Free pitching, creative pitching, spec work; call it what you will, it’s essentially any kind of creative work submitted to prospective clients, without the exchange of fees, during the pitch process.

Sounds crazy doesn’t it? Why give away ideas - the thing the whole design industry is built upon - for free, with no contract, guarantee of work nor on-going client relationship in return. This video sums up the odd practice, (peculiar pretty much only to the creative industries) so well.

But the practice of free pitching still remains in the creative industries, particularly for larger value contracts, despite being regularly discussed - for at least 10 years - not a great deal has changed. This post was prompted by a lively LinkedIn discussion last week, when a marketing manager asked applicants to send "…proposals for an initial brand concept detailing a new brand identity together with one or two examples of how the brand identity would be applied to poster/flyer/web marketing applications, and an indication of the approach to branding guidelines (colour palette, typefaces, graphic identity etc)…"

Responding creatives were divided. With around 30% expressing interest in the project (which was admittedly a good one) while the other 70% complained/commented on the free creative pitch element. It was heartening to see free pitching being discussed so openly for once, but I was slightly disappointed the client didn’t respond to the comments. It was pointed out that this is still a reasonably common request in Museums and Arts sector pitches. But it was encouraging to see the numbers who think like The Usual Studio, and were willing to forgo the potential opportunity in favour of sticking to their principles.

How is the creative industry starting to fight back against free pitching? 

A group of designers got together to create No!Spec, whose purpose is to give designers, photographers, marketers, writers etc the information they need to take a stand. Their website is stacked with useful resources outlining things you can do: from a range of no spec articles from designers and agencies, a No!Spec logo you can use, sample protest letters, posters for design schools and suggestions for contacting design organisations.

Mat Lazenby, co-founder of creative agency LazenbyBrown has found a way to create a more level playing field for both designers and clients: “Zealous is a great platform as it allows anyone to upload a creds presentation and submit written info on how you would approach a given project, clients can then submit projects to the platform and you can choose to be considered for a project, we recently won a project for Shakespeare’s Globe using the platform”. Looking at the Zealous platform it seems to be early days, but it could be a good one to watch. 

Sarah Raad at branding and marketing consultancy Tent has seen creative pitching from both sides, formerly working in arts/culture marketing, now in her role as marketeer. “When I was the other side of the fence I didn't question it, as it was the standard way to engage an agency at the organisations I worked at, it was expected. I suppose I thought that it was a good way of 'testing' the agency when in reality it's a fairly bad way to do that! Agencies seemed happy to do it, certainly no one refused so I didn't question it. However I knew from my partner/husband who worked for an agency that there were frustrations with the process.

So, when Dom set up Tent he decided to take a stand against pitching. We have never pitched creatively in ten years and we don't that often come up against companies who insist on it. Generally people can be persuaded that it isn't necessary. We will have undoubtedly lost out to agencies who have been willing to do creative work up front. I do believe the design industry as a whole needs to take a stand and just refuse to do creative pitches. it's just not necessary to be able to choose the right agency and it's absolutely not fair on the agencies to expect them to spend time doing it."

The Web Guild is a new platform with a mission to create a 'better code of conduct for the digital industry’. They are working on it from a web perspective, primarily through education. The Knowledge base is a useful resource on their website and they have series of training courses planned. I’m really excited by the idea of the Web Guild and proud that The Usual Studio are a member already, more details on why they decided to step up to the task are eloquently explained here by co-founder Lisa.


From a clients perspective

I think it’s fair to acknowledge that for clients, choosing a creative partner to work with and buy unseen ideas from, can be a daunting prospect. Especially when large budgets are to be spent. So I can understand why they lean on the tried and tested pitch process to help them choose.

Our role as an innovative industry is to lure them away from this, by giving them absolute confidence in our skills, experience and ability to deliver ideas when the project actually starts - NOT in the pitching process. Asking for ideas in advance - before meetings have been had, connections have been made, businesses and problems understood - only leads to creative work which misses the mark.  

Ways we can, as an industry, tackle free pitching:

  • Educate clients through conversation, explaining why it doesn’t produce the best match, work or relationship
  • Back up experience and portfolio’s, with case studies and credentials
  • Have a draft response ready to send
  • Share the No!Spec message
  • Promote the topic via articles/online discussions/workshops/talks
  • Talk to trade organisations on the issue, like the: DBA, Arts Marketing Association, Museums Association etc
  • Consider using creds platforms like The Web Guild and Zealous
  • Spread the message widely with articles, *ahem* like this one
  • Start a campaign?!

John Scarrott, Membership Director for the DBA wrote this week, 'When the design industry chooses to take its responsibility for the buying and selling of its expertise, it may accelerate progress towards being recognised as a profession. And that would be a great place to be.' The design community must start to lead the way and take responsibility for the pitching process, not always just doing exactly as the pitch asks but questioning the process, offering to show our expertise, skills and value in new ways. 

Finally here’s what The Usual Studio will and won’t do:


Talk about our ideas for projects with great enthusiasm. Write 500 words in response to the brief (if clients really want us to.) Give a quote (with detailed cost breakdown), talk through our process, send our credentials, write a production schedule, offer tailored case studies, show our full portfolio, give CV’s of team members, degree certificates (!) and any other paper work clients might like to see.


Design initial concepts for brands, produce speculative style guides with colour palettes, fonts or graphics, nor will we showcase how the brand would look when applied in print or digital. 

Interested to hear your thoughts on free pitching in the comments below, or on Twitter @TheUsualStudio

Charlee Sully

Charlee Sully, Creative Director of The Usual Studio
I work across design, ideas, strategy and content, writing about design, innovation and entrepreneurship. I love sushi, tea's my cuppa of choice and BBC6 music's always on. Unlike a former housemate - I do find comedy funny. 

Twitter @TheUsualStudio