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The Perils of Free Pitching

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Mark Burnstien
The Perils of Free Pitching
on Aug 14, 2009 at 4:31:13 pm

I was recently asked by my agent to pitch for a job that has now evaporated... It has left a bitter taste.

I googled free pitching and found these succinct articles:

Free Design Pitch - have you been refused one?

Don’t think any less of a design company who refuses to give your company a free pitch.

A design company who takes their work seriously are unlikely to engage in unpaid speculative work – often because they don’t need to as this would mean diverting valuable resources away from their existing paying clients. In addition, members of the Chartered Society of Designers have agreed not to submit unpaid work. If you asked three dentists if they would each fill a tooth gratis, so that you could establish who did the best, least painful job, they would politely show you the door.

The ‘beauty parade’ practice started in the private sector where several advertising or design agencies were invited to compete for an account or design work by presenting design ideas or concepts free of charge or for a small fee to cover materials. These pitches were often accompanied by a written proposal and costings, however the real information being sought was the creative work.

In the past the usual number of agencies asked to pitch was three, but nowadays it is not uncommon for a company to solicit pitches from 10 or more agencies in order to ‘collect and compare’ the creative offerings, often with little or no intention of awarding contracts.

When seeking a design agency – ask to see their portfolio of work plus client listing and see how this would fit with your requirements. Ask them for client testimonials to support their work. Any agency should be happy to supply phone numbers of clients for you to call. Phone these people and ask your questions.

Selecting an agency is more than whether the agency has come up with the next ground breaking promotional idea, it is about looking for a client-agency ‘fit’ with long-term opportunities to develop the relationship.

A good ‘fit’ is possible when the client takes the agency seriously and examines its suitability – based on experience and previous results - not on the subjective choice of a set of free design visuals.

By approaching an agency selection in this way, you are also showing the agency that you are a serious potential client rather than a ‘tyre kicker’. With the best will in the world, you may not know all the questions to ask an agency and they won’t know all about your business but if the foundations are strong both companies can go ahead and forge a great business relationship.

Just make sure you are not overly impressed if an agency does offer to come up with a free creative pitch. Sometimes agencies willing to respond to a free pitch request operate a ‘cookie cutter’ approach where they use the same basic pitch over and over again to different potential clients. Sooner or later one company will ‘bite’ on the basis of the pitch and not their creative track record.

Many small business take a dim view of marketing, design and advertising. Get it wrong and your company will almost certainly fail - these agencies present your face, shop front and message to the world. The right agency is a terrific addition to your skills portfolio and you never know, you may even get your pitch fee discounted off future work!

Taken from:

And this wonderful tirade...

Life's a Pitch...

Imagine a world where you head into work and put in a seven hour day, heck, let's make it a twelve hour day, trying to make some artwork or design so freaking kick-ass that it'll melt the brains of anyone checking it out. Now imagine not getting paid for it.

Welcome to the world of the unpaid pitch.

Pitches are a fact of life for most creatives. No-one likes them. After all, we're all fairly confident that we have enough design chops to tackle any brief we're handed. But if you put yourself in the client's rather comfy shoes, then theoretically pitching becomes a democratising force, ignoring everything but the core concept and demonstrating how that idea might be executed. Companies are chosen based on raw talent and nothing else. At least, that's how it should be in principle.

But pitches can become grubby affairs, where the motivation of the commissioning agency is sketchy at best. I once worked for a company that continually pitched for a potential client without ever getting the job, even though we had really strong ideas. Turns out, they always gave the job to a mate who ran a small design company out of his bedroom, but needed to keep up the pretence of pitching to keep the bosses upstairs happy.

In another far murkier instance we found elements of our unsuccessful pitch incorporated into the final product without our knowledge or permission. It seemed the client assumed that everything presented immediately became their intellectual property, despite the lack of any prior agreements stating that fact.

Everyone has their own pitch horror story to tell, and we can all nod glumly in agreement because doubtless something similar has happened to us. But the most insidious aspect of pitching is without doubt the Free Pitch.

