Why we don't work for free

I thought I'd follow up last week's post with this one as they're both about working for free. I wrote and published this onto our website in early 2015 and it has received a huge amount of positive feedback.

It’s often that we are approached to participate in pitches – from time to time in our history, we’ve said yes.

We’ve learnt a thing or two in that time, and from today, we’re deciding to say no, and this is why.

Some call it free pitching whilst others accept it as a standard way of doing business in the creative services industry.

I like to call it ‘working for free’ and this article explains why our business, TANK, chooses not to do it.

Much has been written about free pitching. The practice is common in creative services industries and is fuelled by organisations (the client) seeking to receive a range of strategic marketing, communications and design/creative ideas from a range of agencies during a courting process known as ‘the pitch’.

Sometimes referred to as ‘indicative ideas’ or ‘creative ideas’, the request appears in a brief and forms a key part of the selection criteria for respondents.

These ideas can amount to weeks of unpaid work for the agencies taking part in the pitch; not to mention the intellectual property issues that play out in this unregulated scene.

The practice of free pitching is further validated when creative agencies willingly give their work away for free, under the promise of potentially fruitful future work from these clients.

This is to the detriment of the work, as the process itself allows little time for immersion, understanding, empathy and insight – all of which contribute greatly to ideas that are useful, meaningful and altogether effective.

It also places the creative agency in a position where it is conducting core business without pay.

It is not the purpose of this article to explain the various sides of the free pitching debate – these can be easily found with a search engine.

This article is also not meant to take the moral high ground – I admit freely that we have (regrettably) taken part in free pitches in the past for various reasons and with a wide range of clients from state government bodies to organisations involved in education, utilities and the arts. We’ve learnt from these experiences and as part of our own business strategy moving forward, we’ve chosen to not take part in any requests for proposals, tenders or pitches where we are asked to conduct our core business without pay.

Outlined below are the reasons why my business Tank, has chosen to respectfully decline these invitations:

1. We believe in mutual respect and healthy, professional and collaborative client-agency relationships.

We believe that a great, mutually respectful client-agency relationship doesn’t begin with one party requesting free work from the other.

We are immensely proud of our client relationships.

Our work is collaborative, immersive and creative – none of which can occur when one party is observing the other passively and without input, while the other is working without a value placed on their time, expertise and output.

Our clients respect what we have to bring to the table, our team work with global boards of directors, committees, councils, diverse ranges of stakeholder groups and communities around Australia to carry out the work they do – from research, to strategy to design. Without a mutual respect for the people we work with, what do we have left?

When we are asked to conduct core business without payment, there is an immediate imbalance in the relationship; a building without the foundations.

2. Our expertise in areas of brand development, campaigns and digital has been highly awarded by relevant industry bodies.

Each of the owners of the business has over 20 years experience in digital, creativity, strategy, production, design and brand strategy working with some of Australia’s leading brands on award-winning campaigns that have solved some of the more complex communications issues in the last two decades.

At TANK, we’ve also had the honour of having worked with successful national and international organisations; Australia Post, GM Holden, La Trobe University, Sladen Legal, Herbert Smith Freehills, The Department of Human Services, Netball Australia; to name a few.

We’re proud of the work we’ve done and so are our clients.

This expertise goes a long way to answer the big question in many requests for proposals: Does the agency have the relevant experience and expertise to do the job?

3. Our focus as a profitable business is to do billable work for billable clients.

The only time we don’t do billable work for a billable client is when we are doing one of our own self-initiated projects. Any other time is at the sacrifice of time on our current clients and our business.

From time to time we’ve participated in paid pitches, where the work we do (to pitch) is paid for by a nominal fee that barely covers the cost of doing the work. If we are asked to take part in a competitive pitch we will estimate the work that is required and put forward a formal estimate for the work that we are asked to – not for the promise of work we are in competition to win. Upon acceptance of this estimate, we will commence doing the work.

We don’t accept nominal fees that won’t cover the cost of doing the work.

Alternatively, we are happy to present our credentials and success stories from our years of experience at no cost.

If you would like TANK to do some work for you, and expect to have us engage in an unpaid pitch, or pitch paid by a nominal fee that won’t cover the cost of doing the work, we respectfully decline in advance.

If you are a creative agency who also doesn’t believe in working for free, we extend an invitation to you, to take this article and publish it on your own website. All we ask is that you credit its original source.

Also, we extend the following suggestions on how to use the money you would’ve spent on a free pitch, instead of working for free:

Develop a self-initiated project that will help your business reach clients who respect what you bring to the table.

Fund an idea that will help people in need.

Send us an email and if possible, we’ll collaborate with you on a project to create positive change for people who need it most.