Why Free Pitches Aren't Free
No pitch is ever free. They may diminish an agency's profits, depending on the number done, but they're never free.
Designers, art directors, copywriters, creative directors, account directors, managing directors, all run a business or are part of one. Whether it's one person or five thousand people. Pitching eats time and incurs costs that can't be made to disappear. The staff working don't work for free, and no one gets free utilities, space or supplies during the process.
So who's paying? The agency's current clients, that's who.
The cost of doing business, including free pitches, has to be built into the charges spread across the fee-paying clients. So every client is in reality, paying into a free pitch fund. They are being charged a portion of the overall fee by their present agency, to fund that agency's requirement to 'pitch for free'. And nearly everyone is pretty much charging the clients in the same way. There's a certain element of quid pro quo in this, which is probably why it's never been resolved. But that's not the nub of my argument, nor is it a reason to continue in the same way.
Why 'Free Pitches' Generate a Poor Return for Clients
Agencies aren't run on the model of fire stations. They don't have a bunch of people waiting for the alarm to go off. FREE PITCH, FREE PITCH, man the brain cells, boot up the red computers with flashing lights. The people doing the work were, until a moment ago, working on fee-paying work. Fulfilling the needs of a client paying for their time. They're not anymore.
The majority of time an individual client spends with an agency is, in the main, working with them, not calling pitches. Yet, apart from the largest agencies, when a pitch is called, the client loses the concentration of a number of people on their account. How can that benefit anyone?
Is the company calling the pitch getting a good return? Well in the first instance, they may well be calling the pitch because their incumbent agency has been so busy working on other pitches that they've failed to deliver. In that instance, the answer's definitely no. They'll also lose all the knowledge their present agency has built up over time. Plus pitches can eat client resources too, taking their own focus off running their core business.
More importantly, in the agency, who's working on the pitch? Is it the best people? Unlikely. They just won't be able to afford the time away from key clients. So will the best possible work be done for the potential new client? Also unlikely.
Still, it all goes ahead. Is the winning agency happy? Probably only momentarily. Is the new client happy, probably the same. Because the winning pitch won't be the solution, it won't run. Client's in the main don't have the time or resources to carry out in-depth briefing to three or more agencies, during a creative pitch. Time for a re-brief.
The real problem is now. Great design and advertising ideas require a lot of passion, commitment and an almost vocational attitude to the work amongst its people. But they're beat, tired out, spent. Exhausted by the process. Now they've got to start again. Good for who?
A Better Return For All Involved
The client picks a shortlist, maybe with the odd outsider. The client knows that every agency on the list can do the job. They just don't know if every one of them will get it dead right first time. But then the pitch process doesn't deliver a "right first time solution" either. Clients are wise, they're not going to risk trusting their business or time to an agency that can't do the job.
So the list is there, each agency has the credentials for the job. Should not the aim now be to find out which agency the client can work with best?
Nobody finds that out from a bunch of people working through the night, on a pitch, in the back rooms of the agencies. Clients tend to avoid becoming too involved with any of the agencies on the list, for fear of showing favouritism. But that's what it's all about - who is the favoured agency?
For a client, getting to know the individual or individuals who'll work on the account, spending time, discussing their business with them, in the factory or office, over lunch or drinks. Discussing how the agencies will approach the problem, all this, will generate a better match. Better understanding and better attitudes - all producing better work. And nobody's exhausted.
The favoured agency's solutions will be outstanding. The agency's most valuable resources, it's thinkers and creators, their passion and desire to work on the business, hasn't been exhausted by the pitch treadmill. Their skills have been focused in the right direction.
It's a win – win situation.
New business is the lifeblood of every agency, designer, web coder, whatever. They can rarely turn down the opportunity to present for new work. Free creative pitches will never go away for the majority of the people involved, until the clients see that they're not free, that they don't really produce the best work and that there's a better way. And that is down to the agencies to explain.
Totally agree with you Jonathan. Free pitches can often distract an agency's focus and mean that more fruitful avenues are not fully exploited. When a client asks for a free creative pitch explain that there are costs involved and whether they would pay a small fee to cover some of those costs and perhpas ask for a success fee retrospectively paid if you win. Always worth a try!
