Try before you buy: a client’s guide to ethical free pitching

At a time when the government is considering ditching mandatory creative, artistic and technical subjects in school, my thoughts turn to the wider health of the creative industry in this country.

This industry, when you include sub-sectors such as advertising, film and music, contributes £71 billion to the national economy. Yet despite this, there are many challenges facing it. In particular, there is one that is hindering creative agencies’ ability to stay afloat, pay well and attract the best talent:

Free creative pitching.

This is the practice where potential clients pit agencies against each other and expect them to start solving the brief without pay or the guarantee of further work.

Although some pitches are remunerated and some don’t require the ‘creative’ element, most in my experience are both unpaid and creative. And these are always problematic for agencies.

The entertaining short film below highlights the absurdity of offering free services with the vague hope of getting paid sometime down the line:

The dream is, of course, that free creative pitching dies a quick death. But I realise that it is here to stay, at least for the short to medium term. Sadly, the industry won’t change overnight.

So what does an agency do when a brief comes in for this type of pitch? If they’re an agency with the international clout of Erik Spiekermann, for example, they tell them they don’t work for free. But most agencies don’t have that ace in the pack.

So they weigh up the pros and cons of accepting a free pitch. There’s a well known set of criteria that many use to determine this:

  • Fame – will the quality of work enhance their reputation and fulfil them creatively?
  • Fun – will working on the project be a pleasurable experience, with a harmonious client relationship based on aligned attitudes and ambitions?
  • Fortune – will the budget allow them to work in the way they want, and pay fairly for the time and resources spent?

But even this is not enough to be truly confident in the value of taking the pitch on. The last point is particularly fuzzy, and very hard to quantify.

On the one hand, creative pitches always require a lot of resource. Providing potential routes, whether visual design, concepts or prototypes, is a huge burden on most agencies just trying to deliver paying work for existing clients. But conversely, the lure of securing the full, paying project could offset that initial outlay.

Unfortunately, I often see clients abusing the situation, squeezing as much out of the agency in that unpaid phase of the project. Yet despite the numbers not quite adding up, many smaller agencies feel they have to go along with this practice and make the best of a bad situation.

In these circumstances, the expectations of both parties need to be brought closer together.

Although there are many pitch guides out there to help agencies make the right decisions, there isn’t much to educate and guide clients. So below is a guide for prospective clients who require the services of a creative, comms or digital agency, formed from over 13 years’ experience of agency-side pitching:

1  Limit the competition

Get your longlist down to a shortlist, and then down to a shorter list still. There should be no more than three agencies on the final creative pitch list. The odds are already stacked against agencies, with less than half a chance of being appointed. Don’t make them longer.

2  Include only realistic candidates

Often that third (or fourth or fifth) agency is an afterthought to the team compiling the pitch list. They need agencies to make up the numbers, or perhaps their inclusion appears to cover all bases. If there is no real intention to hire the agency, don’t put them on the list.

3  Communicate your budget

Agencies have different overheads and different rates. A large central London agency will cost more than a small rural outfit. Have an idea of what you want to spend and let agencies on your longlist know what it is. Even if it’s a range, it gives them a chance to negotiate or even pull out of the pitch if their figures and yours are too far apart. After an agency has spent countless hours and evenings working on your brief, dreaded is the response ‘your fee proposal was way outside of our budget’.

4  Allow enough time

During a pitch, agencies have to prove themselves with one hand tied behind their back. Not only are they unable to complete the initial discovery phase thoroughly, where they can speak to stakeholders, interview key consumers and interrogate the motives of the brief, there is also little time to allow great creative ideas to ferment and take shape. This reduces their chances of making their efforts chime with you. Don’t end up disappointed in the work.

5  Keep it to one round

There are enough hoops for agencies to jump through. A second (or even third) round of pitching, with the number of competitors marginally reduced, won’t help an already stretched creative team or their morale. Be decisive (a quality that, once appointed, will be admired by the agency as they get stuck into the meat of the project).

6  Provide speedy feedback

Respond quickly and when promised. Even if it’s a ‘no’, they appreciate this more than having to badger you for an answer after a lengthy period of radio silence. Weeks or even months of uncertainty regarding their new business pipeline is an interminably long time for an agency to plan ahead.

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These six points may or may not appear obvious, but adhering to them will contribute to a more peaceful coexistence between potential clients and creative agencies, allowing them to establish long lasting and mutually respectful relationships.

And helping our valuable creative industry stay above the water will benefit everyone in our wider economy.

So go on, make it easy for agencies to say ‘yes’ to a free, creative pitch.