Part of what many marketers want from content creators is an instant ramp-up of ideas and different windows into the subject matter. That is why a call for pitches is one of the main steps in ClearVoice’s “casting call” process for new clients who want to hire several writers in a short time span. It’s also why so many brands and agencies ask for potential new employees or contractors to present a strategy or even produce sample work as part of the application process.

When prospective new team members pitch, you see how well they understand your needs and your business.  For the creative people who are interested in working with you, this can be an exciting and challenging opportunity to showcase their ideas.

BUT  (imagine this caveat flashing with the intensity of a red stoplight in front of a railroad crossing)

BUT! You have to be extremely mindful about what you’re asking for. This may seem like a casual request to you, but it’s not casual to the 5 or 10 or 50 people you’re asking. It’s a request for free inspiration and labor.

From the candidate’s perspective…

In any industry group of social media managers, PR and marketing agencies, writers or creative consultants, when one of the members comes forth to say they’ve been asked to present a marketing plan or editorial calendar or other large piece of spec work, there’s an instant swell of cautionary murmurs from the other members. This warning typically comes from people who have given too much in the past and regretted it.

“I use to be an equity partner in a digital agency where the owner got into the bad habit of giving away free digital and social media strategies in exchange for the possibility of new business. We’d waste billable hours on spec work, taking time away from clients who paid us,” says Felicia Sullivan, a content/story/branding consultant with 20 years of experience and clients including Target, IHOP and the National Board of Medical Examiners.   “One of the critical lessons I’ve learned [from that experience] is to not give free work — especially if you have the winning case studies, client portfolio, work samples, and expertise to prove your salt.”

A point of clarification for the marketers reading this: Story ideation is considered a part of the process of proving one’s salt, for writers or video producers. It’s one of the most agonizing parts, because once an idea is out there, it’s almost impossible to prove ownership or protect it. And candidates are essentially without protection, although occasionally a company is so egregious that it catches the eye of a watchdog group.

Here are some best and worst practices to be aware of when you’re looking for new creative partners — to ensure that you build bridges with valuable talent, find the right fit for your business, and put good energy out into the gig universe while building your company.

Do this, not that: Ways to not be an ass during the pitching process with freelance creatives

stay committed to your project pitching creatives

1. Be committed about your project.

Do… Ask candidates for pitches if you are internally committed to selecting contributors for an imminent project. Even better if you can provide some project specifics, i.e.:

“We are planning our next three issues of the digital magazine. We will need six new pieces of feature content for each. Sections we need to fill are: Design Trends, Industry Leaders, Back of House. Please send over pitches for these three sections — two sentences max for each.”

Do not Put out a call for pitches if you don’t have the budget to assign. Do not put out a call for pitches if it’s not on your calendar to start the project. Do not put out a call for pitches to the entire world because you can’t be bothered to create parameters.

2.  Provide feedback on your needs.

Do… Accept a pitch contingent on the candidate modifying it based on your specific parameters and needs.

Do notAsk the candidate to pitch over and over without giving them feedback beyond “this isn’t quite right for us.” At a certain point, if you think someone is a potential asset to your company, you need to take the time to guide them/help shape their concepts into exactly what you’re looking for — they are not psychic and can’t read whatever’s in your mind’s eye.

Ask freelancers for samples of past work, not free spec work.

3. Ask for previous work not spec work.

Do… Ask a candidate to see previous work that is within or related to your industry — and then ask them how they’d attack the same topic for your company specifically.

Do not Ask a candidate to produce spec work for your company or agency. Not because you’re bringing them to work on new business. Not because you want them to “go the extra mile” to prove their commitment. Not even because you want to make sure of their skills. No matter the reason, it’s exploitative.

“Over the course of my six years as a consultant, I’ve been asked to submit to 4-6 rounds of interviews, free research, free marketing plans, free brand strategies — all for the possibility of working with someone who didn’t place any real value in paying for one’s time and expertise,” shares Felicia Sullivan. “Now, I have minimum rates in my portfolio and website and I don’t even entertain the conversation of multiple interviews for a project or free work.”

4. Review previous success without fishing for free future plans.

Do… Ask to see case studies. Ask for references from previous clients. Make sure the candidates are knowledgeable enough about process to prove that they’ve done it, and that they have satisfied customers.

“In the interview process, you can expect to be asked to show a portfolio, maybe present a case study, show past work, or provide a sample of your writing,” says Kate Buck, successful social strategist, agency owner, and founder of the 20,000-member strong Social Media Pro website and Facebook group.

Do not Ask candidates to outline what several months of future work would look like. This goes for marketing plans, PR plans, content plans or video outlines. Any of this is strategy or creative development work and should be compensated.

