Out on the pitch, what is free?

Andy Gilgrist and Bhavna Mistry give a synopsis of who’s saying what about the latest furore over free-pitching

The latest example of free creative pitching has been branded as “extraordinary”, “unprofessional”, “outrageous” and “dreadful” by the design industry.

The irony of the Government’s new Department for Education and Employment asking design consultancies to come up with a host of work is not lost on those refusing to take part. The department itself needs educating about the realities of work, they say.

The response from the Department is unequivocal. A DFEE spokeswoman says: “The department’s established procedure, in keeping with other departments, is not to pay for design visuals when going out to tender. The majority of design companies have been quite happy to work under these procedures.”

Whether “happy” is the right word is debatable. The spokeswoman continues: “Government departments must ensure value for money.” It’s the drive for value for money and the fear of being dragged over the media coals for “wasting” much-needed cash that appears to have led to the decision, allegedly taken at ministerial level, to ask for a free-pitch.

The Whitehall mandarins don’t seem to have heard the argument that free-pitching prevents clients from getting the most effective design. The DFEE free-pitch may save a few grand short-term, but what about the long-term?

It’s to the long-term that the design industry must look. The DFEE pitch will happen. Some consultancies have already been tempted by the size of the reward. Never mind that it’s a gamble with a sizeable stake to be lost –

20 000-worth of preparation work, according to Pentagram partner David Hillman, who is refusing to participate.

The long-term appears as murky as the past when it comes to free-pitching. One of two ways the practice will cease is when all consultancies refuse to do it. The other way is for clients not to request or expect it. Each solution seems as fanciful as the other. Which leaves the industry with one goal – that of minimising the free-pitch.

So the question is how to reduce the number of clients asking for free creative work.

This task of educating clients falls on the Design Business Association, the Chartered Society of Designers and the Design Council. It also falls on individual consultancies angered by free-pitching.

The DBA and the CSD are avowedly anti the free-pitch. It says so in their codes of conduct (see above). The Design Council is a tricky one. Unable to condemn its paymaster, the Government, over the DFEE pitch, the council is left side-stepping the issue, with mutterings about “considering what role it would be appropriate to play”.

The council’s statement continues: “We will be working with public-sector bodies in the future to help them develop policies which use design as effectively as possible and to ensure value for money.” No mention of the free-pitch there.

As for individual consultancies, it’s a question of principles against economic pressures. Minale Tattersfield last year garnered the support of more than 100 consultancies willing to pledge not to free-pitch.

The Best Practice Initiative, co-ordinated by the DBA Scotland, has been successful in raising the free-pitch issue, says DBA chief executive Ian Rowland-Hill. It was well-received by consultancies, and is ongoing.

But the free-pitch debate is not all one-way. Black Sun is one of the few consultancies prepared to stand up for free-pitching. “Free-pitching gives the opportunity to consultancies that are not as well known as the market leaders to get business,” says Tony Vines, managing director.

“Somehow you have got to get a client to look at your work. And although this may be an expensive exercise, it is a way of getting new business. It has got to be noted that not one major player in the corporate literature field signed Marcello Minale’s push to ban free-pitching,” he adds.

“There is so much hypocrisy attached to the whole issue. It can basically be summed up by that old cliché: everyone is a whore depending on the right price tag.”

Talking about definitions

One of the moot points muddying the free-pitch issue is the semantics of the many terms used as part of the process. How free is free, when even a presentation costs money?

The issue becomes more complicated when what would be regarded as a blatant free-pitch in one design discipline may be the norm in another.

While the various design bodies have been slow in defining the plethora of terms, it would be safe to assume that the bottom line is – if you’re doing work that a potential client isn’t paying for, you are free-pitching. The rest is just how each company chooses to phrase asking designers to submit work for free.

CSD president elect and chairman of The Jenkins Group Nick Jenkins pledged last October to “correct the situation” during his CSD tenure. The basis of Jenkins’ argument is that without defining what actually constitutes a free-pitch, the problem of client and consultancy education will remain an uphill battle.

“What exactly are the rules?” asks Jenkins. “What is the status of speculative non-competitive creative work? Is it acceptable to accept a fee below that which would normally be charged in a live situation for a competitive creative pitch? And what about mood boards?”

These are questions design’s trade bodies need to resolve.

What the clients say

The Jenkins Group research into annual report design buyers found that free-pitching was on the increase in the annual reports sector. The following comments provide a client’s-eye view of the issue.

The free-pitch

“We could make a comparison of their ideas and costings – we gave them a guideline brief in terms of the themes we wanted to express and the audience for the report.”

“We were testing the chemistry. We wanted to see if the ideas were sensible and focused, and it was useful to get the best of the ideas presented.”

“It meant we could get ideas and costings from three independent sources.”

“We didn’t expect any creative work for free. One design company did present free creative work, but it didn’t make any difference to our decision and we did not appoint them.”

The credentials pitch

“The credentials presentations gave us a quick look at what was available and was the most effective method of selection.”

The paid creative pitch

“[The paid creative pitch] gives you a demonstration of good ideas for the report from a range of agencies. It also keeps the incumbent on their toes to have to re-pitch – they continually have to give good service and ideas.” (This company paid from 500 to 1000 to companies it did not appoint).

“We wanted to establish the design route early on through the creative pitch, with the initial shortlist of four having been drawn up from their previous work. I feel very strongly that creative work from any agency should be paid for.” – Malcolm Scott, Scottish Power, which pays 1000 per pitch.

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