Never Not Getting Paid To Pitch

Can we finally condemn free pitching to the “back in my day” archives?

A strange thing happened to me the other day. I had a new business meeting. I’d sought out some recommendations online for a company to help me with a project. I found a company that looked like they’d be good for what I needed. Others said they’d had a good experience, and luckily they were really close by. I arranged to meet the owner of the company, we sat down for 45 mins or so, he said he could help me, a lot of what he said resonated with me and so walking away I thought — yep, I’ll probably give him my project.

The next day I got an invoice via email for $220.

WTF! I thought? I thought this was just a meet and greet. A new business meeting to get to know each other and see if we could work together.

Now, if you’re in the creative industry, you may well have a similar reaction.

However, my project was my tax and accounting, and the person I met was an accountant.

This is normal for the accounting industry. It’s also normal when you meet a lawyer, solicitor, or any other professional service. They also sell their time.

I just want to reiterate again. IT’S NORMAL. Their time is worth something. It’s worth the years of experience and training it took them to get to that point. It’s worth the amount of time they’re spending with you vs another client or customer. It’s worth the advice they’ll probably give you during that meeting.

So, tell me. What is different to this situation vs the creative industry?

  • We have multiple new business meetings, phone calls, coffees.
  • We write a reverse brief (or even a brief) to help the client understand what they really need.
  • We respond to a brief (sometimes) with some ideas and concepts that actually answer the brief.
  • We might even make some amendments to these ideas based on feedback.
  • We write a project plan for how long the project is likely to take, including working out key milestones when the client and their stakeholders will need to be involved.
WE DO ALL OF THIS FOR FREE. BEFORE ANY MONEY CHANGES HANDS. AND THEN WE DON’T CHARGE FOR IT AFTER, EVEN IF WE GET CHOSEN TO DO THE WORK.

I don’t need to tell you. Start telling this story down the pub, or with friends over dinner and you’re basically a laughing stock — or it’s presumed that this is your hobby.

Now, we’re not stupid. We love creativity, we love the chance to create, we love a challenging brief that will test our skills and the skills of our team. But tell someone else about this, and they’ll tell you — you’re dumb.

Our time is valuable. And it’s about time we started to account for it better.

Last week, we held a Never Not Creative event in Melbourne. 30 of our 500 community members turned up to discuss an initiative that we’ve started called the Creative’s Pledge. A pledge by creatives for creatives to start to set and raise the standards we operate by in the creative industry. Attendees at the event, likened it to a “social contract”. A collaborator from the US recognised it as “A bill of rights” (when I presented it to her this morning). Essentially it’s a document that we, as creatives, can sign, print out and keep, present to an employer, present to a client, include in terms and conditions or just print and stick on a wall at work.

Ideas forming

One of the key discussion points in the pledge was the issue of free work, and by association, the issue of free pitching.

We started with the line:

“I will not give my work away for free in order to compete with other creatives.”

The idea was that sometimes I might feel passionately about a cause and want to donate my time. This might be for a volunteer organisation or one with very few resources / funds. But, it should absolutely not be a competition against other creatives, either as part of a free pitch, or to undercut another member of the community.

A contentious area quickly emerged. Are we allowed to offer work for free if we’re in control of that decision and aren’t forced to do it in order to survive or for the opportunity to work with a ‘prestigious’ client?

There was a call by some to make the line much shorter and sharper.

“I will not give my work away for free. (FULL STOP)”

More experienced creatives agreed. Younger creatives struggled with this, because they’d already been taught by some universities or design / comms schools that they should do free work to get experience and build their portfolios.

Another point of view was expressed — “Agree, almost totally. However what about if it’s in the form of a donation to a registered not-for-profit organisation? Could that be an acceptable reason for pro bono work?” or “I think we need to distinguish some types of volunteered ‘free’ work (eg pro bono work for not-for-profit clients) from unpaid pitches for commercial tenders.”

Another grey area.

