By Founder & Global Strategy Director Will Worsdell, as featured in Campaign Magazine. 

Most RFPs these days, rightly, ask agencies to prove their commitment to Diversity & Inclusion. But often, at the same time, ask the agency to produce huge amounts of work for free as part of the same process.  What needs to be made clear is the negative effect the latter, working for free, has on the former, investing in D&I.

For full transparency, my career has been spent client-side as well as agency-side, so this is certainly not a client-bashing piece. In fact, my time both sides of the fence has shown me that 99% of the time agency/client problems are due to a lack of understanding of the other side. Agencies would do a lot better if they understood how small a percentage of their client’s time is spent on the work that agencies do, the commercial pressures Clients are under, and just how different the cultures at many client organisations are compared to agencies. Equally, many Clients would benefit from a greater understanding of agencies’ emotional investment in creative work, knowing that agencies genuinely want to know more about their business to be able to help, and, most importantly, the knock-on effect of asking agencies to do substantial amounts of work for free. More on that later.

What I am not suggesting is that pitches should be abolished. Clients have the right to ask agencies to prove their capabilities before handing over a project or retainer fee. But what needs to change is the practice of asking several agencies, for free, to pretty much do all the work that the pitch is recruiting for before deciding which one gets paid for it. It’s a buyer’s market and this is just commercial reality you might say. If agencies are prepared to do work for free, then why shouldn’t clients ask them to? And this is true. But, putting to one side the fact that smaller agencies don’t have a choice, there’s a more important side to it. The link between free work requests and investment in D&I.

This link is varied and complicated. To simplify, we can group the main knock-on effects of free work under time, opportunity, and investment.

Time- Ultimately, an agency is its people, that is the only product. Clients are buying what is created by the time that these people possess- time to create ideas, to produce ideas, to measure ideas- when you are asking for these things for free, more time needs to be created. That means longer hours. This inevitably discriminates against people with life and family commitments and the inability to extend hours. A negative effect on D&I.

Opportunity- to protect teams from this extended time it often means management teams and senior people take on the bulk of new business, particularly in small agencies, depriving less experienced members of the experience and development opportunity of new business and client relationships. A negative effect on D&I.

Investment- Society has a massive problem with inequality and lopsided privilege. This is from schools right up. What this means is that for genuinely diverse and inclusive teams to be established, the inequality of opportunity and training needs to be combated by investing in people that need more support to reach their potential, because society has not given them the opportunities that others have. Further, there is a great need to offer paid internships so that people can see that the marcomms industry is for them. Simple economics shows that an agency doing work for free becomes less financially stable and therefore less able to make these investments. A negative effect on D&I.

Every client has the right to do what they want with this information. To ignore this, to have a purely commercial view on the situation, to ask for as much free work as they want. But please don’t pretend you’re committed to D&I if you do.

At The Park, we feel the time has come for us to take this into our own hands, to take a stand, to protect D&I from free work. So, as of today we are launching the D&I Pitch Fee Scheme; ring-fenced fee revenue solely for investment in D&I. And we encourage other independent agencies to join us.

From now on, when a client approaches us with a request to pitch for work for free we will assess what is being requested on a case by case basis. If we feel we can’t do what’s being asked without harming our inclusivity goals, we will provide two options. The first is a revised level of work that we feel is reasonable for free, the second is a D&I fee that we require in order to produce the level of work that they require. These fees will be protected and ring-fenced to be spent solely on our D&I initiatives; including  paid internships, training, mental health support, mentoring, grants and donations. We will then report annually to everyone that has paid us a D&I fee showing where the money has gone with full transparency.

This feels the most equitable solution to the current impractical situation. Clients get the work they need, agencies can nurture an inclusive culture, and both sides are true to their stated commitments to D&I.

Maybe this will cost us some new business opportunities, but it means we’re staying true to our values and commitment to creating a diverse and inclusive culture. We think this is the right way to go and hopefully fellow agencies and clients will too.