We’re worth more than this

The free-pitch debate refuses to go away, so it’s up to design groups to stand their ground and educate clients. Shan Preddy argues the case

Hands up if you like working for nothing. Nobody, hey? Thought as much. The only reason to work for free is when it’s for a charity. So why do design groups of all shapes and sizes give away their work in pitches to clients? Is it because it’s the only way to secure the project? Or because everyone does it? Or simply because we’re bad at business?

The pitch debate is still alive and kicking in Britain, fuelled this year by the recession. I’d like to say ‘the debate rages on’, but it doesn’t. It limps. Some genuine rage might help. Try this. Log the time-costs of pitches as though they were projects, and then account for them in your marketing budget. That’s what it costs to ‘market’ your consultancy to those potential clients. What else could you do with that budget?

There is a big disconnect between attitude and behaviour in our market. Consultancies complain about free-pitching, then go out and do it anyway. They sometimes ask for a token payment, but any pitch under 100 per cent recovery is speculation, in whole or in part. Is pitching necessary? No. You’ll need to present your credentials, and get on to rosters. You’ll need to issue price proposals and terms of reference. You’ll need to negotiate with procurement professionals, and complete all the forms. But you do not, ever, need to free-pitch.

You know the negotiating strategy ‘sprats and mackerels’? Instead of eating small fish (sprats), you sacrifice them as bait to attract bigger fish (mackerels). The idea is that you go hungry now in the hope of feasts to come. It is based on risk-assessment, and in some markets it works. In design, however, if we give away the early development and creation stages of a project in a pitch, not only do we use mackerel as bait instead of sprats, but we also send a message that we didn’t value them much. How can we hope to charge proper amounts for our mackerels in the future?

I recently had the privilege of attending some inspirational workshops delivered for the Design Business Association by Canadian sales consultant, Blair Enns. His company, Win Without Pitching, takes the argument several steps further. Not only should design groups not free-pitch, Enns says, they should not pitch at all. Or even write proposals. Enns calls business development ‘the polite battle for control’. If you get it right, he says, you can change the power structure in the buy/sell relationship. Enns’ website and newsletters prove interesting reading, and are worth checking out.

Clients ask for pitches, free or otherwise, not because they lack budgets, but because they lack the confidence to appoint you without proof of your ability. They need to understand what you offer, and to believe that you can deliver that offer better than your competitors. It’s your job to help them. How?

First, it’s about marketing. US consultant and author Peter Drucker says, ‘The aim of marketing is to make selling superfluous.’ And, I would add, free-pitching. First, is your position in the market clear, defendable and meaningful versus your competition? What do you offer? Why are you so good at it? Are you the only consultancy that could do the job? Next, who are your buyers? Can you demonstrate that you’re right for them? And, finally, what are your core propositions, or benefits? Why should a client appoint you instead of one of your rivals?

Second, it’s about the proven quality of your product, and your ability to communicate it. Have you got a methodology which will remove clients’ anxieties? Can you demonstrate that your design interventions have shown a return on investment? Good casework, using a three-part structure of challenge/problem/opportunity, design solution and results, will remove doubt. Support your proof with relevant client references and testimonials. Even better, win a DBA Design Effectiveness Award.

Last week, Sir John Sorrell, chairman of the London Design Festival, said, ‘The British design industry is the best in the world.’ I agree. But if we continue to shoot ourselves in the foot by giving away our main product, we will fail. Any business model which has at its heart the notion of donating its core skills, including analysis, strategic thinking and concept creation, is deeply flawed. No design consultancy, however good, will survive if it’s not profitable. No design industry, however admired by the rest of the world, will survive without successful design businesses.

We have trained clients to see free-pitching as normal and, therefore, as expected. The next step is to accept that it is our responsibility, not theirs, to change it. Just say no. You know it makes sense. But give them the reasons to appoint you anyway.

Just Say No:

  • Good marketing helps avoid free-pitching
  • Underline your ability to do the job through methodology
  • Demonstrate effectiveness in your casework
  • Have client references and testimonials as support
  • It is our responsibility, not the clients’, to change the situation
  • Count the cost of pitches in your marketing budget


Hide Comments (3)Show Comments (3)
  • Mark Pinsent November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    This is something I’ve been thinking about myself this week in relation to the PR industry, where free pitching – and giving away valuable IP in creative thinking – is the norm. Here’s a bit of rage: http://anotherflaminblog.wordpress.com/2009/09/22/stop-the-pr-pitch-madness/

    …and here’s a proposed solution: http://anotherflaminblog.wordpress.com/2009/09/24/stop-the-pr-pitch-madness-part-ii-the-nine-point-plan/

    Keep fighting!

  • Kevin Quigley November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    This debate has gone on since design started. The number of times I’ve been told…just knock up a few ideas and we’ll see if we like it.

    In the UK product design sector it is linked to the free offerings from the HE sector. I’ve been told “why should we use you when we can get XYZ University to do the design for free and the prototyping and do some market research as well? You can’t even be bothered to knock up some ideas!”

    Because my friends, if you do “knock up some ideas” those ideas are generally taken to the people that get the jobs!

    How many times have you “won” a pitch to be told…”we really like your ideas but can you incorporate a bit of this one and this one as well?”

    Out there in the SME land very few buyers of design actually have any understanding of IP rights – all they want is an outcome.

    Times are hard for some…..and they are the ones doing all the free pitches right now.

  • Simon Case November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Way back in the early 90’s I worked for an award winning agency that was at the forefront of the ‘don’t pitch for free debate’. ‘We don’t, and look how successful we are’ they said. Except they did pitch: sometimes for free; sometimes for a nominal fee to salve their guilt; always secretly.

    Creative rarely wins a pitch, but when presented well it can serve to illustrate the approach of an agency and the personalities involved.

    The trick is to approach the pitch properly. Use the creative part of a presentation to illustrate thinking and approach, and don’t expect to win with a blockbusting idea – it rarely happens.

    I don’t disagree with anything Shan Preddy says, but I don’t think she is being entirely realistic. In many sectors, shareholder communications for instance, pitching is the norm and accepted standard practice. In others sectors firms don’t like doing pitches, but if the carrot is big enough they will, even if they have to keep quiet about it.

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