How I handle requests for free pitching — Part 1

So many people write to me each week yet in the last two weeks I have seen an upsurge in responses — I'm so grateful and as I've written in the past, engaging with readers of this weekly journal over the last three years has been the highlight of my career.

Three years ago I started writing this weekly journal and one of the first articles I wrote was this one — why I don't work for free. 

Since writing that article, I've used it to point to, when organisations request my business to take part in an unpaid pitch. Slowly we have built a reputation as a business that no longer plays that game — and thankfully we are better off for it because we've seen in increase in client relationships that are truly deep and meaningful.

Last month I was referred by a friend to a an organisation who were looking to partner with a strategic and creative consultancy.

As I’m sure you’d agree, these are the best types of business development leads as they come already warmed up and have already moved half way down the sales funnel. Needless to say, they're also the type that you don't want to fuck up because both yours and your friend's reputation are now on the line.

This organisation was a well-established player in their industry. A potential good win for us as long- term partnerships with such organisations are what we actively seek — and we had relevant case studies of work to build confidence that we knew what we were talking about.

But, just like dating, client relationships are always full of promise and optimism at the beginning; so it’s always best to tread carefully and respectfully.

After an initial phone conversation with one of their Executives, I was emailed an overview ‘of the process from here on’.

In this initial phone interview I took copious amounts of notes. I had a plain text editor open to full-screen on my monitor and I typed furiously as we discussed the challenges this organisation was facing and what they were looking for.

This is a habit of mine — I like to capture as much as possible because as soon as that conversation was over, I move on to the next thing I had planned for the day. I don't like to keep things in my head.

Now; after almost thirty years of doing this thing of ours, most business challenges are slight variations of one another. It’s rare that something completely distinctive in a brief arises from an introductory phone call; and it’s this rare distinction I’m looking for which may mean we have to get out of our comfort zone to win this client.

I didn’t hear anything unique in this conversation, but I did hear some warning bells. Key words that signify that somewhere down the track:

1. I might be dealing with a bully or toxic client, or
2. There may be a free pitch around the corner; or
3. They’re talking big about themselves yet they have a budget that doesn’t match their ego.

I heard a number of key words in this conversation which turned my bullshit radar on:

- "live brief"
- "see what you’re capable of"
- "see what we get back from the brief."
- "a four week window to respond to the brief."
- "We’d like to throw a few agencies into the mix to see what ideas are generated."

I’ve heard all of this before and sometimes I admit, I can jump to conclusions. So, in this case I decided to give them the benefit of the doubt.

They asked to visit my office from interstate (a one hour flight), we locked in a meeting and both said we’d look forward to it.

I could’ve asked the question to see if this was a free pitch. Yes.

I could’ve let them know we don’t free pitch. Yes.

I could’ve saved them the interstate flight; but instead I gave them the benefit of the doubt. 

I asked this question:

"Would you like me to prepare a coat outline for the response to your live brief, for our meeting on Monday?"

I gave them the chance to tell me — but all they had said was that "costs could come later."

I lead with the assumption that if I was asked to do some work, that I would be paid to do it.

I was told that our costs wouldn't be needed just yet and the meeting was 'a go'.

So far, so good.

My team questioned my motives and asked me why I didn't just come straight out and tell them we wouldn't take part in a free pitch, if it was a free pitch — my thoughts:

  • I wanted to give them the benefit of the doubt

  • If it does turn out to be a free pitch, I've created the opportunity to show them the work my team can do, and how well we can do it for similar organisations in their industry


The meeting went really well. They were lovely people (really nice actually) and and they left feeling energised and confident that we’d be good to be "thrown into the mix."

They told me the were "very impressed" with our capabilities and case studies and would be in touch with a live brief within 48 hours.


Continued next week.