Let’s make no bones about it, free pitching is morally wrong. It's right up there with drowning puppies and setting badgers on old people. The only people who benefit are the clients who get this amazing brain dump of ideas and concepts at no cost to them. Clearly they have no interest in rocking the boat; why should they? It's a vicious circle: design agencies need the work and in order to get the work they have to pitch. Usually the only game in town is a free pitch. And so it goes, as Kurt Vonnegut would say.

It should be noted that some enlightened clients do have a policy of paid pitches. And when one of those comes in, even if it's a nominal fee, folks at design agencies wander around stunned, as if it was the second coming and Jesus just gave them a Chinese burn.

The good news is that The Design Business Association and the Chartered Society of Designers are up in arms about the whole notion of free pitching. Design Week is reporting that the DBA is urging government agencies to take the lead in abolishing unpaid pitches and wants to showcase examples of best practice on the DBA’s website. The hope is that this filters across to other industries and become the norm, as it is in some other countries.

It's a very meek, very British approach, almost certainly guaranteed to make no difference whatsoever. If I had my way, I'd take the captains of industry and force them to watch re-runs of Trisha while giving them excruciating wedgies and flipping them with wet towels until they agreed unanimously to ban free pitches.

Seriously, it's time this unfair practice stopped and we need something stronger than damp recommendations to make it happen. Join the Computer Arts forum and tell us your suggestions.

taken from:

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Jeff Bach
Re: The Perils of Free Pitching
on Aug 14, 2009 at 8:04:25 pm

Hi Mark

There is certainly the risk of freely pitched creative being usurped by the client and used in the wrong way. No denying that. However, I think that to ignore evolution is every bit as dangerous.

To me, in the beginning of a business/service/product lifecycle, value is high, demand is greater than supply, and several other parameters are all inline, making it favorable for the creative to work in the way that you and the articles describe. The problem is that this market condition does not last. Our society/culture/economy are very fluid. The articles seem to want a market condition that is static. Things just don't work that way. Amongst other things, other creatives see the opportunity and enter the market. This changes the supply/demand balance and creates more competition. Tools, services, and other costs of business drop. New markets open up offering additional means of marketing and/or advertising.

In general, every market matures. Within that market there is a steady movement more towards "commodity" rather than the "specialty" that existed at the beginning. The articles you cite have their valid point of view, ignore changing conditions also ignores your new set of competitors, most of whom are going to be lower cost and more flexible, who have figured out how to deal with a new marketplace, leaving you in the dust of bankruptcy and no customers.

Like it or not, creative is increasingly a commodity. The software world has succeeded in getting Photoshop, Flash, etc. into the hands of just about everyone that wants to make pretty pictures. Creative is in very plentiful supply wherever you look across the planet. Cost of entry is incredibly low, distribution options abound, etc. The advantage has swung from the creative to the client. To me, the articles imply a client with limited choices, which is not really the case any more.

Happily, creatives with strong client relationships are mostly immune. In the client world, I think referrals and word of mouth still are very effective and are two ways for an old school, high cost creative agency to start a relationship with a new client. If your agency is big enough to pay for the overhead of an experienced bus dev, you are cooking, especially if the bd guy has a big network of client contacts that can be mined for new work.

There are some high dollar clients who recognize the value of old school creative and its costs AND are willing to pay the specialty costs that come with an old school creative agency. Increasingly though, there are even MORE clients that use crowdSpring and other new media type tools to lessen costs and force creative further into the low cost commodity slot that most budgeters want creative to fit.

Right or wrong, my overall point is that evolution in the marketplace is happening. I think this evolution is going to drive rates down, force less overhead, force costs down and force creative to change their ways. There are too many people now, who simply don't care about the way "it used to be", and are instead focused on finding that next client and making the next deal, much like the rest of the business world.


Jeff Bach
Quietwater Films
Madison, WI.

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Mark Suszko
Re: The Perils of Free Pitching
on Aug 14, 2009 at 9:07:58 pm

Well, one positive about developing spec pitches is that it builds skills and creativity in the ones doing the work, and you may come up with approaches, methods, concepts that transfer over to another client quite well.

Not the entire pitch, mind you, because if you're doing this right, it was done very specific for a certain client and product and target demographics, etc.

