Last month New York design agency Porto Rocha launched an open call to “clients and professionals of the creative industry”, and created an online petition that said no to unpaid pitches in a bid to change the industry.
Since then, nearly 4,500 signatures have been added to the petition. “As a design agency specialising in commercial brand work, the past four years have given us access to some significant projects. But over the past year or so, we noticed a shift,” Felipe Rocha, founder and creative director of Porto Rocha, tells CR.
Rocha says potential clients started coming to the agency asking for a quick turnaround of unpaid work, labelling it as a “pitch”, a common practice in the ad industry for decades but a growing demand in the worlds of graphic design and branding. The agency took part in a handful of unpaid or low paid pitches last year; they didn’t work out despite the large amount of time, energy and labour that had gone into the presentations. So after sharing his frustrations online, he found a swathe of people who felt the same way.
The creative sees this shift as a result of the changing relationship between client and agency. “I’ve been working in the design industry for the past 16 years and can confirm clients are more demanding because a) the world is more complex and more competitive; b) digital tools have made it easier, faster and cheaper to create design; and c) design has become a crucial part of most contemporary businesses.”
During slower and less certain times like these, clients don’t shy away from taking advantage of agencies who are desperate for a project
No Free Pitches launched with a ten-point manifesto outlining the ethical and creative issues of the practice, including the unfair playing field it creates, the strain it can put on teams mentally, and the risk of putting creative ideas out into the world with no compensation, among other things.
“Besides the fact that businesses seem to have become more risk-averse post-pandemic, it has to do with supply and demand and how competitive the industry can get,” Rocha says on why free pitching has become so prevalent. “During slower and less certain times like these, clients don’t shy away from taking advantage of agencies who are desperate for a project.”
Rocha’s intention with No Free Pitches is to demonstrate that the industry can “come together to defend itself from an unfair practice”. By holding themselves accountable on an individual level, the idea is that this will have a collective impact that “starts conversations, sets boundaries and moves the needle”. “That said, we are aware that there is no way the entire industry can say no to pitching, because many still depend on that model or can’t afford to say no,” he acknowledges.
In the first 12 hours, the petition received 1,000 signatures from individuals not just from the design and ad industries but also from film and photography. “It made us realise that free pitching is a widespread issue in many other creative fields besides our own.”
While a solution is complex, for Rocha the ideal would be for “portfolio and interpersonal chemistry” to be enough to secure a new project. “Sometimes we also bring a presentation with insights and provocations about the brief to show how we might approach the challenge, without any design work,” he adds. “We often feel this is much more valuable than bringing a final solution because our best work happens when we fully understand the problem at hand, have the full picture, and create a space of trust and communication with our clients. That magical moment hardly ever occurs during a pitch process.”
With the petition still live and growing in signatures, Rocha and the team are hopeful the conversation it has sparked will help. “We’re not naïve of course, we don’t believe structural change will happen overnight because of a single website,” he says. “But if one person thinks twice before sending a request for unpaid work, we feel like we have already made some progress.”