Freelancer beware: 11 pitfalls of spec “pitches” and how to handle them from the Born Freelancer

A portion of Bart Aalbers' cartoon. See the full cartoon at

Here is a fantastic cartoon that illustrates some of the dilemmas we freelancers face [LINK]. Could anybody who is not a freelancer get it? It is so funny because it is all so sadly true — I’ve seen them all at some point in my career. I guess the freelancing experience is universal.

Go over and take a look at it and then come back (or else keep it open in a separate tab or window while you read this post).

While I normally hate deconstructing humour in public — it takes all the fun out of it — in this case I’m making an exception because there are invaluable lessons for the freelancer in this great cartoon. Its title, “Pitches Can Be Bitches,” should be your first lesson. I know that some freelancers, especially those new to the profession, will feel they have no choice but to submit spec “pitches” whenever they have the chance. For you especially I hope the following lessons learned the hard way might be of some use.

1 Cold calls that sound too good to be true. Lesson: They usually are. The more excited a cold call is about whatever it is they are asking me to do, the more I know it probably won’t end well for me. Anytime I hear the word “excited” (as in, “we’re really excited about this project” or “we’re really excited about you joining us”) I know it’s a dog.

This has happened to me so many times it’s the word even I now use when I’m trying to sell a concept I have less than 100 per cent faith in.

2 “It’s only a pitch.” Lesson: Pitches are a legitimate sales tool, but it’s a very thin line between making pitches gratis and actually creating work on spec and one you should be aware of at all times. Do you really want to work on spec? The answer, in most cases, should be “no.” It devalues your worth and takes advantage of all freelancers during these difficult economic times. The only time I could imagine working on spec (aside from doing your own projects) is when your portfolio could use the example. Otherwise, if you already had a similar project in your files wouldn’t you show it as a useful example of your work to get paid for new work?

I know that there will always be other exceptions (no other work being offered, no relevant experience, etc.), but you should only enter into these situations with eyes wide open and feet firmly planted on the ground. And of course you could always try negotiating ahead of time for a “kill” fee if it all goes down the drain. That’s a topic for a future post.

3 “We’ve approached xxxx others.” Lesson: This should be an immediate red flag. This is a cattle call. Either the client is insane and they are burning through freelancers left and right or else nobody really knows what they want and they are on a fishing expedition. Do you really want to get hooked only to be thrown back into the river? The odds of success are against you, although never impossible.

4 “We want all the rights.” Lesson: If this is work that has possible resale value to other markets, you are about to lose all future potential revenue streams. Is the cash amount on offer enough to make you waive all future interest in the work? As a freelancer your copyright and right to resell work to other markets and other clients is an important potential revenue stream. Giving that all away is sometimes necessary but you do so at a greater cost than might be obvious at the time. The only obvious exception might be for work that is so uniquely identifiable with one client that it could have no other application (such as specific advertising copy).

5 Demanding immediate decisions on the phone. Lesson: They don’t want you to have time to think it through. Most likely the terms they are offering you are not so good. Or else they are so badly organized that they don’t have the time to give you to think about it, which should be a red flag for the type of people you’ll be working for and the type of schedule you will be expected to follow. Be warned.

6 Demanding you work over the weekend. Why oh why do employers and potential employers always need stuff done over the weekend while they rest up? Why couldn’t they have called earlier in the week or even early Friday morning? Lesson: I honestly believe some of them get their jollies (consciously or subconsciously) knowing that they’ve spoiled our weekends. (Not that freelancers really have weekends, of course. We’re either working or not working whatever day of the week it is. Still.) Others are such poor managers of time that you are at the bottom of their to-do list and that again should be a red flag.

I had one employer who used to leave it (at least in my memory) to exactly 4:59 p.m. Fridays before calling. No kidding. He’d always want a massive set of rewrites all due Monday morning at 9 a.m. What can you do? Not answer the phone/email/text? You’re not likely to ever get work from them again. I eventually learned to never make any social plans for the weekend until about 5:30 p.m. on Friday when the coast was clear. (I figured by then if I hadn’t received a call it was some other poor schmuck who had.) If I had something important like an out of town wedding etc. I would even put it in my contract ahead of time that that weekend was out of bounds for work. You’d be amazed how even that wouldn’t stop them trying it on. “So you’re making a speech as best man, couldn’t you also be working on the revisions I need as well? Haven’t you heard of multitasking?”

7 “Change the colour.” This really cracked me up (in the cartoon). Lesson: Be prepared that some employers will feel the need to demand arbitrary changes in order to justify their salaries and/or maintain the illusion of creative input. (The good ones don’t need to do any of this, of course, because they are confident of their job and/or abilities.) I guess changing superficial things is an easy target. Another employer I once worked for wanted scenes rewritten in a TV script that I had submitted earlier in the week. A whole series of carefully constructed scenes had to be restructured and rewritten. It was a whole lot of menial work that really didn’t improve the script at all. The requested change: He wanted the scenes set in a different room in the lead character’s house. Why? His wife thought it would play better! (It didn’t. Furniture just isn’t that funny.)

8 “We’ll present it internally.” Lesson: This can sometimes mean if your pitch is accepted, it will appear to the client that the company is responsible and that you are just another salaried employee. (Of course, if it tanks you’re just one more freelance loser they can cut adrift). Not much you can do to guard against this until such time (if ever) that you meet the client and explain things in person in private. And even then it can be improper (and indeed illegal if you signed a contract with a prohibition clause) to reveal your freelance status.

9 “Your proposal didn’t make it…” Lesson: When a pitch fails to interest the client it will always be “your” pitch. If it had interested the client, it would automatically have become “our” pitch. What is so frustrating is that clients can present even a perfectly good pitch poorly. You just have to make your pitches as bullet proof as possible knowing that they can still be sunk by a weak presentation by someone you will probably never meet or have a chance to brief in person.

10 You will often be blamed for things you were told to change. Lesson: You can choose to swallow your pride and accept it or stand up and risk getting no further work.

A TV series I once worked on demanded numerous changes in my storylines — all of which weakened the characters and the series arc. Protests were shoved aside and changes were made (against my better judgment). The series was a minimal success but all the faults of its first season were blamed on the writers (including me). During a story meeting before the second season started, with all the past and future writers present, the producer blatantly blamed the first season writers (including me) for all the show’s numerous shortcomings. Rightly or wrongly, I made the decision there and then that it was unlikely they would hire me again and that I didn’t care to work for them again anyway. I stood up and politely pointed out that all the shortcomings were in fact decisions made by the producer and against the better judgment of most of the the first season writers involved (including me).

Needless to say I never worked for them again. But it was one of the most satisfying story meetings of my life (so far). Sometimes you just have to pay the price for such glorious moments in your professional life — fleeting as they may be.

11 The Grrrrrrrrrr Factor. Lesson: When/if you get rejected, don’t waste another second of your life brooding over it. Trust me, it ain’t worth it — and this from a guy who has spent years cumulatively brooding! If you go into these things eyes wide open and know what you’re doing and what the odds are going into it, you should have no reason to brood. Move on, get on to your next project right away, nothing more to see here.

Thanks to Bart Aalbers in the Netherlands for creating/illustrating such a thought-provoking and funny, albeit painful, cartoon! Original text by Bert Dijkstra, translated by Dagmar Veenstra.

This series of posts by the Born Freelancer will share personal experiences and thoughts on issues relevant to freelancers. Have something to add to the conversation? Your input is welcome in the comments.

Posted on September 22, 2011 at 9:56 am by editor · · Tagged with: , , , , ,

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