Free-pitching is wrong, except when it’s right

Free-pitching, the scurge of the creative agency world. But is there ever any value in free-pitching? Alastair Williams, Creative Director at mark-making* shares his thoughts.

If there’s a debate in the creative agency world that never dies it’s the one over pitching, specifically free-pitching. And I’m just about to add to it…

In seventeen years of running an agency, my standpoint on this has always been pretty clear – steer clear. Free-pitching is wrong on so many levels. We can all list the classic arguments frequently cited, from devaluing design as a profession, to not being in the best interest of the client.

The latter may sound surprising, but the objective for the agency is to win a pitch, which is not necessarily the same as developing a solid concept or strategy for a business. The best of which only come through a deep understanding of the business and working closely together – client and agency.

That’s the soapbox bit over. This piece isn’t about that.

Of course, the free-pitch, associated with delivering creative or strategic ideas (the currency of our industry), is very different to the credentials pitch or a standard tender, where a demonstration of approach, previous experience and an understanding of costs are the key criteria, along with people, for choosing an agency. And it’s important to make that differentiation.

As a business, we’ve been fortunate enough to grow and prosper by adhering, for the most part, to a no free-pitch policy. And yet we’re only human, and on occasion temptation has got the better of us and we’ve let our principles slide. Sometimes it’s paid off, sometimes it hasn’t.

If we are considering taking a punt on winning some new business, we factor in the following when making the final decision:

  1. The brief is good – clear, comprehensive, well thought out.
  2. We know how many other agencies have been asked to pitch and it’s no more than three. We’ve previously been asked to pitch as one of twelve. Those odds aren’t great.
  3. The agency selection criteria are clearly defined. If the client can’t tell you this, warning bells should ring.
  4. There is actually a project. Beware of simply contributing to the viability process.
  5. The work is worth winning. Four agencies going head to head for the prospect of a £1000 leaflet. Seriously, it happens.
  6. The client is happy to discuss, meet, and provide additional information as requested, ahead of the pitch. It’s in their interest, it will ensure the pitches are as strong as possible. If the client can’t see that, time to do a Zammo (just say no).
  7. Decision dates are documented. Nothing worse than radio silence post pitch.
  8. Full feedback will be provided irrespective of winning or not. At least have the opportunity to learn. Obviously, there’s no guarantee the feedback will be honest.
  9. We’re pitching to the decision makers. Beware the contracted consultant and the side-kick marketing exec.
  10. We’re not just making up the numbers. Ask yourself honestly. You’ll know if this is the case.
  11. Our gut says it’s worth a crack. Never overlook that one.

We’ve failed to be strict in the past with these and regretted it. Equally, when the pitch ticks all these boxes, it’s still a gamble. And it’s also worth noting that on more than one occasion we have declined to pitch (with a polite and well-reasoned response), only to find the work come our way a few months later anyway – explain that one.

But that’s enough about the wrongs of free-pitching and my personal weaknesses, what prompted this piece is the fact we are currently free-pitching. The pitch criteria matches our checklist (ok, mostly), but for the first time I’ve recognised another reason for doing it. It’s exciting. The pressure, the uncertainty, the competitive element, the accentuated camaraderie, it all adds up to a tangible energy that even the most dynamic of agencies can experience a lack of periodically. Us included. The timing is right, we have some studio capacity and yep, we’re excited. And that’s valuable. It may not directly outweigh the pure financial cost of pitch, or rid us of a nagging sense of slipping values, but it does remind of why we love what we do.

If we win, you’ll hear all about it. If we don’t, I’ll delete this post and start work on my next one, ‘Why free-pitching is NEVER a good thing’.


About Alastair

Founder and Creative Director

Ali co-founded mark-making* in 1995 after graduating from Lancaster University in Marketing & Visual Arts. Ali works closely with our clients to help bring clarity to their story, and oversees the wider mm* team to ensure it’s expressed effectively, with authenticity and coherence. Ali regularly speaks on the concept of Magnetic Brands, an approach to creating and building brands that embraces the power of being more human, in pursuit of both profit and positive impact. Ali leads mark-making’s work in helping ambitious organisations of all shapes and sizes build extraordinary and enduring appeal.