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The Marketeer Association

By The Drum, Administrator

July 29, 2002 | 9 min read

There was a knock on my front door last Saturday. I opened it to a short man wearing jeans and a T-shirt with “Blockheads” written across the front.

“Hello, I’m from Blockheads,” he said. “We are a block paving company and I was wondering whether you would like us to give you a free consultation on how you could improve your home by paving your drive?”

From the TV in the living room I heard a loud roar go up and realised that I had just missed a World Cup goal because I was being speculatively pitched to on my own doorstep. I was somewhat annoyed and declined his offer.

The issue of free pitching is not new, but it remains as contentious as ever. Should agencies do it, should it and those who free pitch be thrown in the stocks, should the industry push for it to become a thing of the past or are most marketing services agencies happy to continue giving away creative insight to clients for nothing?

Members who gathered to debate this issue at the second meeting of the Marketeer Association, which took place at TheCircleClub around two weeks ago, included Neil Griffiths of BDH\TBWA, Jonathan Sands of Elmwood, Rob Taylor and Louise Muir from Like A River, Dave Palmer of Love Creative along with Gordon Young and Richard Draycott of The Marketeer. Apologies were sent by Carl Hopkins of JDA, Dave Miller of Scope and Julian Kynaston of Propaganda, who were unable to attend.

After the minutes of the first meeting were heard, Jonathan Sands, chairman of Elmwood and an adamant anti- free-pitcher, got the debate under way: “The arguments against free pitching are simple. There is no such thing as a free pitch; it is a subsidised pitch. That is to say, your fee-paying clients are subsidising it and allowing you to invest your time for nothing to somebody who may or may not use you. It’s unfair.

“However, I think it is completely fair for a client to ask three or so agencies to put forward creative proposals, one of which they will pick, but all that work should be paid for, because the client has got some value out of the two agencies that he or she didn’t pick.

“This is not a client problem, it is an industry problem. The reason free pitching exists is because agencies are going to clients and saying we’ll give you creative concepts for nothing. Our industry is not brave enough to stand up and say that this is not how we should be doing business.”

In recent months, agencies such as BDH\TBWA and Love have invested time and money and suffered at the hands of one particular Manchester-based client who took advantage of the free pitch process in order to ensure that they weren’t “missing a trick”. Love’s Palmer recalls the worst case his agency has faced was being asked to pitch against five other agencies to design a two-sided A4 leaflet.

However, he points out that Love would not be where it is today were free pitching not the norm: “We would love to be in a position like Elmwood and other established agencies and be able to say we don’t free pitch, but free pitching allows the wild card into pitches because there is no pressure on clients to be accountable for the money they are spending, because they aren’t spending any. I would like us all to be more like lawyers or accountants and be more watertight, but how do we go about that? Unfortunately, this problem has been around for years and to try and get rid of it might be like to trying to stop people smoking.”

At this point something surreal happened. Jonathan Sands of Elmwood said to Palmer of Love that he would be more than happy to spearhead a pitch for Love, convince the client to give them a pitch fee and what’s more win the pitch. Palmer was clearly pleased to be able to report back to base camp the next day that he had recruited one of the North’s foremost voices in design. When/if this pitch happens it will be reported in glorious technicolour in The Marketeer.

Once the contract had been verbally agreed Griffiths of BDH suggests that perhaps one way to tackle free pitching, which is only serving to devalue the service agencies provide, is to educate all clients.

He says: “It would be interesting to say to clients who are asking you to pitch for free, ‘let’s take this thing forward nine months and say we have a working relationship. Would you really like us to be taking your money and then working for other people for nothing?’ Some will take it on board, others will not.”

So, how can agencies persuade clients that the time, effort and energy they invest in pitching for work is worthy of a fee commensurate with the work put into that pitch?

Sands recently persuaded the Scottish FA to pay all agencies involved in the pitch to design its European Championships bid. “The SFA asked four agencies to pitch and I explained that from the experience we have had with the FA, we will bring them a lot of value, win or lose. Likewise, the other agencies will also bring them value and therefore deserve to be paid. To their credit, the SFA said that nobody had ever said that to them before and agreed to pay all the agencies. The number of times a client has paid us to pitch, after we have said we do not free pitch, and not paid the other agencies, who have not asked, is incredible. The beauty of that is that, if it comes down to the toss of a coin between two agencies, which one are they most likely to go for? The one they have already invested some budget in. Until the industry collectively articulates that whatever we do has some value to clients we will never get away from free pitching.”

Like A River, the Manchester-based design firm, also refuses to pitch for free.

Taylor says: “For us it is not about the money, but we refuse to work for any client without complete insight. We do not want to produce anything creative without complete insight into the company. In a free pitch scenario, where you are up against five or so others, you cannot do that. You do not get the time or access you need to do a good job.”

But what if you are actively courting a client, as many agencies do. Should clients be expected to pay when they are not even making an approach? Sands, who chased GNER’s business for two years until he picked it up last year, says: “There’s a fundamental difference between being proactive, as opposed to being reactive. I wanted the GNER work and I offered them some insight and some ideas about their business. They wanted to hear more. There is a grey area between salesmanship and giving them the product. It is about selling the sizzle, not the sausage.”

So, how much should agencies offer clients without giving away their expertise for free?

Griffiths says: “In the past we have said to clients, we will respond to their brief, but we won’t take it as far as a creative pitch. We’ll take it as far as the strategy and if you like the strategy and you want to think about what we can do creatively come and look at our show reels.

“One way around the free pitching problem might be to say to the client that we would come in and talk about what you want, but let’s have a two-day workshop together. We’ll turn more spaghetti into clearer thinking for you during that workshop, for which we will charge you x amount. After that workshop we will guarantee that we will find you the right creative execution.

“There’s one agency that’s gone on record, published their approach to business and said we do not free pitch. That’s BBH and it’s the strongest agency brand in the UK.”

So, if BBH can do it why can agencies in the North not take a strong stance together and say to clients, if you want a winning insight into your business, we are more than happy to give it, but that insight and subsequent added value must be paid for?

Marketeer Association Objectives

ï Make and strengthen links with other Associations promoting

business opportunities in the North.

ï Establish management information to gauge how much work is actually being taken out of the North.

ï Research the image of agencies in the North and reposition them through a tactical PR and advertising campaign targeting the

top 100 spenders.

ï The introduction of an annual Association event inviting top 100 clients to a showcase of work by agencies in the North.

Are you a client in the North? How do you feel about free pitching? Is it justified? Should advertising, design and other creative agencies offer you a glimpse of what they could add to your business before you commit to them? The Marketeer Association wants to hear your views. Please send your comments to

If you would like to become a member of The Marketeer Association and play an active part in the development of your industry please email Simon Jardine at


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