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The High Cost of Free 

On the consultant side of the marketing business, we are constantly faced with a dilemma: How do we balance our clients’ need to see a fair assessment of an agency’s true capabilities with the exorbitant new business costs we know agencies will incur no matter how restrictive the original ground rules?

This is especially true in today’s uncertain times. Clients are becoming ever more careful with their marketing spend as the C-suite demands greater marketing ROI. So while paying stipends for pitches is becoming increasingly rare, clients are demanding more and more “free” work from agencies as a hurdle to winning new business.

This convergence is partly a function of the times, and partly brought on by our agency friends themselves. After years of “breaking the rules” in pitches, agencies are clearly paying the price now. Even when we, as consultants on the client-side, have requested from agencies that there be no creative at a particular stage, no rips or tone pieces, or no primary research, many agencies, nevertheless, will spend enormous amounts of time and money to do just what they’ve been given a “hall pass” to avoid. And as a matter of course, the clients accept these gifts because, after all, the agencies are doing it for “free.” Worse, clients are learning to expect these extras as part of the process.

Isn’t it about time we all get together—consultants, the 4A’s, the ANA and others—to develop some enforceable and mutually agreeable new business spending guidelines that stop the bleeding, and then abide by them? I know it’s hard to break what has become tradition, especially when breaking from the pack, when all of the “bright, shiny objects” will sometimes win the account. However, in the end, the greater damage (as we see it) is a diminishment of the great value you bring.

With the high cost of pitching business growing higher and higher with speculative work and other forms of taxation, shouldn’t we all act more responsibly? It’s a recession for heaven’s sake.

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