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Originally published April 7, 2012 at 8:03 PM | Page modified April 8, 2012 at 6:17 PM

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Local ad agency rolls dice with reality-show role; state's retail sales get welcome boost

A Mad Men-inspired reality show about the ad business, 'The Pitch,' features local agency WDCW in its debut episode. And, Washington state's retail sales perked up last year, a welcome change from 2010.

By Seattle Times business staff

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Lying, scheming and big egos are the driving forces behind the plot of AMC's popular television show "Mad Men," which follows employees in the cutthroat world of 1960s advertising on Madison Avenue.

Seattle ad man Tracy Wong, whose modern-day agency is featured in a reality show that debuts after Mad Men this Sunday, says the business is well-suited for an unscripted show because pitching creative ideas typically comes with strong opinions and big conflict.

"Every piece of new business is like a gladiator fight. There's one person that ends up alive and everyone else is dead. This is how we live — pitch after pitch," says Wong.

In the first episode of "The Pitch," Seattle agency Wong, Doody, Crandall, Wiener (WDCW) competes with North Carolina ad agency McKinney to do an ad campaign for the national sandwich chain Subway.

Each episode of the TV series will feature two ad agencies producing an ad pitch for a major brand like Frangelico, Popchips and Waste Management.

The big players in the advertising world are notably absent from the show's roster. Wong, the chairman and executive creative director of WDCW, says he knows some agencies that were approached about participating turned the show down, because it's risky.

Revealing "the wizard behind the curtain" might have been a big fear, he suspects — what if the show revealed too much about how they produce successful ads or made their agency look bad?

"We knew we didn't have anything to hide," says Wong, a man in his early 50s who wears a tidy suit, oversized black-rimmed glasses and a black beaded bracelet.

Before he and Pat Doody started WDCW's predecessor, WongDoody, in 1993, Wong spent seven years on Madison Avenue at Ogilvy & Mather, working on big accounts such as American Express, Duracell and General Foods.

WDCW has since become the largest independent ad agency in Washington and the seventh largest on the West Coast, according to Advertising Age. Clients include national accounts like Alaska Airlines, T-Mobile and ESPN, as well as smaller advertisers such as the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) and Woodland Park Zoo.

It has 155 employees between the L.A. and Seattle offices, and does about $190 million a year in billings (the amount of advertising its clients buy through the agency) while revenues are running at an annual rate of $25 million.

The focal point of the firm's conference room is a wall that reads "the democracy of good ideas."

What the slogan means, says Wong, is that "anything is possible as long as no one cares who gets the credit. That's really important."

He said that at WDCW, "The democracy guarantees that everyone has a seat at the table. The democracy is supposed to remove people's egos."

But he says most ad agencies don't work that way.

"What you'll get in a lot of ad agencies is a lot of politics and a lot of backstabbing and a lot of tension," he says.

"You've got all those egos going around ... it's very difficult to have a stable, friendly, respectful culture because advertising will oftentimes draw people who are risk-takers or on the edge."

Below this slogan sit an array of awards on a shelf.

"As you can see, this is an industry that gives itself a lot of awards — I think because it's ego-driven," Wong said with a chuckle.

SIFF has worked with WDCW since 2004. Carl Spence, artistic director for SIFF, says the ad agency's ideas may seem at times "crazy," but are often "really brilliant."

The first campaign WDCW created for the eclectic film festival included a trailer that featured a gay samurai who gets crushed by a meteorite, says Spence.

"They're always looking for ways to break the mold and push the envelope," he adds.

"The Pitch" was filmed in the Los Angeles office of WDCW, but employees from the L.A. and Seattle locations worked on the show to produce print, social media, digital and television campaigns.

The final cut of the program only features the television campaign WDCW created for Subway, which was put together by a Seattle team.

The show set a 10-day deadline for creating the ad campaign, so the agencies weren't able to do as much research as they typically would, Wong says.

That's a tighter deadline than is typical, but Wong says the reality of balancing a big pitch with current projects was portrayed accurately.

"When you get into a pitch you suck a lot of resources up," he says. The whole team has to work longer hours to complete a pitch that might not even be picked up.

After watching the final cut of their episode, Wong says, he couldn't help but notice that the other agency participating got more airtime.

"With conflict comes drama," he says. "That's why the show exists. My concern is, we don't have a lot of conflict, and there's not a lot of drama with us."

Avoiding the drama in the agency isn't easy though, Wong says.

"As a creative person, you have attachment to what you made," he adds. "That's natural, it's ego-based, that's a part of the process."

But removing the ownership and the emotions that go along with that attachment to a creative idea can help it to grow, he says.

"That's sort of the mission here: to sort of have people let go, and if you let go of that, the idea will get better," Wong says.

— Erin Flemming, eflemming@seattletimes.com

State's retail sales show Q4 upturn

The state and King County economies looked positively perky in the last quarter of 2011, at least as far as taxable retail sales are concerned.

The state Revenue Department, which keeps close tabs on taxable sales for obvious reasons, reported this past week that statewide the total was up 4.2 percent, to $27.9 billion, compared with the same period in 2010.

In the four-county Puget Sound area, fourth-quarter taxable retail sales grew by 3.4 percent compared with the year-earlier period, to $17.1 billion — meaning the region accounts for nearly two-thirds of all taxable retail sales in Washington.

While the local area's taxable-sales growth lagged the statewide increase, it was still the strongest quarter in four years. Solid growth in King County (5.3 percent) helped offset sales declines in Pierce (-1.4 percent) and Kitsap (-0.8 percent) counties; taxable sales in Snohomish County rose 2.2 percent.

For all of 2011, Puget Sound-area taxable sales were up nearly 2.5 percent versus 2010; that was the first annual increase in the region's sales since 2007.

Several small counties posted the biggest rates of increase, led by tiny Garfield County. Taxable retail sales there quadrupled, from less than $8 million in the fourth quarter of 2010 to $32.5 million in 2011's final quarter.

Statewide, the Revenue Department reported, construction-industry sales rose 5.8 percent in the fourth quarter, to $4.3 billion.

Accommodations and food services rose 5.7 percent to $2.9 billion, while motor vehicles and parts rose 6.5 percent to $2.6 billion.

Another robust category was miscellaneous retailers (up 6.9 percent to $1.6 billion), which includes everything from mobile-home and pet-food retailers to heating-oil dealers and vending-machine operators.

Taxable sales at general merchandise stores, however, were up just 0.1 percent to $3.1 billion.

— Drew DeSilver, ddesilver@seattletimes.com

Comments? Send them

to Rami Grunbaum:

rgrunbaum@seattletimes.com

or 206-464-8541.

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