One of the most contentious practices when it comes to acquiring creative projects is the infamous free pitch, otherwise known as ‘spec work’. If you’ve worked in an agency, or even as a freelancer, at some stage or another you’ll probably have encountered this process of project acquisition wherein a prospective client sets a ‘test’ brief to gauge the skills of their creative vendor. Of course, the controversial part of this practice is that these assignments are unpaid.
Free pitching has long been a part of the creative industries. In fact, research indicates that 70% of clients expect free ‘sample’ work as part of the process of hiring an agency or a creative team. For the larger agencies that can afford it, participating in free pitches is part and parcel of acquiring new clients. Larger agencies can afford to absorb these costs, so they do.
FREE PITCHING IN THE CREATIVE INDUSTRIES
When I worked in New York, every day one team or another at the agency would be neck deep in a pitch of some kind. Typically, the process for a pitch at a big agency starts with a Request for Proposal (RFP) arriving in the inbox of the agency’s business development team. Once it has been decided that the agency will participate, a strategy and creative team are selected. They then hustle (usually in a short and intense period of time) to invent a creative solution to demonstrate the agency’s skillset.
The timelines for pitches are usually insane. On some occasions you may have days, on others mere hours to create a fully formed creative approach (or multiple options, in some cases). Everyone hunkers down together in a war room and the creative team gets to dream up the next big idea without having to worry about production or budgetary realities. I remember one occasion when the creative team were briefed on the creative at 6pm on a Thursday evening with the client presentation scheduled for 1pm on the following day. Unbelievably, the work ended up being quite good and we won the pitch. It sounds crazy, and it usually is. But pitching can also be a lot of fun for a creative team.
THE CASE AGAINST FREE PITCHING
Despite its ubiquity in the creative industries, and fun as it is for a creative team who can afford it, many people regard free pitching as a questionable practice, and there has been significant movement against it in recent years. Many see it as an exploitative practice; in the design industry in particular, organisations including the AIGA and No!Spec have taken a public stand against it. Their argument is clear: there is no other industry on earth where you can expect a service provider to work for days or weeks for free just to aid a decision-making process. You would not expect a free ‘sample’ meal from each of the five restaurants you’re considering for dinner on Friday night. Why would you expect that when picking a designer or creative agency?
As a designer or agency, should one take the high road and say no to a free pitch? Or is this a utopian fantasy? Should you simply chalk up free pitching as ‘the cost of doing business’, no different to taking a potential client to a fancy dinner?
WHY FREE PITCHING DOESN’T WORK
To be transparent with you, dear reader, it is the opinion of this author that free pitching is bad for the creative industries. It is a toxic practice that has simply become normalised over time. If you take a step back, the idea of giving a professional service away for free as a ‘trial run’ is ridiculous. Not only that, but free pitching is not an effective evaluation process for the client. In short, free pitching works in nobody’s favour. There are several reasons for this.
Free pitching devalues you and your work By providing creative work in such a time crunch, with minimal briefing, and with little to no user research or client collaboration, you are creating a woefully skewed impression of what it takes to create great work. This grossly devalues you and your creative work.
You risk being ripped off A client can simply appropriate any idea that is pitched and ask another agency or even their own in-house team to execute it more cheaply. I’ve seen this happen countless times.
Free pitching costs money and resources Although it is fine to pour money into business acquisition, the problem with free pitching is that you are investing money and resources into something that will likely be discarded. Pitch work takes time and energy away from real clients. It also sets bad habits for creative teams to just ‘make cool stuff’ rather than think critically and solve problems.
Perhaps more important than this author’s opinion or any creative industry view is the fact that creative pitching is also bad for the client. As fun as it is for creatives to create blue-sky solutions during the creative pitch, this method of evaluating an agency’s skills is useless for the client.
THE CHALLENGE WITH A ‘NO PITCH’ POLICY
However, while protesting the free pitch may be good in theory, in practice, many clients will still want a free pitch. If you are an established creative or agency with a solid pipeline of inward new business leads it’s easy to say ‘Fuck you, we don’t do pitches’. When you are a smaller agency, a startup, a freelancer, or simply need the business, maintaining a hard line on this is not so easy. Creatives and agencies are faced with the dilemma: “Do we pitch and be part of the problem, or do we say no to free pitches and miss out on business?” It’s a tricky question.
Let me give you an example. Edenspiekermann’s Berlin office has a rigid ‘no pitch’ policy. This is enshrined in a strongly worded manifesto and, at least in theory, every word of it makes absolute sense. When I worked in the Berlin office, I dogmatically believed there was no situation where any sort of free pitch was a good situation. Of course, the Berlin office is a well-established agency in Europe.
A few years later, when I returned to Edenspiekermann to run their new Los Angeles office, we had to approach things very differently.
Unlike in Europe, the agency was virtually unknown in the US market, and getting new business was a challenge, especially at the start. My business partner and I had to seriously question whether we could make a utopian ‘no pitch’ policy work in a new market where we were fighting for business tooth and nail. Throughout the first year of operating the business, we tried various ways to approach new business (including a couple of free pitches) and landed on an interesting alternative to the creative pitch: The creative debrief workshop.
THE CREATIVE DEBRIEF WORKSHOP
Whether you are a freelance designer or are running an agency, at some point you’ll get an RFP project that you’d love to participate in, but requires the submission of free sample work to qualify. While you might have the most iron-clad no-pitch policy, the potential client will not budge on some sort of proof that you ‘get’ their brand (despite your years of experience with similar projects), and you know that competing agencies will be submitting spec work. What do you do?
Enter the creative debrief workshop. Rather than following the lead of the competitors in the RFP, request a call with the decision-makers and explain to them how free pitching is not a good way to make an informed decision. Instead, you would like to offer them the chance to participate in a creative debrief workshop on-site at their office. Rather than presenting a round of fake work over a 30-minute presentation, you’ll use a full day of working together as a basis for them to evaluate what it is like to work with your team. Through a series of joint exercises in this workshop, you will explore the real business and user needs behind the creative assignment and produce something that is actually useful – even if they don’t choose your agency ultimately.
In my first year at Edenspiekermann Los Angeles, we ran several of these workshops for proposals initially requesting pitch work, and we had a 100% success rate in closing the project after each of these working sessions. Clients got a real sense of what it was like to work with us, and also appreciated the fact that we were honest enough to tell them what they really needed.
FREE PITCHING: A SLOW CHANGE
As long as there are agencies and clients, free pitching will probably always be part of the creative industries to some extent. If we want to change this, we as an industry have a responsibility to educate our clients about why unpaid creative work isn’t good for the work or their business. Regardless of whether you convince them otherwise, there is an opportunity to educate a client every time a request for unpaid work comes in. Free pitching has been part and parcel of the client—agency culture for decades, so if we want to change how things are done, this responsibility falls to us.
This extract is taken from How to do Great Work without Being an Asshole by Paul Woods, published by Laurence King; CR readers can receive a 35% discount on the book by entering the code GREATWORK at laurenceking.com