Should PR agencies ever work for free?

Should PR agencies ever work for free?

Phil Szomszor

Phil Szomszor

“If you’re good at something, never do it for free,” said The Joker in The Dark Knight Batman film. That’s the theme behind a piece in today’s Financial Times, “No Pay? You Must Be Joking?”, which explores whether it’s a good idea to provide free labour to get experience or contacts, or whether you’re devaluing what you do by giving away your time and expertise for nothing.

It begs the question, should PR agencies work for free?

Putting aside working for free as part of a pro bono arrangement to support a cause or charity, the issue of providing free consultancy time has bubbled away for a while - but I fear the practice could become more prevalent.

There’s always been an element of free PR consulting time. Whether it’s those agencies who take on a high-profile client as a loss leader, or even just the time investment taken to pitch your ideas to a prospect - which could end up being used without receiving a fee.

Then there’s the issue of over-servicing. In the cases where agencies knowingly over-service by, say, 20%, they are effectively giving Fridays to their clients for free.

These are issues which PRs been wrestling with for a while, but I think the pressure to provide free work has become greater. I remember pitching at my last agency to a tech company, and was pretty pleased with the way it went. We then found out one of the other agencies had gone to the trouble of getting a piece of BBC news coverage “to show what they could do”. They got the business.

Last year we were asked whether we would take on an internet start-up and provide our services in exchange for a stake in the business (OK, not free work; theoretically an exchange). We turned the offer down, but know that their web design agency didn’t and the job became so big that it almost bust the company.

I’ve had a few approaches from tech start ups in the last couple of years to do their PR on the promise of future business. I guess they think they’re bootstrapping the business; why shouldn’t their partners show the same commitment?

Exceptions? Well, there's a case when you're learning new skills. Better to hone them on your own marketing or give them away. But the point they have value, they should have a price.

The challenge is to decide what qualifies as free work. I’m always happy to give some initial free advice and you could argue that the content marketing or running events is, in effect, giving away free services or expertise.

The acid test is, usually: do I feel like I’m being taken for a ride? If I feel that way, then I’m I'll walk away. It’s not always easy - and ironically it feels counter-intuitive - but we should always value what we do. Otherwise, how can anyone else?

If you’re good at something, never do it for free: The Joker

Share this story:

Read more from the blog

Blog

The Leadership Paradox: Why Talent isn’t Always Enough

Talent and leadership go hand in hand in making an organisation poised for success, but one can’t do without the other. When we think about leadership, we will all have something different in mind. However, the purpose of all leaders is the same: to unite people as a team to work towards the same goal. […] ...Read more

Megan Dennison
Megan Dennison
Blog

The devil wears (preloved) Prada: Tech and second-hand marketplace growth

When I was young, my dad used to bid on second-hand kids’ jewellery for me on eBay. I’d jump up with excitement when he won an auction, but I’d also wonder – what is this strange and mysterious corner of the Internet, where we could buy silver bracelets from nondescript profiles? That corner has since […] ...Read more

Alexandra Kourakis
Alexandra Kourakis
Blog

Strategic PR planning – how to prepare for the summer slowdown

In the world of PR, and in many other industries, the beginning of each year starts with a bang. There’s a flurry of activity as companies race to make noise with new announcements, fresh messaging, the latest thought leadership and more. Then, in the second quarter, many companies host their own conferences and events. Then, […] ...Read more

Rebecca Graham
Rebecca Graham

Add a comment

Time limit exceeded. Please complete the captcha once again.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Is it time to shape your reputation?

We operate in London, Paris and Munich, and have a network of like-minded partners across the globe.

Get in touch

Sign up to Spark, our newsletter

Receive thought pieces from our leadership team, views on the news, tool of the month and light relief for comms folk

You can unsubscribe at any time, please read our privacy policy for more information