Posted by Kate Newman
Also agencies in Belgium adressed this problem in a creative way, look at
Posted by Arne van Silfhout
Further more, in my view free pitching undermines the whole creative process and ultimately our industry. It is up to us to educate our clients who want to test the water for the best creative ideas to pay for ideas and excetutions that could ultimately lever their business's to new heights.
Posted by Brigitte Halliday – Process design and branding
Free pitching devalues what we as design companies, and anyone who participates in free pitching is admitting that what they do has no value.
Would the client allow us to trial their products for free before we purchase, I would guess no. But until the industry stands united against free pitching it will continue!
Posted by Darren Scott
Couldn't agree more Jonathan. Pitches are the most time consuming, waste of creative energy in this business. What other industry outside of advertising (architects perhaps) give their services away? Not the medical profession, certainly not the financial industry and heaven forbid you ever ask for free legal advice. What I find even more insulting is once the dust settles from a new business pitch, all the work that was done never sees the light of day anyway. It is rarely on strategy to begin with and seldom done with a marketing budget in mind which means that it all gets to be redone and usually in half the time that the pitch took which is never adequate to begin with. I'd like to try this approach with a builder some time. "Build me a house and if I like it I'll hire you to build me a completely different one."
So what's the answer? Stand on strength, experience and morals? I believe it should be enough to submit the nuts and bolts of your agency credentials to be weighed objectively against the other agency candidates, allow the prospective client to do a chemistry check site visit to the agency and let the make an informed choice at that point but the reality is all too different.
Getting back to the earlier comment of morals: We seem to be victims of ourselves. Having been part of many new biz pitch teams, the leadership is all to willing to lay everything on the table, break the rules of the RFP all in order to get noticed and gain the advantage over all the other agencies involved. Large agencies can seemingly afford to do this while smaller agencies cannot.
I for one would be interested in seeing a self imposed strict code of ethics put forward and see what happens when agency's show some self respect but unfortunately that will never happen. So many things can effect the outcome and the worst of all of them usually is the one that is impossible to overcome, the "prior relationship" chip. I worked at an agency in Dallas that had a national account for over 50 years but the new marketing director that took over for the client used to work for the agency and had a chip on his shoulder. Everyone knew there wasn't a chance in hell we'd retain that business but the agency went all out, spent close to 300k in a loosing effort to retain the business, knowing full well we wouldn't no matter what we did. When all was said and done, we lost it. The agency was drained and demoralized. They lost talented people because of it so who ultimately wins? Nobody from what I could see.
Now I will scoot my soapbox back in it's rightful spot.
Posted by Robb Reed
Agreed Jonathan, there is a lot of needless waste in the pitch process. It's not just the free pitches or the unnecessary paid-for pitches involving too many agencies and no real need or intention to change. There's also plenty of waste on the agency side too, extra (weaker) creatives just to show they can have more than one idea, lots of razzmatazz to show how clever they are and legions of people at the pitch where a couple would do the job perfectly.
Perhaps if everyone understood that all the money agencies spend is actually their clients' then everyone would act more reasonably.
Posted by Andrew Cringle
Unfortunately, in answer to Jonathan's question of "So who's paying?" I would have to say that it is the majority of employees who work far beyond the 48 hours maximum to ensure that paying work gets done AND that free pitch work is also completed. What is criminal with the industry is that there are few incentive or reward schemes in place, with a few whispers of potential bonuses at Christmas, but really it is the employees who pay for the pitches with their given time.
Posted by Mark Anderson
I agree, I find pitching these days can be just a way for clients to be very cheeky, I don't know of other industries who are expected to put so much resource into getting a new client in this way, we always say we'll put a cap on a pitch budget allocation based on how much we think the contract will be worth but in reality we always want to go in with our best work and that takes time and the whole team so before you know it the bill adds up, which you don't mind if you win but if you turn up and you just know it's a done deal and the client was just trying to keep their existing agency on their toes or they just wanted some fresh ideas it's really demoralising.
Posted by Sally Pritchett