Paid pitches give ideas value

The alleged plagiarism of the London 2012 Olympic cauldron design got me thinking again about the value of ideas and pitch process.

For the majority of creative businesses, strategic and creative ideas are currency for acquiring paid commissions. Good ideas usually lead to work, which generates revenue and hopefully more work. It’s we why creatives get out of bed in the morning.

Clients always need new and innovative ideas to answer problems, so free creative pitches allow them to cast the net wide and assess a variety of solutions and suppliers. In theory, the best idea and ‘supplier fit’ wins the work, which is the reward for the pitch.

But in pitches, as in life, the process doesn’t always go to plan:

  • the brief may turn out to be flawed
  • the pitcher with the best idea may not be the best ‘fit’ for delivering the project
  • the project might get put on hold or cancelled.

Those pitched ideas then find themselves in limbo. But ideas are like viruses and once in the open they can spread rapidly. They incubate in people’s minds and resurface later, often without any memory of the source. That idea can then pollinate in another place within an organisation, perhaps providing the answer to the original problem, or a new one. The originator of the idea hasn’t been paid a penny, but the idea is being put to use and someone else is getting the work. Not really fair, is it?

Such sharing and harnessing of ideas is partly why the human race is so successful, so it would be churlish to over criticise what’s in our nature. But until companies learn to recognise the value of ideas, this situation won’t change. And when talented people feel they’re being ripped off, they understandably lose their appetite for pitching, which is everyone’s loss. Plus, disgruntled suppliers can do real damage to the client’s brand.

Of course, there’s a simple and obvious way to help avoid such pitfalls – paid pitches. Clients can then be upfront about the fact that the pitch is a trawl for ideas as well as a supplier search. They can feel free to use what ideas they believe have merit and commission who they want to work with. Pitchers know where they stand and get financial reward and acknowledgment for their hard work. Winning the work is still the ultimate aim for the supplier, but the thoughts, insights and ideas generated are being valued and paid for, plus the client has the confidence to use them as they see fit.

In some instances, it makes sense to separate the idea from the supplier because they are two very different things. In an ideal world, the supplier of the idea should supply the work if they are capable. However, if a fantastic TV ad concept came from the delivery guy, would you want him to make it? I’m being over simplistic, but it’s useful for agencies and clients to challenge the received wisdom that the idea provider should automatically do the work.

As long as everyone gets paid and acknowledged fairly, it could ultimately be liberating. It allows creatives to enjoy ownership of a successful idea without having to always deliver it. And it frees clients to choose ideas and suppliers more objectively, whilst avoiding plagiarism – unintentional or otherwise.