Not-For_Profit. Often confused with charity or an organisation that has no money or means of making / raising money.

“Bullshit.” called one of the community members. “There are plenty of institutions, venues, events that have not-for-profit status but that spend significant amounts of money every year, they just don’t spend it on design.”

This is true (in many cases). There are many organisations that fundraise through philanthropists, bequests, corporate sponsorships, ticket sales. They spend money on improving their collection, attracting artists, logistics, production of printed material, equipment etc. Sure, some of this is donated. But on the whole, much of it is paid for. You can see it in their balance sheets and annual reports.

So, how come they don’t spend anything on creative? Is our work not very good and so not worth paying for? Is it such a privilege and so prestigious an opportunity that we should give our time, evenings and weekends included (sometimes) for free? No. Have we conditioned them into thinking that they don’t have to? Probably.

It’s much like raising a child. Until you tell them that something’s wrong, they’ll happily keep playing with a box of matches or drawing on the wall. They just don’t know any better. Or, you might have told them, but then they see another child doing it, which validates it all over again. Cue — “I know Johnny’s doing it, but does that mean you’d jump off a bridge if he did?”

The other irony with this situation, as a member of the community pointed out during a Facebook discussion is: “Strange irony for me is that it always seems like those clients who game for the cheapest work are also the ones that demand the most out of it, mess with it the most and ultimately get the poorest result. Maybe it’s just that those who understand it’s value, and appreciate what our industry does are the best to work with.” I’ve certainly experienced this in the past. It also shows just how important that work is to the client. So suuuurrreeelllly, it should be paid for?

We are already a very giving community. When we DO manage to get paid for these types of projects, we’ll inevitably over-service, over-work, and pull out all the stops to exceed expectations. Sometimes in the name of passion and belief, sometimes in the name of award winning, profile building opportunity. Running project management software for the creative industry, I can tell you that at Streamtime, we can see all this happening right under our noses — which is why we’re even looking at how our product maybe able to help this issue in some way.

But, ultimately that’s our choice. And there’s an important word. Choice. We need to start playing this game on our terms. We have the skills, experience and expertise. We are valuable. We can turn businesses around, reignite attendance and engagement with a major event, reinvigorate an organisations performance or connection with its audience.

  • We shall not be forced into giving work away for free to compete with each other.
  • We shall not enter into a competition that ultimately doesn’t even recoup the monetary effort for the winner.
  • We shall not compete in a pitch with a token fee for the loser — your couple of grand pitch fee really doesn’t come anywhere close to the real investment.
  • We shall respect the opportunity. Maybe as an industry we’re not at the “invoice after first meeting phase” (although why not?!) but we should stand our ground and start charging very soon after. In many cases, our work is out there for you to see, we have recommendations and testimonials from others. Test drives aren’t really built into our model — but if you like we could do.

I think it’s time we took a stance. Here’s the line we ended up with in the Creative’s Pledge.

“I will not give my work away for free. My choice to donate time and expertise will never be to compete with others.”

It was a runaway winner in our poll in the community.

Community engagement in the pledge

What does this mean?

  • Respectfully turn down any opportunity where you’re being asked to compete with other creatives for no fee.
  • Explain why this is important to you and our industry and the revenue missed out on as a result of pursuing a free creative pitch.
  • Start letting us know (in the Facebook community) when you come across free pitch scenarios. We’d be happy to share these with a broader community and see if there’s a way to bring these clients to the table to discuss our stance.
  • Share this advice to up and coming designers, mentees or people in your network.
  • Sign the pledge — it will be coming soon, promise.

If you have any more thoughts, comments, solutions for this issue, please speak up and contribute. You can comment on this article, or even better, start a discussion in the Facebook group.

I don’t expect the pledge to sit still and stand the test of time. It will be tested every day and may need to adapt almost as often. But, unless we take a stance, and do it together, nothing is going to change, and future generations will continue (like us) to debate, complain, and not get paid in a competition for free work. I think you’ll agree we’re better than that.