Is creative pitching a waste of time?

Design groups are forever being told they shouldn’t do unpaid pitches – the Chartered Society of Designers, the Design Business Association and Design Week oppose them unreservedly – but there now appears to be growing scepticism in the industry for paid pitches as well.

“The really serious clients tend to ask for a strategic response such as a critique of its existing brands. Even a paid creative pitch can be a huge mistake for groups because there isn’t time to do the job adequately. It’s basically a lottery,” says GDR consultant Richard Watson, who produces design rosters for clients.

M&K chairman Paul King agrees. He has put together design rosters for Woolworth and Tesco and says creative pitching is often a sign the client does not really understand design – a good client should be able to assess a consultancy’s suitability for a project on its knowledge of the design industry and a credentials pitch. King is creating a design roster for B&Q, in part to eliminate the need for repetitive pitching.

But Elmwood managing director Jonathan Sands argues creative pitches are still the best way to assess a consultancy’s capability. The client comes face to face with the design team it would be working with, giving it the opportunity to see how the personalities work together and how they tackle a problem creatively.

But he does concede that many creative pitches are badly run. The DBA, the CSD and other experts agree; and advocate that a consultancy should research the client before entering a paid pitch. In reality, many design consultancies are not in a position to pick and choose, but this advice nonetheless provides a few guidelines to researching a project.

“For us to do a creative pitch, we need to ensure the job is worthwhile, we have a chance of winning and it will yield a clutch of business in the longer term,” says The Grey Cells Partnership commercial advisor Mike Pearce. “The cost of preparing the pitch will vary considerably depending on the project and we wouldn’t expect to recover all the time we put in – you just have to accept that.” This view on payment tallies with others in the industry.

If the payment is acceptable, the job suits your capabilities and longer-term prospects are good, the pitch merits further investigation.

The most important thing at this stage is the client’s commitment to design, says Watson. A specifically appointed design manager is a good indication. “If the client is seeing eight to 12 consultancies, forget it – it obviously doesn’t care. Similarly, if the chief decision-maker isn’t there right from the start, why not?” says Watson.

He says there is nothing wrong with asking the client questions about the pitch. If it is done non-aggressively, it shows dedication and can reflect well on the group.

Watson says a pitch list should not contain more than four consultancies. The Body Shop head of global design Jon Turner says it should be just one or two.

“The client should do its research thoroughly and shouldn’t need to see more than that. The creative pitch should be more to confirm rather than select the design group. With The Body Shop, the work presented in a pitch is generally used as a blueprint for the final design,” he says.

A pitch list of two is rare. It is usually more like six, eight or even higher, says Watson. This means the majority of creative proposals are never developed, at least not by the originators.

“A lot of designers don’t know this, but any work done in a creative pitch, paid or otherwise, is the property of the design consultancy,” says DBA chief executive Ian Rowland-Hill.

If the pitch work is ripped off by the client, the design consultancy has the right to take legal action, unless it has made a specific contract saying otherwise, says Designers’ and Artists’ Copyright Society licensing assistant Cassandra Phillip.

The designer has to be able to prove that the client has substantially copied the design, according to the 1988 Copyright Act, says Phillip. The same law applies here as when a design already in production is copied. “It can be very difficult to prove, though designers have been successful in the past,” she adds.

Jonathan Sands suggests a preventative approach, making ownership clear at the outset to avoid misunderstandings later.

What the experts say

There is no industry definition of a creative pitch. Here a few experts offer their opinions.

DBA Ian Rowland-Hill: ‘It’s not as straightforward as some people might think. It’s a bit like an elephant – you know one when you see one, but it’s a flexible thing to define.’

GDR’s Richard Watson: ‘A proposals pitch is a more theoretical, strategic exercise. A creative pitch involves a presentation to the client of specific ideas, and is more likely to be asked for on a print or packaging project than corporate identify or retail.’

Elmwood managing director Jonathan Sands: ‘A creative pitch is giving a visual solution, other than the written word. Though written work can contain as much or more creativity than visuals.’

The Body Shop head of global design Jon Turner: ‘A creative pitch is solving a specific problem set by the client and is more visual than a proposals pitch.’

Interbrand Newell & Sorrell consultant Michael Wolff: ‘With proposals, the visual element is low or non-existent. With creative pitches it is much higher.’

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