You’ve got to be in it…

While the practice of subsidised pitching is becoming more commonplace, it’s time clients realised how counter-productive it is.

A riddle. What’s a problem we all know the answer to, but never seem to solve? Pitch fees of course. Every now and again there’s a letter or editorial exposé in Design Week on the subject of free pitching and, sure as eggs are eggs, there is usually a healthy response the following week from the pro and anti factions.

But, with more and more design projects going to pitch, the brouhaha surrounding the issue is taking on greater significance. While thankfully the majority of consultancies abhor and give a wide berth to any invitation to participate in a free pitch, many of us have been duped or pressurised into participating in its insidious partner – the subsidised pitch or underpaid pitch.

The “subsidised” pitch is recognisable by two key features, namely: it typically involves several players and a very small pot of money. True it’s not a free pitch, but is it fair?

In the past the argument has tended to focus on ethics, how morally wrong it is to give ideas away. But this is misleading. The real issue is a commercial one from a consultancy perspective, and a quality one for our clients. With advertising pitches the prize really can be millions, so agencies can justify the gamble, and clients be assured of the very best work. This is not the case with the budgets associated with an ad hoc packaging or identity project.

However, I want to put the whole issue of how a design business chooses to balance its books to one side. The point is that subsidised pitches (with multiple participants) end up being a lottery for everyone involved, and that includes brand owners. It concerns me that a number of fallacies are being perpetuated as the practice becomes more commonplace. While we can’t legally unite and fix an industry protocol we can – at an individual level – help to de-bunk some of the more frequently aired pieces of pitch justification nonsense. At the risk of sounding like Delia Smith telling the nation how to boil an egg, I’ll remind you what they are.

“It’s cost effective”, claim clients. Really? Someone somewhere along the line has got to bear the cost of the pitch write-off. Now would any prospective client really like to think that part of their budget might end up effectively supporting somebody else’s brand?

“It increases the chance of success”, is another client prejudice ripe for challenge. Pitches force many businesses to create a tactical response. More energy is directed towards “winning the pitch” than “solving the problem”. Rather than revealing what a designer really thinks about your brand it is more likely to yield the A to Z of solutions (or “spraying and praying” as someone recently described it to me).

“It guarantees broader views”, is another commonly held client belief, but large pitches inevitably lead to duplication – total wasted resource in a world where we’re supposedly more efficient. If the brief has focus there simply can’t be over 20 or 30 valid responses. Rather than create a clear way forward it ends up steering the brief off course.

“It makes designers perform at their best”. Categorically not! Part-paid pitches with multiple participants can have a very bad psychological effect on designers. Motivation can be seriously flattened. It’s not easy to shore up enthusiasm, within a team to give a project their all when there is only a 20 per cent chance of winning the job. Equally, a sense of low commitment simply does not promote the sort of close client interaction that a difficult problem demands if it is to be cracked successfully.

At the end of the day I can justify playing the National Lottery every now and then, because for only £1 there’s the chance to win millions. But the subsidised pitch lottery is a different matter. In this game even the winner loses because they can never hope to recoup their initial investment.

Don’t misunderstand, I am not calling for the abolition of creative pitches. I simply think we need to encourage clients to adopt a better sense of fair play. If clients opt to put business out to pitch, then they should be careful to manage it effectively. They should restrict the number of participants to say three maximum, offer realistic remuneration, and a winner’s bonus.

If we can help clients to realise how counter-productive subsidised pitches are then there is likely to be a great prize for some lucky client and their design consultancy. As they say on The National Lottery, “It could be you”.

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