Buck was so disturbed by the egregious asks her community was getting, she published a blog post entitled How to Decline Writing a Marketing Plan As Part of the Interview Process. She says that declining companies’ ask to create marketing plans or customized proposals within the interview process is one of the healthiest things anyone can do for their business. She also recommends refusing to present specific strategies, and refusing to co-pitch or strategize on an agency’s client business without first getting hired by the agency.

“The reality is, there might not even be a real job opening,” she says on her blog.

Don't ask freelancers to peek behind your curtain and offer strategies without paying them.

5. Ask for examples of strategies, but not a proposal without pay.

Do… Ask a potential social media strategist or manager to see examples of content strategies, campaigns and content calendars they’ve created in the past. It’s fine to “take a peek behind the curtain” to see exactly what and how someone contributed to a published product.

Do not… Ask a potential social media manager to create a content calendar for your brand. Also, DO NOT ask them to come up with a proposed campaign for you. Not only is this actual work, but given that there will definitely be similarities in ideation between candidates and your company/existing vendors, you risk being seen as an idea-harvester if you don’t pick someone but execute an idea similar to what they presented.

6. It’s OK to test skills but not as a way to scam free strategy or content.

Do… When hiring an editor, come up with an edit test that allows you to make sure they’ve got the copy editing expertise you need, can shape pieces into your brand voice/style, and understand what you’re trying to accomplish.

Do not Put candidates through “edit tests” that include writing original sample articles, creating a list of story ideas, and/or compiling a list of potential interview subjects.

“Writing test pieces of copy is reasonable as long as you’re paid,” says David Holzer, a freelance writer of more than 25 years. “Anything else is giving a potential client something for nothing.”

7. Check your ego and avoid the interview power-play game.

Do… Ask a candidate to set up a Skype interview or come in and meet the team if your team has reviewed their resume and samples and been impressed. When you request this, make sure and let them know in advance what the scope of the immediate opportunity is, or if this is for something in the future or just a general meet-and-greet.

Do not Expect candidates to come in for multiple interviews when it’s not a permanent position and/or a very senior position and/or they’re in the top three candidates. We’ve heard multiple reports of candidates being called in for four rounds of interviews for a mid- to senior-level in-house opportunity, and this is completely disrespectful of people’s time.

Don't approach freelancers until you have a timeline ready for the work.

8. Don’t start without having an internal timeline first… that you follow through on.

Do… Create a timeline internally for when you want to launch the project and when you need to have the talent hired by in order to accomplish that. Ideally, you don’t want it to be too much of a rush: Although marketing and PR initiatives are often constrained by other variables, there’s a difference between balancing priorities and waiting to the last possible second.

Also, if priorities shift and the project is delayed, or if you’ve chosen a person and don’t have need of the others, do the right thing and keep all finalists updated on your decision.

Do not… GHOST! Business and career media have extensively covered the progress of ghosting from a bad dating/social practice into an even worse professional trend. Companies bemoan the ghost candidates, but the fact is, companies started it. And they continue to do it on a scale that individual candidates never could.

“I have been ghosted more times than I can count after submitting a writing or editing test. I just never hear anything again,” says longtime copy and content consultant Jamie Sanders. “In the case of one company recently, I saw some of my work show up in the emails they sent out to consumers — but they didn’t pay me for my time or ever contact me again. When I finally contacted the HR representative — over a month later — to ask whether he had any feedback he could provide, his only response was, ‘I thought I contacted you. I always close the loop with candidates.’ He had not, in fact, contacted me or closed the loop. He also didn’t answer my question.”

Candidates have little to no recourse in these situations, but they definitely keep tabs. Also, they talk amongst themselves. Thankfully, keeping a good reputation and good word of mouth is astonishingly simple.

“I think all that’s really necessary in these situations is a “thanks so much but unfortunately it’s not a good fit,” says Sanders.”

Go forth and be a dream client. (It’s not hard.)

There’s no standard guideline that indicates what’s a reasonable ask versus an unreasonable one. Every company is free to decide what’s okay to ask talent to deliver in terms of pitch presentations, sample work and plans — but if you err on the egregious side, you’ll lose the most in-demand talent who simply refuse to jump through certain hoops. You’ll immediately come across as a difficult client to the agency/vendor candidates bidding for your business. This isn’t to say they don’t want to work with you. It’s that they’re trying to protect themselves, and they’ve been through a lot.

“I’ve found that offering as much as you can in the way of credentials and evidence of one’s track record in a sector, if it exists, is the only thing that’s worth doing,” says Holzer.

Ultimately, as a client, you want people who value their own work and their time and their track record. When you hire them, you’re hiring their values too.