POV: Unpaid pitching is a symptom of a broken system

Frustrated by the impact of unpaid pitch requests, New York-based design agency Porto Rocha is inviting the creative industry to sign a public initiative against this imbalanced system. In the first of a new series from It’s Nice That’s Insights department, we speak to co-founder and creative director Felipe Rocha on the agency’s decision to oppose this practice.

POV is a new column written by It’s Nice That’s in-house Insights department. Published fortnightly, it will share perspectives currently stirring conversation across the creative industry. POV will dig deeper into industry discussions and visual trends, informed and inspired by creatives we write about. To uncover visual trends and insights from within the global creative community through our Insights department, get in touch here.

The process of pitching for a body of proposed work is an unfair outlier when compared to any other act of relationship building. Despite the softer (and murkier) buzzword of “collaboration” that often surrounds it, to pitch is to persuade. One party holds power – the opportunity and, crucially, the budget – while the other has one moment to try to claim it. In any other proposal of future partnership, creative or otherwise, this imbalance would be deemed unjust. So why has the design industry accepted this approach en masse? And why are studios willing to adopt an unfair system that can also be financially damaging?

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Porto Rocha: No Free Pitches (Copyright © Porto Rocha, 2024)

When Felipe Rocha and Leo Porto started their eponymous agency four years ago, client relationships were built through conversation. New clients learned Porto Rocha’s approach through introductory chats, relevant work was presented and budgets were ballparked. But crucially, both parties were courting each other, testing to “see if there was a good ‘vibe’, and ultimately land the project (or not),” Felipe explains. The pitch “with a capital P, paid and unpaid,” came later, following an intense sprint in search of creative solutions. A quick scroll through Porto Rocha’s client list and quality of work – from Spotify to Sundance, Nike, ZigZag and Netflix – proves the value in such an approach.

However “over the past year or so, we noticed a shift,” Felipe says. “Prospective clients were coming to us asking for more unpaid work, with tighter timelines, under the guise of a ‘pitch.’” It’s a practice more common in adjacent industries such as advertising and film: “In what feels like a step backwards, it’s become a common practice in branding, too.”

Admittedly, there have been instances when Porto Rocha has participated in “unpaid (or barely paid) pitch opportunities, which we would have said no to in the past,” Felipe shares. Like many others, 2023 was a slower-than-usual year for the agency. The prospective projects on the table – if they were willing to pitch – promised to have a transformative impact on the bottom line. Most importantly, Porto Rocha was persuaded by the clients themselves. There was “great initial chemistry with the direct client and [we] were confident we’d be a good fit,” says Felipe. Anyone familiar with this process will know where this is heading: “We put a lot of work and money into these presentations – but it didn’t pay off.”

A couple of weeks ago, out of frustration, Porto Rocha released No Free Pitches, a public, open call against unpaid pitching. The agency is inviting clients and creative professionals to publicly sign their resolution. Bolstered by a ten-point manifesto, the agency claims that pitching is “a symptom of a broken system”.

Porto Rocha’s statement describes the strain that an unpaid process can have on mental health and motivation, time and resource, as well as how this process can place ideas at risk, if they’re not selected. However, the central point is the imbalance that pitching causes between small and large agencies. It “excludes many who don’t have the resources to participate,” they say; it facilitates an “unfair playing field” and can easily breed a kind of chummy gatekeeping: “who you know is often as important as what you present.”

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Porto Rocha: No Free Pitches (Copyright © Porto Rocha, 2024)

Contacts have always been important in the design industry and Felipe is aware of this. “I understand both sides,” he says. “Of course previous experience offers a sense of security when hiring a partner, but it can be problematic if that’s THE deciding factor. In an ideal world, it should come down to the quality of the work.” Recalling a recent example, Felipe notes a feedback request on a failed pitch for a tech company in 2023. “They told us ‘nothing’ – that the work we presented was literally ‘perfect’,” he continues. “Turns out, the decision was made because an executive had worked with one of the other studios previously, and not us.”

At the time of writing, over 3,000 members of the design community have signed their names to No Free Pitches. There are representatives from a whole host of studios of all sizes, from Pentagram, Collins and Wolff Olins to Hato, Base and BAD Studio, as well as people from brands like Spotify and Google. But of course signing an encouraging manifesto online is an easier step to take than actually saying no to potential work, especially in the face of the continuous tightening of budget purse strings.

For Felipe, collaboration between signatories would help bring about change to the status quo. “What if, instead of relying on pitching, clients made a real effort to get to know the agency, as a company and as people? How they think, the culture, the vision,” the creative director says. “Whose perspectives are in the mix? What experiences would inform their solutions? What’s their process? What do they bring to the table? And vice versa, agencies can get to know clients, too.” This level of respectful commitment would be beneficial for all involved, because such understanding, from both parties, is a rarity. “That magical moment hardly ever occurs during a pitch process. Many times, it’s just a shot in the dark.”

Building such a bold, public initiative against unpaid pitching isn’t necessarily a burden Porto Rocha needed to place on its own shoulders. But the response to its call to action is only proof that change is necessary for our industry. “We’re not naive, of course. We don’t believe structural change will happen overnight because of a single website,” Felipe says. “But our chances of changing an industry practice are a lot better if we do it as a collective, in solidarity with our peers.” After all, he adds: “If we don’t start questioning these practices, who will?”

You can sign and share No Free Pitches directly by heading here.

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About the Author

Lucy Bourton

Lucy (she/her) joined It’s Nice That as a staff writer in July 2016 after graduating from Chelsea College of Art. In January 2019 she was made deputy editor and in November 2021, became a senior editor predominantly working on It’s Nice That's partnerships. Feel free to get in contact with Lucy about creative projects for the site or potential partnerships.

lb@itsnicethat.com

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