Decent debate on the business case for free-pitching

Colum Lowe is right that I agreed with his point that the free-pitching debate should be approached from a hard business angle with discussions on morals or ethics left aside (DW 31January). My point is that the hard business case for free-pitching is very weak.

There are some consultancies that will always free-pitch and some that will always refuse. But I believe many free-pitch when they haven’t much work on and say no when they have.

This might explain why consultancies that do free-pitch charge no more than those that don’t (though I wonder how Lowe has such extensive experience of this if, as he claims, he has never asked for a free pitch).

I did not say that free pitches were of no benefit to clients. The benefits are obvious. My point is that, as an approach to finding the best consultancy, free pitches make for a bit of a lottery. This is probably the reason many clients do not ask for them.

My point about fees increasing severalfold, related specifically to the issue of client choice. If all consultancies were to free-pitch as a matter of course (thereby giving clients proper freedom of choice) it would have a significant effect on fee levels. This is not inflammatory talk. You only have to look at advertising – where free-pitching and higher fees are the norm – for a working example.

I accept that the drill analogy may not compare to situations where the total amount of work to be awarded is far greater than that required for the pitch. But I would be interested to see a comparison between the cost of putting sample drills on shelves and the turnover generated by drills sold. I would bet that it is vastly less risky than the average free pitch.

Work it out, if you ask three consultancies to free-pitch and the work involved for each is one third of that required for the whole project, the risk to potential reward ratio is still very, very poor. If I was guilty of exaggeration it was not dramatic, particularly as free-pitches often involve risk-reward ratios that are a good deal less favourable than the above example. They can certainly be as risky as, and even more risky than, the drill analogy.

My letter was an attempt to start a proper business-headed debate. I am not mud-slinging or casting roles, nor did I intend to encourage drama. Lowe seems to make no allowance for the fact that there will be people in the client role that broadly agree with me, people in the consultancy role that broadly disagree, and vice versa. Now, more than ever, people switch between these roles.

A decent debate on the business case for free-pitching would be healthy. And, in the end, the figures either add up or they don’t. That’s business.

Robert Smith


London W1

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