Should PR companies charge for pitches?

I have worked in PR for more than 13 years and I must have pitched more than a hundred times, it’s one of the best bits of the job. Ask anyone who works in PR it’s tiring but brilliant. The thrill of coming up with new and interesting ideas and then trying to capture the marketers’ imagination.

Then there is the all important client phone call afterwards and you are told you have won the project! You all do the victory dance (maybe even a few whoop whoops) and the team is buzzing excitedly and then you suddenly realise that the client has chosen the one idea you put in, for creativity purposes, and now you have to make it actually work GULP! (Joking of course!)

So there are some pitches that go really really well and there are others that die on their back sides. I remember pitching to the Home Office for the launch of a big campaign at the COI many years ago. There was a six-strong team of us, including the chief executive of the agency, and we had been pitching for almost 90 minutes and we finished our passionate presentation and the chief executive ended it by saying: “So that’s our campaign ideas over with, do you have any questions?”

To which one of the main guys replied: “Not really, I just feel your campaign fundamentally lacks credibility”.

Now, I should point out that I remember that statement word for word as the words stuck and held in the air. In fact, I am sure time actually stood still for those few seconds. However, not to be beaten we somehow turned it around in the questions, and actually won the business, which just goes to show if you take criticism on the chin instead of defending an idea a client doesn’t like sometimes you can still come out on the winning side.

I saw a really interesting tweet yesterday from Leeds PR consultant Richard Rawlins who said he had lost a pitch and the client in question had then passed on his agency’s ideas and the winning agency would be using them.  The full details of the conversation are enclosed in the image on the right have a read of them. Richard Rawlins Twitter

So that lead me to think a few things really. Firstly, what a total unethical thing to do to a great bunch of people who have worked their butts off to come up with these ideas, but I have to admit it has happened to me before.

Secondly, if we (PR Professionals) write copyright throughout our presentations does that mean they are our ideas and our intellectual property? So if a client does use our idea can we sue them or should they pay for our ideas if they wish to use them?

Personally, I can’t see a PR agency suing a client for it as it would look bad to any future clients. In public relations we all seem happy to pitch for free whereas in other marketing specialisms agencies are paid handsomely for their ideas. Are we moving with the times or should we (as an industry) start charging for pitches to stop this kind of thing from happening?

I welcome your thoughts.

Posted By Chris Norton

Chris is listed in the world's top 30 PR bloggers and a regular conference speaker on crisis management and social media marketing. He is also co-author of Share This Too and lectures on digital communications at Leeds Metropolitan University.


Stuart Bruce

There’s a lot of wooly thinking around this subject. You can’t copyright an ‘idea’, it would just protect the actual document/deck etc. And in the UK it’s a myth that you need to put a copyright statement, as it automatically applies if the work qualifies.

One approach you can use is to get the prospect to sign a confidentiality agreement before you share your proposal, but even that isn’t ideal as you’d have to be able to demonstrate that the information was actually shared.

I’ve also seen some client flip this round and get those pitching to sign an agreement saying that once submitted the proposals belong to the client.

The most sensible approach I’ve seen a client take was one where we won the pitch (but interestingly without submitting ideas, we just talked about strategy and approach). Some of those competing against us did submit ideas – some of which we’d had similar, but not identical ones. The approach the client took was to offer a goodwill payment as it was ‘using’ the idea. In reality all the ideas provided is inspiration as there wasn’t enough detail to actually implement (and nor should there be in a proposal).

We also sometimes get a bit to uptight about the value of our ‘ideas’. There are precious few out there that I’ve seen that are genuinely innovative enough to qualify as unique. We had a pitch last year that we lost and the main idea the client later implemented was ours. Did I feel cut up about it, not really as it was just a topline idea that other consultancies may or may not have come up with.

When I do get annoyed is clients that do trawling expeditions for insight and ideas, but then don’t appoint anyone.

Chris Norton

Thanks for your thoughts Stuart, I know what you mean about being overly precious about our ideas, sometimes we do get a bit too uptight about it. I just think that if we (PRs) spend a good week or so preparing a strategic campaign packed with ideas that meet the brief we do have some right to feel like we have been mistreated if the client then uses these ideas anyway with another agency. We should be protected in some way.

I totally agree with you about clients inviting people to pitch and then not hiring anyone that is far worse and I have seen that before too. That is of course unless all of the agencies missed the point but then I would probably say that the brief was written badly.

Vlad Iuga

It seems that this kind of problems ocur all over the world, in different type and size (of the business, of the PR company).

Some people in the industry suggest that there should be a pitch fee that all agencies must receive for their work. Do you think this should be included like a default business procedure in PR?

@Sturat Bruce: How many companies for whom you pitched did sign that NDA / confidentiality agreement?

Josie Fitzhugh

This is such a difficult area with no right answer. Big companies with PR-savvy teams often understand the huge amount of effort that goes into pitch development. And they may well have the cash to support that process.

But smaller companies, or businesses that haven’t fully grasped the potential of PR, may not be able to justify or accept paying for pitches. And yet these are the companies that many of us really want to engage with. These are the businesses that can move quickly; that can be truly innovative; that can offer the most to a journalist looking for something different. These are the businesses where good PR can make an enormous difference.

If payment was the norm, I think some businesses might turn away from the pitch process and there will be fewer open contests. So universally paid-for pitches just don’t sit comfortably with me. But then nor do companies that abuse the pitch process and pass on ideas.

I like the idea of a goodwill payment as per Stuart’s comment but almost feel that if, in an attempt to cover yourself, you mentioned this before the pitch, you’re inviting the client to cherrypick great ideas for their favourite team. So the pitch process becomes a charm offensive rather than a chance to showcase fresh ideas and rock-solid experience, which is after all the most exciting part of pitching.

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