Free-pitching debate has highlighted new issues

The thorny issue of free-pitching came up again last week at a debate organised by the Design Business Association at the Design Council’s offices to thrash out the issues.

Initiated by Priestman Goode director Paul Priestman, also chairman of the DBA, the session was prompted by the new wave of correspondence in Design Week, sparked off at the start of the year by a controversial letter from Homebase design head Colum Lowe (DW 10 January).

It has all been talked about before, but this time there was a difference. The usual clichés were trotted out about the client and less scrupulous consultancies being the villains of the piece, but this time we also heard strong business arguments for and against the practice, taking it beyond the usual debate on ethics.

There was also a strong commitment by the DBA, the Design Council, whose director of design and innovation Clive Grinyer spoke out against the poor quality of work likely to result from a free pitch, and Design Week to take ideas generated a step further. This week’s Vox Pop is our first contribution to that.

We know that giving away work for free is wrong and shortsighted. As Shan Preddy says in Vox Pop, the only real way to combat it is to say no. But without a clear definition of free-pitching, few people know where to draw the line. Not all cases are as cut and dried as being asked to come up with a visual concept to win work. What level of fee, for example, is acceptable for putting forward creative ideas?

Much was said during the debate about the need to ‘educate’ clients. Some participants cited examples of pitches where they had been paid, on request, and gone on to win the work, while rival consultancies entered the same creative pitch without daring to ask for payment. But while the initiative must lie with the design community to explain the downside to clients and define its terms, it’s often tough for individual groups to risk a project by insisting on a pitch fee.

Two good ideas emerged on this. One is for the DBA to boost its standing with clients and reiterate its stance on free-pitching and for its members to use its logo on their letterheads to indicate compliance with its pitching guidelines. The other – the subject of our Vox Pop – is for design groups to market themselves in more imaginative ways that enable a client to assess their approach and personality more easily and perhaps limit the need for pitches.

These are not the only ways to tackle free-pitching, but they might be a start. We welcome your ideas on the subject. Please e-mail me at lyndark@centaur. co.uk to contribute to the debate.

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