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Why we (try extremely hard to) never do unpaid pitches

Updated: Jun 16, 2023

Last year we got some great advice. “Create something only you can.” It was gifted by Elyse Maberley from Meeum (highly recommended if you are after some business mentoring). And while it sounds pretty straightforward, it’s easier said than done.

When you start out you are filled with certainty about how differently you will run your business from the ones you have worked in. But then you start building and find yourself slipping into what you know. The same systems start drifting in. Your markers of success become eerily familiar. And before you know it, you are operating as a bit of a mini me too, just with different values. Sure, you railed against these approaches when you were a mere employee. But it's comfortable there.

It takes a lot of determination and conscious effort to build something different from the ground up. Especially when the accepted systems are so culturally embedded.

Take unpaid pitches. For the uninitiated, these are the backbone of new business in our creative industry. When a client wants to appoint a new creative agency, they will narrow down a shortlist, give them each the same brief, then have them present back with a complete strategic and creative response some weeks later. It may or may not involve a ‘chemistry session’ where the key agency team and client meet for an hour, a ‘strategy session’ where the agency presents their strategic platform, and a ‘tissue session’ where the agency might present first stage ideas. After that, the agency goes away and tries to produce a wholly original creative response that is often artworked to the point that it is practically ready to go live.

This equates to many tens of thousands of dollars worth of work that would ordinarily be done over months or years squeezed into hundreds of human hours in a matter of weeks. And only one agency takes home the prize of potentially working with the client.

Unpaid pitches are awful.

They devalue creativity, they devalue thinking, they devalue working partnerships.

Contrary to popular opinion, they don't give our potential partners an insight into how agencies work because you're not actually working together. You're like The Batchelor, spinning a lot of plates while trying to maintain an even playing field but not really building a relationship with anyone.

It's unsurprising, then, that the idea that wins the pitch is rarely the idea that gets made. Lo and behold, it takes a period of collaboration, deep learning and understanding before you can land on the concepts and storytelling that will be most impactful for any brand or organisation.

BUT. Pitches are absolutely accepted as the norm when it comes to appointing a new creative agency. Some agencies have even convinced themselves pitches are beneficial for team bonding and to keep their thinking sharp.

To that we say, no thanks.

For us, the biggest losers in the pitch process are the people making the work. Strategists don’t provide half insights. Creative teams don’t do creativity light. As with any project that lands on their desks, they put in all the effort and passion required to get to the best work for the brief they are given.

It's a big ask for what are often false outcomes. First, they are doing it with one hand tied behind their backs because the client or the project team closest to the brief have little to no input along the way. Second, there are a myriad of factors beyond the work itself that can lead to a pitch going a certain way. (Relationships between client and agency, for example. Or the agency fee structure.)

And in our experience, because it’s a gamble, pitch work has to happen on top of the day-to-day project load, so it often gets done between the hours of 6pm and 9am. And between Friday and Monday.

Why would we expect that kind of sacrifice from people who we adore and admire, whose craft and thinking and energy are essential to what we do, on behalf of a potential business partner who may ultimately decide not to work with us for reasons we may never know? Why would we drain and deplete the most important part of our business on a punt?

Many agencies ‘build in’ the cost of the pitch work once they have won the business. But that goes against our principle of transparency. We don’t want to start a relationship by sneaking costs or billable hours into projects to make up for lost time.

It’s just not how we work.

Instead, we propose a different way of getting to know whether we are the right fit for a potential partner.

We can take you through our work and thinking, demonstrating how we would solve problems or manage projects that are relevant to you. You can ask us anything. We can share some of the insights we already have that are relevant to your audience and talk you through how we’d get sharper ones. We can get detailed about the team you’d work with. And we can go through the beautiful work they have crafted on other projects to show you how, together, we can create something hard working and impactful for you.

If needs be, we can go away and consider some of your questions and come back for a follow up chat, armed with the responses we think might work best.

One of our most fruitful and rewarding working relationships began with a meeting with the CEO in a cramped cafe where we honestly and openly talked about ours and their ambitions, challenges, experience and goals. It was deep, immersive and simple.

It’s not easy saying no to pitches - they are still considered the norm. Will we be able to hold out forever? Who knows.

If other creative companies and potential project partners join us to help find a more creative and equitable way to develop new business relationships, anything is possible.


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