dr. House: He’s an a**hole, but he’s a crazy-smart a**hole.” Hentges and Johnson were frequently shown disagreeing about the direction of the project, and Johnson seems to cut through Hentges’ final presentation to WM execs during the crucial pitch meeting.

“It was reality in that nothing was fake or scripted,” but when you take two weeks of cameras following you around, it doesn’t feel real,” Hentges said. “Ray is brilliant, and we get along great, but when my wife saw the show, she asked me, ‘How did you ever work with Ray?’”

Another uncommon segment was the face-to-face meeting between agencies at the top of the show. Five members of SK+G sat across a conference table from two men from the Ad Store, led by Cappelli.

"To sit across from them in a board room, feeling that we want to beat these guys, was unusual," SK+G Senior Vice President of Strategy and Account Management Jim Gentleman said. "When you’re in a real-life situation, you don’t normally sit down with a competing agency. It was uncomfortable but cordial."

What could not be manufactured was SK+G’s performance in a very tight window to produce an innovative campaign that effectively rebranded a wide-ranging company.

“After the fact, they said they never had an agency produce something they felt so accurately represented how they saw themselves,” Kramer said. “We crawled inside their brand.”

SK+G’s commitment to WM culminates with the airing of commercials after tonight’s episode. But the waste-to-energy company might well enlist the Las Vegas agency for future campaigns.

“Everyone hires you for what you did yesterday,” Kramer said. “The truth is, the reason we were successful is we were able to adapt and show we can work in any available vertical.”

Kramer founded SK+G 15 years ago. As he said at the end of the show, “This may be the biggest moment for this agency since we started.”

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at Twitter.com/JohnnyKats. Also, follow “Kats With the Dish” at Twitter.com/KatsWithTheDish.

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