Free pitching rows reach crescendo

Free pitching doesn’t really benefit anyone in the long run, but what can be done to stamp out this prevalent practice? asks Emily Pacey

The debate on free pitching is reaching one of its regular crescendos, following last week’s revelations about two incursions of best design procurement practice by Transport for London and Kingston Council.

As letters of protest from designers and design bodies drop through the doors of TfL and Kingston Council, compelling ethical arguments against free pitching are once again going head to head against the reality of a prevalent practice.

‘Working in a supply-and-demand market means that free pitching is an inevitable fact of life, although in an ideal world we would get paid for all our work in full,’ says retail design consultancy Coutts’ managing director John Savage, who in his previous job helped to procure design work for consumer electronics company Oregon Scientific.

While Savage expresses the majority view (see box), many large consultancies across all disciplines unequivocally condemn free pitching, including Cog Design, 20/20, Interbrand and Jones Knowles Ritchie. Cog is a particularly active campaigner for best practice, publishing a document on the subject that is well-known within the design world.

Recently, however, questions have arisen about the integrity of an industry that condemns free pitching while taking advantage of free work itself.

Recent design graduate Matt Turner left a comment message on in response to our 8 July story about Kingston Council’s ongoing free pitch. He tells of a consultancy asking hopefuls for a job vacancy there to put together creative work for a live brief.

‘To help us with the selection process we are asking applicants if they could participate in the following design brief,’ reads the letter to Turner, who says, ‘it’s not just the client side that wants free work, it appears that some groups are going down that route as well.’ The One Off’s managing partner Adam Devey Smith recommends that Turner ‘names and shames’ this consultancy.

But there is an even bigger source of unpaid design work within the industry – work experience interns.

Graphic design lecturer at Dundee University Jonathan Baldwin says, ‘The design industry is in no position to lecture on free pitching when its recruitment strategy is based around forcing graduates and other applicants to work for free until a position ‘opens up’. Baldwin reports that some of his students have worked unpaid at consultancies for up to two years.

Furthermore, Chartered Society of Designers chief executive Frank Peters points out in his letter to Design Week this week that design consultancies are pleased to take advantage of free professional advice, training courses, online portfolios, images and magazines.

‘We are at a tipping point… when the issue of free pitching appears of little interest to the vast majority of designers and standard practice for most clients,’ says Peters.

But where ethical arguments crumble in the face of the design industry’s own hypocrisy and the nature of modern commerce, perhaps financial arguments stand more of a chance.

Do the maths, says Cog. In its guide to best practice, the graphic design consultancy writes, ‘If a creative team wins one in three pitches, then they are forced to pay for the ‘lost’ time by charging more for the work they do. This forces prices up and creates unrealistic price bubbles which are unsustainable.’

Free pitching particularly damages younger, smaller consultancies, runs the argument, since they can least afford to refuse pitches. And free pitching may also harm the quality of resulting design work.

Devey Smith says of TfL’s open competition to design a new bus for London, ‘this is a ridiculous situation in which to free pitch, because the amount of research it needs means that you won’t get anyone with a huge amount of calibre to do it.’

And despite Peters’s point that free creative services are now the way of the world, Cog offers the other side of this argument.

‘Nobody would phone three tailors, ask for a custom-made suit, try them on to see which they liked best, and then expect to pay for just one,’ reads Cog’s best practice guidelines.

Design Business Association chief executive Deborah Dawton speaks directly to designers. ‘Do you know any other consultants that give out advice for free? Just say no to free pitching. If you all say no, starting tomorrow morning, you’ll suddenly find that the sector will be taken more seriously.’

She even suggests that clients have a vested interest in working exclusively with consultancies that refuse to take part in free pitches. ‘In my view, clients should be asking designers what their policy is on free pitching,’ says Dawton. ‘I’d want to know that they’re not using my money to fund the craziest way of developing new business.’

But judging from past experience, and in the absence of a really forceful pan-industry campaign, it seems likely that the question of free pitching will continue to sporadically raise its head, before sinking back under a tide of market forces.

Devey Smith tells of alternative ways that designers can pull in revenue besides pitching.

The One Off is hoping to reap the rewards from a doll’s house it has designed for a Chinese toy company on a royalties-only basis. ‘It is a medium- to long-term thing, but after four or five years, you really start to benefit – and going into ventures on an equity basis means the design has to be really good to perform for you. It just represents a mixed way of generating revenue.’

This sounds like a good idea, since during these uncertain economic times, clients will probably be looking for more free creative ideas than at any other moment in the past decade.

feelings about free pitching

• 31% of designers think that free pitching is a fact of life

• 23% think that designers should insist on being paid the full cost of preparatory work

• 76% of interior and exhibition designers think that designers should insist on being paid all or some of the cost of the preparatory work

• 44% of consultancies and 43% of freelances say they either always or frequently have to pitch creatively for free

• Of those who think designers should insist on being paid full costs, 32% never pitch for free and 48% do so occasionally

Source: Design Council

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  • Glyn Parry-Jones November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    I have been involved in free pitching for the past 15 years, but always subscribed to the attitude that you must do better and win the commissions. This attitude certainly manifests the killer instinct in your character. To divert slightly from this subject and to tackle what I consider to be more serious than free pitching, which is Central Government ‘s policies with regard to procurement. I speak in relation to my own experiences with the Welsh Assembly Government in Cardiff. Prior to it’s establishment in 1998 and for several years afterwards we had a situation whereby individual tenders were issued on a job by job basis which meant that everyone was afforded the same opportunity to pitch for work. In my particular case I was very successful at it and winning and loosing was a reality of the profession. For 10 years I virtually worked back to back on projects for Government Departments. Until one day these many individual jobs became one big job and a three year roster was eventually issued to four larger contractors via the European Journal route and the infamous pre-qualification questionnaire which rendered most Designers dead in the water from the very start of the process. This has resulted in a closed shop for many freelancers and smaller design practices until the next contract comes along.We all know that big is not necessarily the best and turnover and accreditations are not a yardstick by which you measure good design and good service. Yes,free pitching is an abomination, but so is the bunching together of jobs to form one large tender. I certainly feel very sorry for Art School Graduates who embark on this profession.

    Glyn Parry-Jones
    ARK Exhibits

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