We discover the ins and outs of free pitching with creative director Jenny Theolin, designer Mike Dempsey, agencies Music and Zulu Alpha Kilo, and the Design Business Association (DBA). They discuss alternatives and suggest tips for avoiding it.

Chefs know there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Glance through the creative internet’s reaction to free pitching, and it seems designers do too. From the DBA to popular campaigns like No! Spec, free pitching – where creative agencies submit designs to a client for no pay – is overwhelming condemned. 

Yet designers still willingly pitch for nothing. According to the latest Design Industry Voices survey (2013), free pitching – known as spec work in the US – is seen by creatives to be on the rise.

Jenny Theolin of Studio Theolin, which offers creative consultation, said: “I was once known as the ‘pitch girl’. I loved the process, I loved the freedom in doing work without knowing all the details, I loved the ‘in an ideal world’ scenarios, and I loved the boundaries we could push without knowing all the client challenges.

“And I was winning. I won many; at one point, 8 in a row. It was fun. I worked at an agency who could afford to pitch, which didn’t spark alarm-bells for me, as I was being paid anyway.” 

Free pitching may bring an addictive buzz but, like the worst highs, it is exploitative. “The inherent problem,” continues Jenny, “is that pitching removes the opportunity for small businesses to compete. If I were to pitch, for example, I would have to convince an entire team of collaborators to work for free too.

“It diminishes the value of what we do. And it eliminates the value of what we produce.” 

No more 'try before you buy'

Clients want to ‘try on’ work before they buy. But tailored, detailed design is not the same as mass-produced clothes. Even worse, spec work has become a theatre, with artifice, endless rehearsal and a polished performance closer to the finished product than ‘pitch’ suggests.

Clients can be so creative in milking you that you might wonder why they need to hire a creative agency at all. Whether they promise future work, exposure or the opportunity to ‘win’ a public project, you’re still diverting time, money and resources from work that actually, definitely pays.

Mike Dempsey, a graphic designer who writes against free pitching in his blog, believes spec work is not just damaging to you but the whole industry. “The more you do, the wider it spreads until it becomes the norm. Those who have colluded in this unprofessional pursuit are, in my view, doing great damage to our industry.

“If a client is too lazy, too ignorant or too mean to take the time to seek out a designer or consultancy that is suited to their project and on top of that doesn’t want to pay for any sort of creative pitch, then they are not worth the time of day. Steer well clear of them.”

Some lament free pitching is a necessary, albeit painful reality in a harsh world - an unavoidable by-product of intense competition. But Sue Strange, Brand and Strategy Director at Music, thinks the design world can flourish without free pitching.

“It’s a choice,” she says. “I don’t think it has to be a necessary reality. As long as our industry does it, some clients will always expect it. Explain, educate, evolve. It’s how we have always changed stuff for the better.”

On the flip side, others claim spec work can bring agencies and clients together that wouldn’t otherwise meet, and give young designers the chance to bulk out their portfolio.

But Sue doubts the system’s ability to pick out deserving design work: “In essence, you’re presenting a bunch of ideas to relative strangers, with whom you’ve been on a pretty short journey (if any at all). 

“Sometimes you don’t know how many other agencies they’re seeing, usually you don’t know who those other agencies are. You might be first, you might be fifth in the line up. In other words the strangers might be fresh and receptive, or they might be jaded and thinking about what they’re going to have for tea. It’s a complete lottery.” 

The client’s view 

Creative agency Zulu Alpha Kilo made an unconventional choice: saying no to all free spec in pitches. They were a start up when they made the decision and, five years later, are thriving even though it meant rejecting nearly 80% of proposals in their inbox.

The turning point came when Zulu Alpha Kilo dedicated months to a free pitch, only to be rejected as the competing agency had an office near where the client was looking to expand. In short, there was no point pitching in the first place. 

“This was when we realised there had to be a better way,” says Mike Sutton, President of Zulu Alpha Kilo. “We believe that the traditional spec pitch approach isn’t working anymore. We’d like to help unchain clients and agencies from this outdated process. Because we really do believe that it’s bad for clients. It’s bad for agencies. And it’s bad for the entire industry.” 

It’s pretty obvious why free pitch is bad for agencies. But it’s harder to understand why the client, who has the pick of professional designers giving away work for nothing, is spending time on anything other than rolling in saved cash.

It turns out that though there is such thing as a free lunch, it is unlikely to be a good one.

Free pitching, thinks Mike, “can hinder groundbreaking, game-changing ideas. If an agency is investing heavily in a pitch, very few of them are brave enough to go out on a limb to put forward an earth- shattering new concept. It’s way too risky. 

“It is not an accurate reflection of an agency’s creative expertise. Talented freelancers are often hired to do the creative for the full-timers who will actually work on the business (but are too busy to work on the pitch), resulting in a giant smokescreen.”

Pitches can be misleading. An adept agency with more paid work on might spend less of their valuable time on a pitch than an agency desperate for cash. Plus, to avoid wasting hours on a potentially profitless job, creatives will likely have only a shallow understanding of the client

“Any agency can seduce clients with dazzling creative work in a pitch,” continues Mike. “But chemistry and a proven track record of producing brilliant work are much better long-term measures of an agency’s capabilities. 

And free pitching, thinks Mike, doesn’t lend itself to long-term work. “It has led to an epidemic in the industry where agencies divert resources away from existing clients in order to fuel new business. Paying clients go to the ‘back of the line’ because the pitch becomes the agency’s sole focus. This is an industry-wide phenomenon and should give clients real pause.”

Ditching the free pitch  

When you love your work, as many designers do, it might feel easier to just offer it for free and swan off to the safety of your studio. But the danger is selling yourself rather than your product: other professions are valued for their time, not devalued by being paid only for their output.     

John Scarrott from the DBA believes the alternatives to free pitching are better for both agency and client. “The best alternatives to free pitching provide more evidence of an agency’s suitability and better quality evidence. They are based on evidence of proven competency. They rely on agencies showing how they have solved similar problems in the past, backed up with the results to prove it. 

“And they prove that they know how to do it again. That is not something a free pitch can ever deliver, because those ideas have never been tested. And they are not evidence for the process that produced them.” 

In a world of free pitching, it is hard to not be a free pitcher: it takes courage. But not doing so exudes confidence in your abilities, allows you to educate clients on the downsides of free pitching and lets you spend time on projects with greater long-term collaboration. It means them possibly commissioning you, even for speculative work. Most importantly, it demands mutual respect.

“There are choices to be curious, or not,” says John. “Choices to be open to better processes or to stay closed to alternatives. If the desire to improve and the will to discuss and learn exists on one or ideally both sides, then an opportunity is created for a better way to buy design that leads to the right decision for the buyer, in the right way for both buyer and seller. Why would anyone turn away from such an opportunity?”

For Jenny Theolin, giving up free pitching paid off when she pitched design experience, rather than solutions. “Saying no to the most recent pitch (after much toing and froing) was quite hard. But, I tell you what, after 3 days, I was headhunted for something better, paid, and fun! By the same people. It pays off to say no.” 

Yes, life’s a pitch, but maybe it doesn’t have to stay that way. See this handy chart by Jessica Hische to see if you should pitch your work for free (no, probably).