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Why creative agencies will always work for free

Why creative agencies will always work for free

By Fred Thompson

As a marketer you may have been involved in many creative agency pitches and if you have it’s probably been enjoyable and entertaining. Not only that but you get to choose which agencies you bring in and as many as you like. You might even invite five or six to pitch if it’s a large digital or branding project.

Why do you choose so many? A few reasons.

Firstly, because you can.

Another being that you can’t really tell the difference between them as they all seem to be offering the same services.

You are also not sure how much they will charge and you might get the same job at a cheaper rate.

You are not sure and can’t tell by their websites who will be the best fit.

You also might want to see who you best connect with and can see a solid relationship moving forward.

Pick me, pick me …please!!

Then you get to watch them plead their case and why you should choose them over the others. They all try and deliver you the WOW factor and the most memorable presentation.

You then look for the one who best answered the brief. The one whose creative you prefer. The one who had the best personality. The one with the biggest WOW factor. The one that just felt right.

More than likely it wasn’t a straight forward decision as there are probably multiple decision makers who all have different opinions. Not only that, all the agencies answered the brief very well and were all similar in some way or another. Anyway, as a group you chose one, probably the one who seemed to add the most value at the lowest cost. Or a combination of a few things.

Now you have to make the unfortunate phone calls or possibly take the easy way out and send the templated emails to the five that just missed out. You tell them all the same thing, that it was very close and that you loved their presentation but there was one or two things another agency offered that you liked or you were just a bit more expensive than the others. You say you will keep them on file for future projects but you don’t really.

The fun and rewarding part

You really look forward to telling the ‘winner’ and you make that call last as it’s the most rewarding, looking forward to agencies response. The agency gets really excited as they desperately needed the work due to missing out on their previous three pitches they have just been through to other companies who told them what you just told the other five.

And to them now the pitch wasn’t a waste of time and money. It was worth the late nights and the added stress that goes with it. For the other five it’s back to the drawing board to try and work out where it all went wrong.

How do I know all this? I spent the first twenty years of my creative career doing exactly that… pitching or rather working for free.

Why it will never change

So why has this been taking place for so long? And why will it never stop?

The industry has tried for decades to abandon agency’s free pitching but they still keep doing it and always will and only have themselves to blame.

They blame the prospects but it’s not their fault. How are you as a marketer supposed to choose the right agency without going through this ridiculous process? You can’t as you would run the risk of making a bad choice and that could mean the end of you.

Lets face it, if you could clearly differentiate the agencies and one clearly stood out as ‘the one’ to work with from their online presence and positioning then you could avoid the whole process, make the phone call and get them in for a chat, not a presentation.

Every creative agency knows that someone else will always do it for free for fear of missing out altogether. And that’s true, and why would you pay if you don’t have to?

It’s a vicious circle that’s here to stay unfortunately for the majority of them.


We used to pitch for free and respond to any tender that came our way. We didn’t know any different. After all it’s what every agency did and the majority still do. It’s part of every day life in the creative world and for most professional service firms for that matter. How else are we going to win new business apart from referrals and networking?

We don’t pitch, not because we don’t want to but because we don’t have to. That may sound arrogant and maybe it is, but its true. Our own digital strategy has positioned us away from our competitor’s so well that clients now come directly to us. Therefore we don’t get asked to anymore and neither should you.

Position around a problem

If you don’t position yourself around a problem, educate, nurture and give away valuable advice then you will always be asked to pitch and tender.

I cringe at the thought now of how many hours we must have spent working on presentations and proposals or both without being successful and I’m sure you are in the same boat.

Sure we had our share of wins but like every other professional services firm we all had our losses. But that’s how it goes right? You win some, you lose some.

Well it doesn’t have to be that way. Your target market should know you exceptionally well, understand what you do and the expertise that you offer and come to you without having to go through such a tedious and time wasting process.

If this sounds like a position you would like to be in, then lets touch base.

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