To Hell with the Sell: A 12 Step Manifesto to Stop Pitching Free Creative Away to Prospects

By Blair Enns, Author, “The Win Without Pitching Manifesto

Are you in PR, marketing, advertising or related integrated marketing communication professions where you’re forced to pitch your best ideas to prospects and even clients—only to have them walk with those ideas without ever signing you as their AOR?

You’re not alone if this business reality drives you crazy. It’s just bad business and can cost you thousands—if not more—in lost creative capital, time and resources. But the truth is it doesn’t have to be a reality. Not anymore.

The free pitching of ideas and advice is endemic in the creative professions, but it’s really a symptom of other basic business challenges shared among many firms. What follows is a twelve-step program to transforming a creative firm and how it goes about winning and doing business.

Step 1: We Will Specialize

The root of the global free pitching problem is not bad clients, but an oversupply of undifferentiated creative businesses. The client’s power to push the firm around in the buying process, to dictate pricing and to demand that the firm part with its thinking for free comes not from his wallet but from his choice. The client can easily replace one unaccommodating undifferentiated firm with another just like it.

The only real way to reclaim power is to specialize and build a firm of such deep expertise that is seen as having few real competitors. But this first step is where most firms fail. It is the nature of the creative mind to broaden itself and pursue varied interests even while the business cries out for focus. This is but one of the many business costs of creativity.

Step 2: We Will Replace Presentations with Conversations

To a person, creative professionals are addicted to the presentation. This our dirty little secret: We love presenting so much, we’re willing to do it for free. When we’re honest we will admit that we create the conditions where a presentation becomes necessary—working neither transparently nor collaboratively—so that we may meet our own need to present.

Until we wean ourselves of this addiction and choose to converse instead of present we will never be free of the pitch.

Step 3: We Will Diagnose Before We Prescribe

While it’s considered malpractice in other professions to diagnose before properly prescribing, we do it all the time. The arms-length nature of the pitch never allows for a proper diagnoses. It thus forces us into an ethical dilemma each time we agree to pitch. Proper diagnoses requires formalized diagnostic methods, however, and, alas, an inability to formalize how we work – to be hemmed in by a real working methodology—is another cost of creativity. It does not come easy to us.

Step 4: We Will Rethink What It Means to Sell

Most of us think of selling as the act of talking people into things. But selling, when done properly, is merely the facilitation of the buying process. If we have succeeded in the first step (specialized and thereby differentiated ourselves) then we can treat selling as a respectful exercise. If we have failed at the first step then we are left with trying to talk people into hiring us, even while we disdain it.

Step 5: We Will Do With Words What We Used to Do with Paper

A proposal is a constructed set of words that we deliver orally. “Here’s what we propose to do for you, here’s how long it will take and here’s how much it will cost. Would you like to proceed?” The document that follows is the contract, and it becomes necessary once the answer to the proposal is “yes” or “yes, dependant upon working out some remaining details.” Somehow, we’ve gotten away from such a common sense approach and have convinced ourselves that 50-page “decks” are more meaningful than conversations.

Step Six: We Will Be Selective

Pragmatism about opportunity is another cost of creativity. We tend to talk ourselves into pursuing every opportunity that presents itself, when often we should just walk away. Poor fits, unsophisticated clients, ridiculous selection processes, lack of budget or budget transparency – these are just some of the many reasons that we know, and the client knows,  we should retreat, even while we continue to advance.

If we want our yes to be taken with credibility then we must regularly wield our no.

Step 7: We Will Build Expertise Rapidly

Knowledge is like water in that it will spread to the edges of its container. If the container of our knowledge is the broad “full service marketing communications,” then what we gain in breadth we will sacrifice in depth. It is difficult to build expertise rapidly when we are broadly positioned. Where the narrowly positioned expert can double his knowledge base every year or two almost in perpetuity, the generalist’s knowledge spreads like a film without ever amassing any meaningful depth.

Step 8: We Will Not Solve Problems Before We Are Paid

Our clients deserve to rest assured that our best minds are working on their challenges and not the challenges of those who have yet to hire us.

Step 9: We Will Address Issues of Money Early

We must resist putting ourselves in a position where we have over-invested in the buying cycle only to find the client cannot afford to pay us what we are worth. By addressing money issues early, including outlining the size of budget it makes sense for us to take on, we save ourselves time and frustration.

Step 10: We Will Refuse to Work at a Loss

We build our firm one profitable engagement at a time and excepting our carefully selected pro bono work all our engagements should be profitable. It is the semi-profitable job or the quasi-charitable client that bleeds us of profit and energy.

Step 11: We Will Charge More

Competing on price is the lot of the undifferentiated generalist. The dual advantages of the specialist are the ability to simultaneous win more while charging more. Charging more brings greater reward to us and our staff and it allows us to allocate more time to contemplate our clients’ challenges, thus improving both our delivery and the client’s satisfaction.

Step 12: We Will Hold Our Heads High

The transformation from generalist to expert brings about many changes beyond the ability to circumnavigate or derail a pitch. It brings with it a value and respect for our work on par with the more elevated professions. And it brings to us rewards of money and time that allow us to have a greater impact on our families and communities.


Blair Enns is a business development advisor to creative firms worldwide. He is also the author of “The Win Without Pitching Manifesto” (RockBench Press in 2010). Blair lives in Kaslo, British Columbia, Canada and can be found at



  1. W.T. "Bill" on January 24, 2012 at 1:58 pm

    From the client’s viewpoint I have said for decades, “Why would you hire someone based on what may be the only bright idea they have every had?” A look at what an agency has done for others should give anyone an idea of what they can do for you.

  2. Donna Maurillo on January 25, 2012 at 1:17 pm

    When I was consulting, I once pitched PR services for a local bank. The marketing VP was unhappy that I did not bring finished ideas to the table. I said, “My finished ideas are what you pay for when the contract is signed.” Of course, I didn’t get the contract. No loss. She squeezed the agency that did get the work, let them go, and continued producing their ideas in-house.

  3. Donna Maurillo on January 25, 2012 at 1:46 pm

    BTW, I posted this on my Twitter feed. Good article!

  4. susan tellem on February 5, 2012 at 11:54 pm

    This is absolutely the best article for watching my back in 20 years. Now I have to have enough guts to take it to heart. Thanks Blair.

  5. Steve Turner on February 6, 2012 at 5:14 pm

    Good advice. I agree proposals can be structured to whet the appetite without cooking the whole meal and detailing all ingredients. If you’ve done enough pitching in most cases you can “read” the buyer and trust your gut to walk away if they ask too many specific questions,making you uncomfortable.

  6. Karen Barnett on February 7, 2012 at 2:40 pm

    After more than 25 years in the Marketing Public Relations industry, working for global agencies, heading Corporate PR departments and running my own, your portfolio and reputation speaks for itself and your ideas sell themselves! Translation, you get paid for them. Free advice is just that…free, it has no value. Most prospects who turn into clients, never use your ideas as delivered so they don’t have to pay you what you budgeted for them in your deck — so why give them away for free? My programs are strategic, based on considerable research, analysis and comprehensive planning. I offer prospects initial PR thinking, fresh perspectives and offer a different viewpoint. But like fruit growing on a tree, the easiest way to reach a prospect is to give your work away. Any agency can reach low lying fruit!

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