A few weeks ago, New York City passed the Freelance Isn't Free Act, which mandates payment within 30 days on all freelance invoices. This is a great step toward protecting an increasingly independent workforce from exploitation in the gig economy. But getting your invoices paid is only half the battle. These days, many of us—especially in creative fields—find ourselves battling for the right to invoice at all.
The "try before you buy" approach was once endemic to big advertising. But these days, smaller firms and independent workers are all being asked to pitch for free. As that practice spreads, it's undercutting plenty of other well-intentioned diversity efforts. Because after all, some companies and individuals are better positioned to be able to do free (and often fruitless) work than others.
It didn't used to be this way. The logic behind the free pitch may have once made sense decades ago: It was an investment in potentially lucrative, long-term relationships with prospective clients. While big agencies shouldered the risk, the logic went, the payoffs later down the road made it worth the gamble. It was a useful way for brands to identify the right agency partner for the long haul. But frankly, this was the environment where the practice should have remained.
Instead, the free pitch model escaped into the wild, with prospective clients growing more demanding and entitled. For those unfamiliar with how this process often unfolds, here's a real-life example.
I run a motion graphics firm, and not long ago a production company came to us on a glowing recommendation from a former client, excited about our positive history with the network that had picked up its show. The production company had a tight deadline and no official request for proposal (RFP) for the design work required. Multiple brainstorming calls revealed a budget that was half our usual standard. We agreed nonetheless, with the promise of cultivating a new relationship.
Our fast-paced field often awards jobs on a handshake, and this effectively communicated a sealed deal. The contract—a formality outlining terms—went out on a Thursday morning. The kiss of death came on Saturday: "We're reviewing bids on Monday, so we need design ideas in by 9 a.m. for consideration." This prospective client had taken 48 hours to respond before requesting free work, over the weekend, on a job we agreed to complete at cost. I turned them down cold.
This doesn't just happen in my industry. Clients seeking vendors in any creative discipline now feel entitled to be "courted." Yet the money at stake isn’t in the six- or seven-figure range—now it's in the five-, or even four-. With budgets hardly covering the costs of production, never mind pitch expenses, "try before you buy" becomes "pay to play." Today, even some creative firms themselves perpetuate this offense down the food chain, a form of "hazing" of newcomers by those who've made it.
For the least scrupulous, far from offering opportunity, the pitch has become a method for sourcing fresh ideas (for free, of course), and then producing them at bargain-basement prices elsewhere. With smaller firms lacking the resources to mount a legal pushback, this expropriation of intellectual property carries few if any consequences.
"Free" work is never free. Whether it’s parents, investors, a trust fund, or a cash reserve from past successes, something or someone is always subsidizing free work by opportunity seekers at any level, from the intern to the entrepreneur. And faced with practices like these, the freelancer is just as vulnerable as the small business.
The fact is that there will always be a crop of eager pledges willing to play: companies with athletic competitive streaks and cash reserves, recent grads desperate for any exposure. But far more troubling is to consider the many talented companies and professionals who can't afford to in the first place.
Sadly, these are most often the people whose opportunities were slimmer from birth—whose parents couldn't afford extra lessons, who sacrificed on education, who couldn't afford an internship to open doors, who started businesses with no capital or fallback plan. Not surprisingly, this group is heavy on minorities, women, immigrants, and anyone born and raised in less-than-optimal economic settings.
I'm personally on the cusp of this barrier, a first-generation immigrant raised by a single mother just above the poverty line, the ESL kid in New York City's public school system who had to work through college and bypass interning for even low-paid employment. When I rose through the ranks, free work was expected primarily of recent graduates (who were "paying their dues") and elite agencies (which could afford it). Increasingly, though, one’s financial capacity for unpaid labor is tested at every stage.
The untamed growth of this trend is exacerbating our current socioeconomic stratification. On an individual level, anyone who drew the shorter economic stick by virtue of birth unceasingly encounters barriers to entry—despite talent, effort, education, or even accomplished success.
On the macro level, this exemplifies today's "winner-take-all" economy, by excluding small companies that can’t afford to play and forcing others to compete themselves into the ground. Worse still, the companies owned by women and people of color that are disproportionately affected by this trend already face unique hurdles, from racial discrimination to managing parental leave.
New York already requires for-profit employers to meet six additional requirements beyond the Department of Labor guidelines to offer unpaid internship opportunities. Could the larger "free work" problem be resolved by government intervention? Perhaps.
But perhaps it's time for everyone in a position of either acquiescing to or soliciting this practice to ask some hard questions of themselves: What's the real value of "exposure" in an oversaturated market? In a society that's getting ever more economically unequal, is the ability to afford to work for free an accurate measure of success and talent?
Or strictly from a business point of view, are clients entitled to minimizing risk at the expense of vendors? Is using pitch ideas without compensation fair game because the fine print granted the client all rights? Or is it actually theft of creative property under a more palatable name?
Many of the same companies that champion diversity efforts in recruiting and hiring haven't stopped to consider the type of exclusion—based not on talent or ability but on socioeconomics—that they tacitly justify through their bottom lines. But isn't there an ethical obligation to one’s peers, industry, society at large, to maintain a fair playing field for all?
I believe there are some appropriate circumstances for giving away labor. Since requesting free work is akin to asking for charity, the cause must be worthy of donated time. Sometimes it is. For that to be true, the services being exchanged need to be of equal value and need. Transparent RFPs, established relationships, and respectable budgets could justify free creative work. But all other opportunities that demand the explicit presentation of ideas need to include a pitch fee and a prenegotiated payment for rights to ideas, regardless of who gets awarded the project.
I hope my voice joins others in this effort to change the professional culture and corral the practice of free pitching from running further amok. Finding a solution that's ethical and fair isn't just the right thing to do, it's also better for business—everyone's business.
Maria Rapetskaya is the creative leader and architect of Undefined Creative, a boutique motion graphics agency that works with household names like NHL, NBCUniversal, The Maury Show, Better Homes & Gardens, and the United Nations.