Dan Cullen-Shute

Creative Review: Creative Leaders on Free Pitching

Dan Cullen-Shute
Creative Review: Creative Leaders on Free Pitching

It’s one of the most contentious practices in the creative industries, yet is still widely accepted as the norm. Malcolm Garrett, Creature’s Stu Outhwaite-Noel and ustwo Design Director Helen Fuchs pitch in on the pitching debate

By Aimée McLaughlin 25/03/2019

Recently CR ran an extract from Paul Woods’ book How to do Great Work without Being an Asshole, looking at an age old dilemma for creative businesses: to pitch, or not to pitch?

The piece received a huge response from our readers, so we decided to explore the issue further by talking to ustwo’s Helen Fuchs, Creature CCO Stu Outhwaite-Noel and designer Malcolm Garrett about their experience of free pitching, and whether it’s ever a good idea. You can read their responses below.


Creative Review: What is your experience of free pitching during your career?
Helen Fuchs: It’s been a constant in any agency I’ve been in. Ninety-nine per cent of the time it’s a request to pitch for free, with multiple steps in the process. The pressure mounts, the expectations get higher and higher and it culminates in an epic show for an hour or two. At previous agencies I’ve seen some huge feats of showmanship, but have often been left questioning if clients really get what they need through the process. The big network agencies are set up to work well within a long pitch process, but for smaller agencies it can be a huge commitment to throw your hat into the ring.

CR: What is your attitude towards the practice, and has this changed over time?
HF: On a personal level I’ve always loved pitching. It’s an opportunity to bring a team together at speed and show what you are made of; capability wise, creatively, as people and as storytellers. But as a process it feels woefully outdated, born from big advertising pitches where ideas that were pitched went live. When it comes to pitching in a product, service or innovation studio, presenting a solution without being true to the process you are advocating for feels like madness. It’s much more important to take time to understand each other’s ways of working, values and experience than present a beauty parade of solutions.

CR: Does ustwo have a view on it?
HF: We don’t tend to pitch competitively for free. We are increasingly seeing initial smaller paid briefs as a way for clients to see us in action and get work of value at the end. I do think at ustwo, and potentially for partners like us, the traditional pitch process is being overtaken by clients starting a conversation around a ‘question’. A workshop, for example, is a much more effective way to get a sense of how we work, collaborate and think, than a pitch process.

CR: What about the wider industry – do you think people should be taking more of a stand against it?
HF: It’s a competitive landscape out there. It would need everyone on board to make a change and that’s just not realistic. But clients are ultimately looking for the best work, the best teams and the best outcomes, and over time I believe they will see there are better ways to choose the right partner. Clients are currently buying ‘innovation’ partners through a process that originated in the 1960s.


CR: What is your experience of free pitching during your career?
Stu Outhwaite-Noel: I was at Mother for eight years and now I’ve been at Creature for eight years. I wasn’t as involved with the money at Mother, but as far as I was aware we weren’t getting paid for any of the pitching we did. Certainly in the last eight years at Creature, it’s only in the last year or two that paid pitches have actually come on to the horizon.

CR: What is your attitude towards the practice?
SON: It’s a really difficult one to have an absolute definitive perspective on. I remember one of the first pitches I did way back at Mother, I was driving there with one of the founders Robert Saville. He asked if I was alright and I said that I was a bit nervous. His response was: ‘You don’t need to be. They haven’t paid for this; we can’t be wrong, and they can only be grateful for the time we’ve invested and the ideas we’ve given them for free.’ From that end, there is some joy going into these processes knowing that they’re not an official client and they’re not paying for your time, so you can do what you believe is the right thing.

The pitch process means that as an agency we are constantly thinking, generating, approaching problems in new, interesting and inventive ways. It tests our teams, it tests our strategists, it tests our account folk in ways that existing clients sometimes don’t. It gives a new insight into other sectors and it opens our eyes to new audiences. With all that mind, it’s wonderful training and a way of allowing ideas to be generated and thrown out into the world on a regular basis. On the flipside, it’s definitely a challenge when a significant proportion of the time that you spend over the course of a year is pitching and you’re not remunerated for that. It’s definitely odd that we’re in an industry where we give our ideas away for free.

