Why we don't work for free

It’s often my business is approached to participate in ‘pitches’ both paid and unpaid. In the creative industry, this, unfortunately, is a common practice.

We respectfully decline unpaid and nominally-paid pitches and this is why.

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

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

The practice of free pitching is fuelled by organisations seeking to receive a range of strategic marketing, communications and/or design/creative ideas from a range of consultancies during a courting process known as ‘the pitch’.

Sometimes referred to as ‘indicative ideas’ a ‘live brief’ 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 consultancy taking part in the pitch; not to mention the intellectual property issues that play out in this unregulated scene.

There are times when a nominal fee is offered, but as the name suggests, the fee is simply a gesture and doesn’t cover the cost of taking part — ie. doing the work.

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

This is to the detriment of the work, as the process itself allows little time for immersion, understanding, empathy and insight — and to the detriment of the sustainability and integrity of the business itself.

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 — we admit freely that I have 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.

I’ve learnt from these experiences and as part of my own business strategy moving forward, I’ve chosen not to take part in any requests for proposals, tenders or pitches where we are asked to work without pay or paid a nominal fee.

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

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

We believe that a mutually respectful client-consultancy relationship doesn’t begin with one party requesting free work from the other, or one party working well below their chargeable rate.

I am immensely proud of the client relationships I have forged over my almost-thirty year career, and all of them began with a fair exchange of value.

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.

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

2. Our expertise is evident in the work we’ve done and it has a fair and reasonable value.

Collectively my team and I have years experience working with some of the world’s leading organisations. We have solved complex organisational challenges and we’ve united large teams of people through our work.

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

The proof is in the pudding.

Just call them and ask.

3. Our focus as a responsible business is to balance purpose with profit.

As a for-profit business, we don’t accept nominal fees that won’t cover the cost of doing the work.

A fair day’s work is worth a fair day’s work pay.

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

4. Great relationships don’t begin with one partner dangling a carrot.

I understand that the potential of a long term relationship is one to take a risk on. I understand that from the client’s point of view, you’re looking for a partner for the long term and, you want to do your due diligence to ensure you have the right partner. I agree, this due diligence is important and having the right partner is also, just as important.

So important in fact that it’s worth investing in.

Great relationships don’t begin with one potential partner creating a promise of a fruitful future, dangling the carrot of prosperity, whilst the other partner is taking all the risk.

What is real is now. What is real is today. Not a few years in the future. If today you’re asking us to work for free — that is already ringing alarm bells.

So we respectfully decline.

If you are a creative consultancy 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.

Make it your own and draw a line in the sand.