Free Lunch for Advertisers

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I call it the “fever pitch.” It’s what happens when white-hot panic leads a creative-services agency with limited financial resources to believe that its only chance in hell of snagging a client’s project is to advance the client thousands of dollars worth of creative work for free—for the client, that is. The agency, of course, pays the salaries and overhead to get this work done.

Is this the American way? Yes and no, but as one who has worked on both sides of the aisle, I can tell you that it is the way things are these days.

More and more it seems that clients in search of creative services are turning to talented, experienced, hard-working advertising pros, looking them straight in the eye and asking them to work for free. With five or more agencies in competition for a particular project, the client can wind up with a flotilla of advertising and marketing concepts, gratis. And it gets better: Survive the first cut, and the client may just ask for free revisions!

The practice of clients asking for free pitches is a demeaning trend that forces some of the finest creative talent to grovel for the chance to make a living—while driving their own businesses into the ground.

In fairness to the clients, it must be acknowledged that they generally have less money to spend on outsourcing, even though it remains the most effective way to infuse their businesses with fresh creative ideas.

With fewer dollars to spend, clients naturally want to get what they can for free. Tighter budgets mean less outsourcing and fewer projects in play. Agencies must compete harder than ever. Some agencies offer their services for free just to get a foot in the door. Some upstanding clients insist on paying agencies, in spite of such offers.

The glut of creative supply in today’s market gives clients a powerful upper hand on ad agencies. But does that mean agencies should pay, in effect, an entry fee just for the chance to be paid for their services?

Or to put it another way: Would you be willing to work for free so long as there’s a 10% chance you’ll get paid for your work? I didn’t think so.

So what’s the answer? Clients should familiarize themselves with a concept called “no free lunch.” It’s questionable behavior when a client asks for or encourages an agency to provide valuable thinking and creative direction free of charge.

This is, after all, “intellectual property,” and expertise, hard work, and idea generation should be bought and paid for. Plain and simple, it is unethical for a client to ask for free work just because an agency is desperate enough to do it.

Agencies should do what they do best—be creative and solve problems. Clients should reward them for it. Check, please.

Gaskins is the CEO/executive creative director for New York-based Push Creative Advertising. He’s also an Emmy Award-winning TV producer.

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