But for more loose, "proof of concept" pitches, made to demonstrate that a certain look or key effect can be done by your company... well, that stuff is never wasted, it is continuing education, and another place may turn up to apply that effect and the skills behind it.

I would agree that it is best to neevr pitch totally free, to always ask for at least a minimum financial contribution to offset out of pocket costs on materials. The paperwork should be very specific however that pitches remain your intellectual property until such time as a contract is drawn up to further develop the concept, and you should try to sneak in a non-compete that keeps them from sharing the concepts with others if not awarded.

Maybe not a good chance of that getting thru, but you should try. Just the language may scare off anybody who wants to try and rip you off and put the free demo into work for an actual paying account. You can't patent your creative idea, but you can to an extent protect your particular technical expression of that idea, is the point.

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Bob Cole
and bidding
on Aug 15, 2009 at 3:34:42 pm

Amusing story: I got a call from a non-profit, asking for a proposal. The woman on the line seemed a little off-hand, so I asked how many firms they were soliciting, and she said, "Three, we have to." I asked whether they already had a particular firm in mind to get the contract, and she said, "Yes," and explained that they'd worked with them before, and how great they were....

She seemed amazed that I declined to bid.

Bob C

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Mark Burnstien
Re: The Perils of Free Pitching
on Aug 17, 2009 at 3:48:52 pm

If you believe that creativity is a commodity then giving it away is plain stupid. I do not understand what you mean by evolution - yes the technology always evolves but the intellectual process does not.

I have and will do the occasional free pitch with a new client - but I prefer to enter a discussion about the project and talk about how the client and designer should work together as a team - rather than have a beauty pageant to win work every time. Then attempt to persuade them to pay a small fee to the people pitching.

You say every market matures - well I think that developments in our industry is infantilising ours. Low entry point software has enabled many to be able to create mind boggling work at home or from small studios but real world experience, training, mentoring is decreasing.

Work can be turned over quicker and cheaper than ever before clients are thinking less before commissioning work and often gifted designers are turning over 5 times the amount of jobs that they used to survive the lower returns and because the market expects it.

Imagine 20 years ago a client ringing up on a wednesday saying "I need a 2 minute animation by end of play Friday"
Hang on - I'll book the rostrum, the lab, telecine, oh and I'll see if I can book 40 animators, cell painters, in-betweeners, character designers in order to turn that over...

Sure those days are gone and so has the money but also so has the client's ability to think ahead.

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grinner hester
Re: The Perils of Free Pitching
on Aug 17, 2009 at 11:55:49 pm

To avoid consulting for nada, when asked to bid on a project, I simply offer a price. I break nothing down on paper ort otherwise. The price is how much the finished piece will cost through my company.

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Mark Suszko
Re: The Perils of Free Pitching
on Aug 18, 2009 at 12:12:25 am

Grinner, I love ya like a brother, (and congrats on your big new "catch", BTW), but I really feel that quoting a fixed price on anything more complicated than a dub run is always a huge gamble.

You wind up too high or too low, neither is very good. Low means you lose money as well as setting a higher performace level for your price than you can afford, that leads to more expectations that are unrealistic from clients, and it is hard to rise above that once they paint you into that corner.

Higher is good for the near term, mo' money IS mo' money afterall... but you can price yourself out of some jobs as well as making it easier for others to underbid you by *just a little* and steal you business. if you have enough good clients that scaring off the tire-kickers is good for you and not a potential big loss, than ignore me completely. But otherwise, I think you end up MORE competitive by showing an hourly rate than a fixed price. Just my opinion.

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grinner hester
Re: The Perils of Free Pitching
on Aug 18, 2009 at 1:53:59 pm

I subscribe to that and wish I could always just adhere to my hourly rate. When folks ask for a bid though, they are usually needing a number within their budget. Don't offer that and you'll often get passed up on. Being a one man band, I know exactly how much I'll put into a project based on their opening words. I don't mind spitting out a "cool, how does 7 grand sound?" As budgets tighten, this has become my saving grace, really. They like the no hourly rate surprises vibe for turn-key projects. If it's just an edit, the hourly rate is no problemo more often than not.

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