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As a public relations firm, we spend a lot of time with prospective clients discussing how integrated marketing communications programs can impact their brand. Like many organizations, new business development is the lifeblood of any company that sells goods or services. But unlike a company that sells widgets and whosamawhats, what we have to sell are our ideas, creativity, experience and brain power. So when the age-old question of “how much does it cost” comes up, we have to make the determination of what that brain power is worth.

Or do we?

There have been a lot of conversations lately regarding value when it comes to professional services firms. My friend Indra Gardiner, in a recent blog post, went so far as to say we are devaluing ourselves when we give away our creative thinking in the new business process. Sure, share your past experiences with the prospect, but to expect an agency to provide a full-plan in the proposal stages is virtually impossible. We can not possibly have enough information or have the time to do the research necessary to provide a comprehensive plan.

Problem is, at one time or another, we have all given in to that request because we really want the business. We know we can do the work and if we show the client upfront how creative we can be, we’ll get the account and isn’t that really what matters?

I just got caught up on a few of the last episodes of Mad Men. Our friends at SDCP were pitching the Honda Motors business. And you know what? Honda gave each of the bidding firms $3,000 to put the presentation together. They provided specific guidelines for the response and were going to judge each agency based on their efforts within those parameters. Wonder how that would go over in today’s competitive marketplace.

So I offer this up for discussion…could we all agree not to do work on spec? Could we go as far as asking new business prospects to compensate us for our new business ideas? Wonder what you think?

Abbie S. Fink
Abbie S. Fink
Vice President/General Manager Abbie has been doing public relations her whole life…from organizing a picket line in 6th grade to organizing client communications today. She’s passionate about a lot of things, you’ll see. Check out Abbie's full bio

6 Comments

  1. Bart Butler says:

    People have told me, repeatedly, to never, ever do work on spec.

    But being relatively new to this market, and being a one-person writing & communications consulting shop with low overhead, I’ve found that offering to do a small project on spec is an effective way to demonstrate my skills and to start developing a working relationship with a company.

    I’ve picked up two of my best clients this way.

    It’s not without risk, but it’s certainly a viable tool to use in certain situations.

  2. Abbie – This sure feels like an endless abyss doesn’t it?

    I think there are three camps of client prospects: 1) Those who really don’t understand what we do or what the process should be, but know they need help. This prospect will often ask for too much in the pitch phase because they don’t know how else to make the decision between agencies. It’s a bit of a red flag because they are going to need a lot of coaching to become a “good client” and that may or may not happen.

    2) Prospects who want to get as many ideas as they can from the pitch process. They may or may not actually intend to hire an agency. Whether they do or don’t, they know they’ll get lots of potentially usable ideas. They have absolutely no respect for our time.

    3) Finally, we have companies that bring an understanding of the process, of how agencies work and a healthy respect for our time. God bless them. They are few and far between.

    The example you gave from Mad Men does still happen, though usually with very large advertising based accounts. We have been asked to pitch business where we will provide creative for a minimal amount of money. The hitch is that whatever you give them, they own, whether they hire you or not. We have passed on this type of opportunity a couple of times, believing that our creative is just worth more than that. And it sets up an unhealthy expectation of how creative should be developed and what it’s worth.

    As for everyone agreeing not to do spec work. I wish. But it won’t happen. There is a guest comment on my blog post (that you referenced in your post) about a pitch in which one of the big public PR firms gave the prospect the plan for free in order to win the business. We will always be competing with agencies that are just that desperate or have that level of bandwidth to just give it away.

    I think we should start talking more about how we can educate prospects. What would that look like? Is it possible? Could we get a committed group across the country to lead the charge? Possible roundtable for CAPRSA Madame Chairwoman?

  3. Indra — thanks for your thoughtful comments. And yes, it is a uphill battle and one that will continue to challenge all agencies. I do think it will make a great roundtable discussion — you up for it?

    Bart – certainly appreciate where you’re coming from. And we’ve all been faced with the decision to do something on spec in the hopes that it will turn into more work. This isn’t a new discussion at all, just one we all hope to find some reasonable solutions to. Thanks for commenting.

  4. Susan Hart says:

    There are some industry topics that just won’t go away, and this is one of them. As a small shop, I have learned to develop boundaries with prospects (and sometimes with clients who want more service than the agreed-upon scope of work). For instance, I may offer creative suggestions or have lightbulb moments during which ideas just fall out of my mouth. I’m okay with that because the prospects, for the most part, can’t do anything with them. But I draw the line at providing any tangible work (writing, media contacts, etc.) as I will volunteer those services for my nonprofit causes. I think each person/agency needs to decide those boundaries for themselves. A discussion about the types and limits to those boundaries might be part of a good roundtable discussion. Good post!

  5. Dana Hughens says:

    Abbie, you took what I think has become a very emotional topic and simply summarized the facts. Well done! I think the challenge is how do you show the prospect your thinking without sharing some specific ideas? I think it is also hard for a client to understand cost proposals without some details on what it could include. I really like and agree with Susan’s comments about boundaries.

    My experience has been that giving some initial thoughts based on what you know, with the strong guidance that it could all change once more is learned about the company and business objectives, has worked well. It is certainly a gamble to offer a big idea knowing that it is hard to protect against it being used with or without us. We have to decide when we want to take that gamble. We should also remember that it is possible for another firm to propose similar daily or ongoing tactics, and perhaps we should not be quick in pointing fingers about idea stealing.

    Personally, I’m thankful for all RFPs that come my way. Even the ones that aren’t a fit for Clairemont or that ultimately result in a decision to not respond, I’m grateful that someone thought enough of our capabilities to include us. For folks with larger and more established firms who might be experiencing RFP fatigue, I say think back to your early days when all you wanted was to be on “the list” of agencies in town that were always invited to participate.

  6. Susan, Dana – thanks for weighing in. Similar to Bart’s thoughts, you both add some valuable insight as small firm owners on the subject.

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