CR: Does Creature have a view on it?
SON: Quite honestly, if we had a hardline view about only working on paid pitches then we would never pitch. What we do have is a principal which we have literally written in our house rules that we will meet everyone, no matter how big or small, but we will never work with dickheads! What we do demand is that when entering into a pitch process, we’re given due respect. So that is running an efficient pitch process which doesn’t drag on and have numerous reviews, doesn’t pivot and ask us to think about it in a new way, and there’s a general understanding and an appreciation that we are doing this for nothing.

CR: What about the wider industry – have you noticed that people are more willing to say no these days?
SON: I don’t think there’s anybody willing to say no really. An industry wide acknowledgement would be the only way of it [being ended], because there are always agencies who will be willing to do it for free, or cheat the process and come up with three and four mood films that have been made in their little en-suite studio. If the client stays true to what they’re asking for and in turn how they award a piece of business then that’s great, we can all work within that. If they’re going to be dazzled by someone coming along and not playing ball, then that’s what doesn’t help little independents continue to breathe.

CR: What advice would you give to smaller agencies and startups who are being asked to free pitch?
SON: I think it was Jeff Bezos who once said that no idea can’t be solved with a team who gets fed on two pizzas. What we try to do whenever a pitch comes in is surround that challenge with a tight knit team of people from each of the disciplines that are required, whether that be design, creative, strategy or account management. In the past, I think we’ve probably wasted a lot of resource putting multiple teams on pitches and having teams work endlessly, to the extent where none of their ideas have gone through to pitch.


CR: What is your experience of free pitching during your career?
Malcolm Garrett: It used to be in the music industry that big record labels would come to you and say ‘this is a new band, we’ve just signed them, we don’t have a lot of budget but who knows, this could be a big client’. The opposite end of the spectrum was, ‘this is a big client and therefore can you do it for nothing?’. Either way, the work was supposed to be good for your portfolio. It’s got to a point where I’ve been building my portfolio for 40 years, so I am in a slightly different position to be able to make those choices.

My most recent experience was being asked to submit a proposal for a smallish website, the irony being it was for an organisation that wanted to launch a programme protecting artists’ copyright. They wrote back to me saying mine was a great proposal, but they had gone with an agency whose creative pitch was more in tune with their brand. I thought, well you didn’t ask for a creative pitch, and I didn’t give you a creative pitch. I told you how I’d go about doing it and what your budget would pay for.

CR: What is your attitude towards the practice, and has this changed over time?
MG: I think my attitude has hardened. As you get older you get a little more cantankerous and dig your heels in, but I’d like to think that I’ve always been that way. I wouldn’t necessarily want to pitch for something that was a one off, but I’d begin to consider it if the client was going to have ongoing projects which we could develop together. I’ve had some clients who I worked with for ten years and we developed together so that I wasn’t pitching anymore, I was working with them to maximise the budgets they had to spend.

The problem for a smaller company, aside from any ethics, which are dubious in the extreme, is that free pitching becomes economically unviable. It’s fine if you’re a larger agency and you’re pitching for large projects, then you can see the argument for it. It’s not a very good argument, but it sort of goes back to the advertising model of the Mad Men era, when what was most valuable was having the account.

CR: What advice would you give to smaller agencies and startups who are being asked to free pitch?
MG: Work out what restrictions you can put on work. So you might say, ‘I’ll free pitch for this and I’ll do this amount of work, but it can only be used in this way’. For instance, in the record industry world you might specify that the client can only use your work as a record sleeve because it was designed as a record sleeve, and they can’t put it on a t-shirt unless they pay you. That way you’re only losing money once, and not again and again by giving away unlimited rights. Make a decision as a designer exactly what you’re prepared to invest and make it clear to the client that you’re investing time, so you’re expecting to look for ways to recoup that investment down the line.

CR: What steps do you think the creative industries should be taking to put a stop to free pitching?
MG: I think it’s incumbent on organisations like AIGA to stand firm, and for people in the industry who are a bit long in the tooth to share their opinions. It’s important for younger designers to know that is a position that the industry is prepared to take, so they can feel more comfortable taking a similar position. Even if you get paid a token, it makes you feel like the agreement between you and the client is a contract and it places some value there.

Read the article on Creative Review here