Just Say No To Free Pitches
by Rudy Sanchez on 02/08/2024 | 9 Minute Read
Many studios have a nightmare story about pitching for a project. It comes with the territory.
Paid or unpaid, they present many studios with an exciting opportunity. But quite often, they don't have the financial resources and bandwidth as some of the bigger, established agencies to absorb that kind of investment, even when the pitch is paid—even the "paid" part is doing some heavy lifting there, as the compensation is typically minimal and wouldn't cover the labor required of a studio for such a sprint.
“We worked with a big tech brand on a pitch. The whole time, they made it seem like our work was being selected to move forward,” says Leo Porto, founder and creative director of Porto Rocha. “They started requesting four rounds of revision edits and more and more work. And we kept pushing; we ended up doing three rounds of revision on top of that pitch, having between eight and ten people working on a really big project.”
Based on the positive feedback and compliments, Leo and the team were convinced they would land the client, which kept them motivated to continue working on the pitch..
“The client then just randomly said, ‘I’m so sorry. We’re not going to move forward with your agency,’ which, as you can imagine, was a huge disappointment and financial burden for us," Leo explains. “At the very least, we expected very detailed and comprehensive feedback documents explaining why we didn’t win the pitch, what the winning agency presented that gave them a bit of advantage in the selection process, and so forth.”
But it wasn't to be. “They just ghosted us,” he says. Eventually, the brand responded and told them that they couldn’t disclose any feedback about the actual process, and that was that.
Agencies are often diligent about regularly posting on social media, showing their design thinking and process through case studies, and maintaining portfolios. It’s a way to attract potential clients. But even with a robust online presence, brands have started to ask for more than a few meetings to decide to move forward with a studio.
Prospective clients are now asking for extensive pitches, often performed for free, from several agencies simultaneously. This custom creates an unfair playing field in the design industry, pitting agencies in pernicious battles where the best one for the project doesn’t necessarily win.
This experience was part of the motivation for Porto Rocha to start NoFreePitches.com, a resolution to stop the pitching without compensation. The agency started a website inviting the industry to sign onto a movement that resets client expectations, where these kinds of pitches aren’t the norm. And, if an organization is seeking pitches, they should at least compensate studios for their time and effort.
Ade Chong, founder and creative director of Chong Studio, also has similar horror stories from before she started her own practice.
“We had a long-time client, a big-name brand," Chong says. We grew from being their social media agency to their brand agency. We pitched for the work, for free, of course. We won it and managed a huge global rebrand for them. One that was bought in almost instantly by all of their global markets. Allegedly, at their global internal sell-in event, people were stealing the brand merchandise we had on display. Literally ripping it off the walls of their display stands to take home. We had managed the impossible—to shift a tired brand into a hugely desirable one.”
Eventually, the client’s brand grew, and they asked the studio to scale up, which it did." But that good start turned sour when the client switched brand directors. Soon after, they asked for pitches from several other studios, and despite winning that round of pitches, the brand director fired the studio anyway. As a result, the studio had to lay off employees.
The experience was a bitter pill for Ade to swallow. It's precisely why she wants the industry time to break the cycle of free pitches.
Porto Rocha’s experience showed that the power dynamics between clients and agencies shifted around 2023. Before that, according to Porto, studios were more in demand. However, as that became less the case, particularly last year when many agencies were struggling financially and design budgets were slashed, brands found they could tap into that desperation and ask for free pitches that would include full creative concepts, design directions, and strategy work. More often than not, all this work needed to be completed in a few weeks.
Clients are also asking for these kinds of pitches due to the anxiety and stakes of the project, adds Leo.
“The root of what’s wrong about pitching is that it's not the best way to evaluate an agency’s capabilities,” Porto says. “You’re maybe evaluating if they have enough resources and disposable income to throw at a free pitch. But it’s ineffective, especially for the projects that Porto Rocha works on, which involve fairly complex restructurings of brand identities and positioning. That kind of work takes a long time for us to fully understand the context, the challenges, and the opportunities. It also takes a wide exploration of potential paths forward. And doing that’s better done through several rounds of revision versus what a pitch entails. Pitches are a lot of guessing games and just trying to impress the client without fully diving deep into the real root cause of why they need a repositioning.”
Pitches also aren't as persuasive as a good case study, previous client referrals, or a portfolio. According to Porto, another way to evaluate a studio is high-level provocations that show how it thinks. In Leo’s mind, these are more effective than a hasty, fast-paced pitch that doesn't produce meaningful work.
The agency’s client team often differs from the one that decides which studio gets awarded the work. These executives and managers aren't involved in the process, including defining what the project goals are.
