Why you should stop accepting free pitches right now

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Just the other day I saw a freelance job ad looking for a freelancer who would rewrite 10 articles of 3,000 words each… at the price of $25. $25, for about 30,000 words. It is over half of a medium-sized novel – which are usually paid by publishers no less than £10,000.

This was not here on Creativepool, of course – we vet our studiogigs very carefully. But it does go a long way to show that there is a problem with how clients perceive the value of creativity, perhaps consciously, perhaps less. As the old saying in the industry goes: would you ask your plumber to fix your sink for visibility or the prospect of a future business partnership? He would probably laugh right in your face and then storm off, never to be seen again. Your sink would still be broken, by the way. If you’re asking that, hopefully a part of you will be too.

Not paying for art is what has been hurting and damaging the creative industry for decades. The problem usually stems from clients not understanding the value of art and creativity, at least at the bottom level. You get penny-scale work on all these freelance platforms being little less than a scam and little more than someone taking advantage of a good artist. We fuel that problem, of course. But we do have the power to stop it.

Because then, as is expected, these misconceptions and misleading ideas on the value of art leak into the world of business. Horror stories abound.

Not paying for pitches is like not paying for art

Agencies pour a huge load of their budget into any given pitch, especially with the largest clients. Far from being a simple Powerpoint presentation, pitches for agencies often equate to proper samples of work, something that results in an initial fragment of what the final project may look like. Doing this on your own budget is bound to bring the agency to operate at a loss, with the hope to win the client in the long term and recoup those costs as soon as is possible.

This doesn’t always happen of course. Agencies can spend as little as £750 and as much as £75,000 on averageon a pitch, with some even entering the six figures to secure new business. It is a tremendous amount of many, which sometimes just ends up being completely wasted. Pitching is an extremely expensive and time-consuming process, and with that much pressure going on, things are bound to go wrong for some.


Make sure to take a look at this amazing series of pictures by Lucia Types!

Ideally, a client should ask no more than 3-5 agencies to pitch at once. Any more, and it will be a tremendous waste of time for most of the parties involved. There can only be one winner – which means the rest of the competitors will have to pay a tremendous amount of money which they may not recoup until much later in their history. In the worst cases, some cuts may have to be made, to either salaries or employees themselves. No one wants to be in that situation.

Which is why clients should start paying for pitches. Clients are essentially hiring the services of a creative team of professionals, and whether the agency wins or loses that pitch, it doesn’t matter. Their time is still being employed, and in all honesty, large clients can probably spare the budget to ensure the next business partnership is as perfect as it can be.

How and why all clients should start paying for pitches

A solution adopted by Mark Pepler, of Pepler Lee Events, is to find an agreement with the client and charge a fee for the amount of time spent on a pitch. “A solution I often use with clients is that if we win the job it gets deducted from the fees and if not, then the client still pays for our time and creativity.” I don’t think that is an unreasonable request. If anything, it will make clients think more about how many agencies they truly want to have as part of the pitching process; and on the other hand, the industry becomes more healthy because of it.

I can only imagine, but there will be agencies out there to whom the news of a failed pitch is a crushing reality for both bodies and minds. Agencies and their teams spend incredibly long hours on pitches, often working overtime to create something that they find truly beautiful and inspiring. They work to build up that confidence. What happens when that confidence is shattered, and what happens when they realise they also lost a load of money in the process?

You certainly won’t have a much affectionate agency willing to work with you again, knowing perfectly well they might lose more money and time. You certainly won’t have a happy team of creative professionals which are in love with your brand. If anything, in some extreme cases, you’ll probably have made some enemies in the industry.

The advertising industry is a rather small circle, and everybody tends to know everything about everyone else. If clients treat prospective business partners unfairly, whether it be with an auction to the lowest bidder, a crap relationship/contract or a lack of trust and transparency, rumours will start to circulate and they will hurt both your reputation and the industry as a whole.

Not to mention how much healthier financially this industry might be. The smallest players will never be able to compete with the large holding companies and agencies out there, meaning they may not go for a pitch that is going to be too costly if they’re not 100% sure they can win it. Do we really want to keep having the same names and players popping up here and there because of their size?


Image credit: Ricardo Einloft

If anything, think about the smaller agencies

There are many stories out there of larger brands choosing small agencies for their creative work. That trend is increasing, meaning that more and more small agencies are winning huge work that would never have been at their reach before. There are many reasons for this, but one is certainly how committed, unique and specialised a small agency can be compared to a huge team. The hierarchy is often more relaxed, the team is more consistent, costs and fees can be more reasonable and, above all, small agencies tend to have an incredibly unique voice that can truly make your brand shine. It’s not like large global agencies can’t do that – but their identity can be more uniform, less colourful and sometimes diluted. By not paying small agencies for their time in pitches, clients are pushing them out of the equation altogether.

Even if these small agencies do decide to take part in a pitch regardless, and you’re not paying them if they lose… would you want to be the occasional small founder announcing massive job cuts to the staff?

Header image: Zara Picken


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