Dav Tabeshfar: Why no one wins an unpaid pitch. That includes clients

Dav Tabeshfar: Why no one wins an unpaid pitch. That includes clients

By Dav Tabeshfar, Partner and Creative Director at &Partners.


A few years ago, a not-insignificant WA based brand that you’ve definitely heard of, invited us to pitch, unpaid, for a project. The client requested our presentation include the strategy, campaign concept, and an entire media plan of executions.

The prize for the ‘winning’ agency? The privilege of producing the work for a total production budget of $25K. I shit you not.

We had a good laugh in the office… until the next pitch invite arrived.

This was for another not-insignificant WA based brand. This client was asking us to develop a strategic and creative response (unpaid) to communicate a major shift in the way the brand was going to do business. Like, a serious transformative kinda shift.

The potential winnings? A single project with a total budget of $16K. The pitch doc actually made it clear the winning agency would then need to continue pitching for work as part of a roster of ‘winning’ agencies. Perhaps they were using the word winning in the Charlie Sheen sense of the word.

Again, this was a big grown-up brand you’ve definitely heard of, not some electrical-seconds warehouse in Balcatta.

It was around this time that Bryan and I decided we wouldn’t do free creative pitches anymore.

Unpaid pitches have always been inequitable for agencies, but at least in the past you’d be pitching for an account with a relatively assured annual spend. Now we’re all pitching for projects. Well, some of us are.

Why we won’t do unpaid creative pitches.
We value what we do, and we want clients to value it too. We’ve seen our work literally transform businesses, increasing enquiries by well over 100%, year-on-year. We’ve seen how it can contribute to the culture of a business and get the whole team pulling in the same direction. We’ve watched the long-term effects of our work; establishing a brand’s personality, tone of voice and relevance in the community. All this trickles down to the bottom line. It’s valuable – and it’s the only thing we have to sell.

Clients pay for unpaid pitches.
Agencies have to recoup the cost of pitches from somewhere – it’s not like they can just not pay their staff for the hundreds of hours abandoned in a pitch.

So how does an agency recoup the cost of unpaid pitches? Clients. Who else?

If an agency wins an unpaid pitch, the task of clawing back costs begins almost as soon as the new client is settled in. Of course it does; agency costs don’t go away because a client doesn’t want to pay for a pitch.

If an agency doesn’t win the pitch, one way or another the agency’s existing clients pay. Perhaps an agency builds the cost of pitches into their annual budget. Sure. But where does that budget come from? Do you think it comes out of the directors’ profit share? Really?

So, if you appoint your agency via an unpaid pitch, eventually you’ll be paying for that pitch – and because your agency goes in for unpaid pitches, there’s a fair chance you’ll be paying for a few more too.

We like our clients so we won’t do that. And to be fair, we don’t have a blindly aggressive growth strategy. We don’t pressure ourselves into picking up work we don’t really want.

Of course, agencies don’t pay all the costs of an unpaid pitch. Quite often staff make a significant contribution: Their family time, weekends and health. Recently, this town has seen pitches roll on for months and months and months (I could go on). Imagine the effect this has on people, on families, on health. It’s a relentless, fear-based fever-sweat that no mind or body should be subjected to for that period of time. Of course, it’s not the clients fault entirely. Larger corporates tend to become more distant to the human impact of their behaviour the bigger they get. They’re a bit like goldfish. If you keep feeding them, they’ll keep eating. No, it’s the ultimate responsibility of the agency to say, “Enough. No account is worth this.” But so often no one says this because there’s always another agency waiting to sacrifice their people to the god of the pitch.

“Other agencies will do it for nothing.”
When we explain our position and suggest a more equitable path (We’ll invest some time, you invest some money) most marketers recognise the issue and are happy to contribute. Sometimes we get the “Other agencies will do it for nothing” response. This abdication of fairness is understandable, but it’s not OK. We know most marketers are under pressure from someone; someone who’s often removed enough from the process to be insulated from that feeling you get when you do something a bit shitty.

So, our opportunity as an industry is to make that pool of agencies who will pitch for free, so small you’d need to be desperate to delve into it.

Yes, there will always be agencies who will pitch for nothing, but you don’t have to be one of them, and the more of us who make this decision, the less inviting that pool becomes.

We can’t.
Full disclosure: There’s another more practical reason we won’t pitch unpaid. We can’t. That’s the fault of our business model – and the beauty of it too.

Like many of our independent agency friends, our work isn’t just good, it’s good value too. Our margins are fair. We price ourselves so we can offer growing clients access to grown-up thinking. Our production mark-up is just what it needs to be and our hourly rates for Creative Directors would quite often buy you a mid-weight team at a bigger agency.

And, like most independent agencies, we always over-invest in our clients. Always. As a cohort, we’ve learned that over-investing in existing clients pays better returns than pitches that can often involve three or four or nine other agencies.

Quite simply, the economics of it mean we can either over-invest in existing clients or give prospective clients free work. We choose existing clients.

How do we fix it?
If you’re a client, please consider how you’ll be paying for your next unpaid pitch. If you’re already with an agency that refuses unpaid pitches, stay where you are. You’re in good hands.

If you’re an agency employee, remember to ask your next employer whether they’re unpaid-pitchers before you take the job. If they are, chances are you’ll be paying for their misplaced generosity.

And if you’re an agency? Let’s all be the change we want to see.