“People that make the final call about who is getting awarded are not a part of the process,” Porto says. "They make a call based on god knows what reasons. Maybe you have an executive who doesn’t have the time to go through the work and decides based on studio size, age, and reputation. The selection process isn't fair. The people making those decisions are not necessarily judging the work as they should.”
On top of all that, Porto also finds that all that effort is unpaid, something they find completely unethical.
Sarah Di Domenico, co-founder and creative director of Wedge, also sees the pitching processes as an imprecise way to gauge alignment between a client and an agency.
“Wedge has pitched for free and also for compensation in the past,” Sarah says. “When I say pitch, I mean full roll-outs of directions. When we have declined to pitch, we often find ourselves in the awkward situation of being convinced to pitch."
"Despite being successful in the past, we decided last year to stop free pitches with this specific context," she adds. "It goes against our company values and the invisible social contracts we engage within. To request a pitch is to request a shot in the dark based on an uninformed assumption and not expect the best work because it isn't done under the best conditions. To request a pitch is perhaps indicative of a fear-driven culture. To request a pitch is to also stand by unpaid labor.”
Instead, Di Domenico suggests clients ask potential creative partners questions such as whether the agency has worked with specific brands in the past or whether they have solved similar problems. Or, they should inquire about how the agency defines its approach or if previous clients can provide references.
For other designers, free pitching also devalues their creative work.
“Creativity is not a free-for-all bid—it’s a priceless asset, not to be commodified by contests but valued as a cornerstone of innovation and visionary thinking,” says Verònica Fuerte, founder and creative directress of Hey Studio.
Mackey Saturday of Saturday Design shares a similar sentiment to Fuerte.
“Design, at its very essence, is a uniquely formed representation of thoughts, experiences, and effort that is deeply personal and intrinsically valuable,” Mackey says. “As a studio, we consciously assemble a team of individuals from varied backgrounds, each with unique life narratives, to cultivate a perspective and methodology unparalleled in composition. Our work is a blend of creativity and the truest form of intellectual property that, when asked to be freely given, undermines its very value. Design greatly enriches experiences and can be one of the most valuable assets for a business. But when demanded for nothing, it cheapens the creation itself, turning a profoundly giving act into a theft.”
Instead of pitching for free, Leo and his partner Felipe Rocha meet with clients first to get a sense of chemistry and see if they vibe. For Porto Rocha, it’s also essential to understand who the client is, what they are looking for, their ambitions, and challenges.
Another reason to decline pitching, in Porto Rocha’s experience, is that when prospective clients want to work with someone, they'll find a way to come back after the studio declines and respect those initial boundaries.
“Establishing boundaries, valuing yourself, and valuing the work of your team is the first step,” Leo says.
“That’s something that I’ve started to realize that actually works,” he adds. “When you say no, or you’re very specific about what you can and can’t do for a certain amount of money—if the client wants to work with you, they find a way to respect that. Or sometimes you say, ‘No, I’m out.’ Then suddenly, a budget appears out of nowhere.” The thing to remember, according to Porto, is that clients are the ones reaching out, so they see something valuable in the studio, and there’s a reason they picked it. Moreover, as service providers, agencies have more to offer the client, in Leo’s opinion.
“One thing we’re trying to do through NoFreePitches is for us as an industry to unite and show that sometimes enough is enough,” says Leo. “We need to raise their hand and be like, 'Wait a minute, there’s something inherently wrong with the way this industry works right now.'”
Porto Rocha didn’t expect such a quick showing of solidarity when launching NoFreePitches. Many design studios and professionals have signed on, but other creative professionals, such as photographers, illustrators, and copywriters, have also signed their names. The practice of asking for free pitches isn’t confined to brand design only, and creative professionals in other disciplines the world over are also expected to labor for free.
Leo doesn’t expect shifting pitching expectations by firing up one website and collecting pledges. And it likely won’t curtail many of the bigger agencies of the brand world from stopping. Still, after their fair share of bad experiences, Porto Rocha felt it was time to at least initiate the conversation, uniting other design professionals of a similar mind and doing away with unpaid pitching.
Ultimately, the consequences of free pitches hurt the entire design community. It creates an unfair playing field where only studios that can afford to work for free at the risk of no rewards can participate. Pitches don’t create meaningful work that can be used to choose a creative partner, and they foster a toxic competitive environment that devalues creatives. The quick turnaround for extensive pitches also affects a team’s mental well-being and motivation.
Moreover, it’s unreasonable and unethical for designers to work for free.
“This is a toxic practice that’s becoming more and more common. And if we all feel the same way, why don’t we unite and fight back and defend ourselves? We need to say, ‘No, we’re not going to pitch.’”
To learn more about No Free Pitches and sign the resolution, visit NoFreePitches.com.