Research reveals 70% of clients expect designers to free pitch

The What Clients Think 2017 report surveys over 450 design clients, and shows that while the majority do not expect to pay for pitches, nearly 90% see design as important to their brand.

New research has found that while clients see design as vital to a brand’s success, the majority would not expect to pay for a creative pitch.

The findings have been taken from a report based on interviews with 455 clients of design consultancies.

The What Clients Think 2017 report was conducted by advice consultancy Up to the Light, in association with the Design Business Association (DBA).

Most clients see design as important – but would not pay for a pitch

The report shows that while nearly 90% of clients surveyed value design as important to a brand’s success and see the standard of UK design consultancies as “very high”, almost 70% of clients say they would not expect to pay for a creative pitch.

Deborah Dawton, CEO at the DBA, says that culture needs to change on both design and client sides. “It bowls me over that our sector’s overwhelming instinct is still to give work away for free to be in the running for a brand’s patronage,” she says. “Designers have a responsibility to fully diagnose the situation they are faced with and prescribe the right solution and that cannot happen without a good working relationship based on mutual respect.”

Only half of clients thought their design consultancy was good value for money, and nearly 80% thought their consultancy was expensive compared to other agencies.

Dawton says design consultancies need to demonstrate the financial benefits of their work to clients.“It’s more important than ever to demonstrate the tangible value you add,” she says. “So if you’re not in the habit of hanging around long enough to measure the impact of your work, your days are probably numbered. There’s been an explosion in the desire to measure and evaluate – brands need great creativity and design effectiveness.”

Nearly 95% also say that their designers do not have a presence in the “boardroom”, so do not have a relationship with top-level client-side employees such as CEOs. For this reason, Dawton says most of the DBA’s training sessions centre around building designer-client relationships and project management.

Most dislike “flashy” websites

The report also shows that clients do not like “jargon” words such as “integrated”, “storytelling” and “digital”, and that the majority prefer design studios’ websites which are “functional” and easy to extract information from, rather than “overtly clever or flashy”.

Over 90% say they “hate” cold calls from design consultancies trying to pitch their services. Almost all clients claim that they do not follow design consultancies on social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram – but nearly all also said that they use LinkedIn.

Concerns with big and small consultancies

Key concerns around hiring a small-sized consultancy include that they may not be organised and may be “stretched”, while concerns around bigger consultancies include a “formulaic” approach and caring less about the specific client.

The report was conducted in 2016. The design consultancies which put forward their clients for the survey range in size from five to over 100 employees, and span different disciplines such as branding and digital.

Clients interviewed range across sectors including food and drink, fashion, government, education, finance, pharmaceuticals and healthcare, charities, automotive and tech and software.

Download the What Clients Think 2017 report for free and read it in full here.

Hide Comments (14)Show Comments (14)
  • Phil Kenyon March 21, 2017 at 11:24 am

    This looks really interesting. Can you tell me how I can get hold of a copy of the report, please?

    • Sarah Dawood March 21, 2017 at 2:27 pm

      Hi Phil,

      There’s a link to the full report, which is free to download, at the bottom of the article now.


  • steven hudson March 21, 2017 at 11:41 am

    I’ve worked in the bespoke furniture making industry for over 12 years and until recently i’ve always had to prepare designs free of charge along with costings. quite often the interior designer or client would take the best designs then give to a cheaper workshop to make. Now though, things are changing and we’re taking the architects or the solicitors approach to work. they would never give you time or consultation without charge so why should we? we know we’re more than worthy of the charge and just can’t afford to spend valuable hours working for no return. design time has value and should be rewarded such.

  • Kelly March 21, 2017 at 1:07 pm

    It would be interesting if these results were broken down into the type of design e.g Industrial Design, Web Design etc.

  • Merete March 21, 2017 at 2:33 pm

    I’m currently working at Hennig-Olsen, an ice cream producer and brand in Norway. Before working here I worked in different design agencies in Paris as a consultant. I’m so displeased by the findings in this report. We just launched our new visual identity at Hennig-Olsen after a satisfying project with our design agency. Before starting the project, it was crucial to me to get the owners of our company to realize and accept that a pitch has a price. If you want the very best results and the very best conditions for your brand, then give the agencies in the pitch a fair payment for their efforts and willingness to spend days and nights on your challenge. Pick a fixed sum that motivates and that’s also in accordance with the importance of the project. The agency will always put in some extra time to have the best opportunities to win the pitch if they find the conditions motivating.
    And it’s also about respect. Pay respect to the people that focus on your particular challenge, their field of expertise and the value that they potentially can bring your company/brand given the best working conditions.

  • Phil Kenyon March 21, 2017 at 3:18 pm

    Thanks, Sarah.

  • John Scarrott March 21, 2017 at 4:25 pm

    Re the subject of pitching, for those of you that want to understand how to have better and constructive conversations with clients to be on the terms of a pitch, may find these articles on the subject useful: Power of No and Clients Argument Against Free Pitching here:
    I’m now a trainer and coach working with design consultancies on their approach to communication in situations such as this. You’ll find me at

  • James March 21, 2017 at 5:12 pm

    Self inflicted? Perhaps its our job as designers to turn up with a portfolio of previous work showing a process, rather than creating any type of concept work relating to their brief. Its complete madness for designers to be turning up with multiple ideas at the preliminary stage of the process.

    • Renata July 7, 2017 at 10:42 am

      Exactly! Free pitches is for students of people without solid portfolio.

  • Mike Dempsey March 21, 2017 at 5:46 pm

    Sadly this has become the norm because often young, hungry designers will agree to free pitch. But for me far worse is when established consultancies do the same. I know of a number of eminent ones that regularly do. It simply reinforces the view that we put little value on our intellectual property.

    The disreputable client will always exploit this vulnerable spot and come back again and again with promises of lots of work if you do this one for nothing etc.

    I never do it, if I am asked by a client I will gather evidence to expose them and have done that very thing on Design Weeks site.

    I have given my services free to help charities that I believe in.

  • Andrew Emuss March 22, 2017 at 11:38 am

    Just don’t do it, people! It devalues your industry and sends the wrong message to prospective clients.It is true that designers need to be smarter about demonstrating the value of our services through post-project assessments. You need to request feedback from your clients as to the efficacy of the project against its forecast/desired outcomes in the original business plan.

  • John Scarrott March 23, 2017 at 9:57 am

    Maybe what replaces free pitching needs to be easier for a designer to do than to free pitch.

  • Visitor April 3, 2017 at 10:50 am

    There is no such thing as free pitch! overheads have to be paid, salaries have to be paid. The idea of free pitch means charges are made against those customers who are paying for the creative services by way of higher rates to take account of free pitch losses. It does also discredits and demeans creative work and designers in the recession made this the norm sadly, but it really needs to change.

  • Leo May 5, 2017 at 6:37 am

    Excellent! Forget the 70% and focus your love on the 30%

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