Ditch addiction to the pitch

Designers love presenting so much they do it for free, but this gives clients too much power. If there were more specialisation, the practice would die out

There’s a dirty little secret in the design world that we all share, a shameful practice that we’ve all been guilty of at one time or another, but one that is rarely acknowledged. It is our common addiction, a filthy habit that brings us both joy and angst. Our inability to break free of the grasp of this addiction is what causes us to pitch our ideas for free.

Before I betray this dreadful family secret, please allow me to examine the reasons why clients ask design consultancies to free pitch. There are two primary ones.

The first, quite simply, is because they can. This is a direct result of the poor job that many design groups make of setting themselves apart from each other. Distinctive positioning is usually the result of adopting a narrow specialisation, which is particularly important because it serves to reduce – or even eliminate – the existence of any effective competition. Most consultancies position themselves too broadly, making them relevant to all types of client and every sort of challenge, but inviting far too much competition as a consequence.

This is the crux of the problem – there are too many undifferentiated design groups out there, selling similar services to too few clients. The ability to levy a premium price is a function of the availability (or lack) of substitutes. The more alternatives clients have to hiring a particular design firm, the less potential that firm has to determine the price. Instead, the market sets the price, based on what clients can get away with paying for what they deem to be similar services. It is this plethora of alternatives among full-service design firms that gives clients the power to ask them to work for free.

Is it fair? It’s neither fair nor unfair. It’s a by-product of clients’ power in a free market that’s largely been shaped by the design firms themselves.

The second reason clients ask for free pitches is that they are afraid. They are afraid of hiring the wrong firm, unsure of what they are going to get once they sign, and unsure of how the relationship will proceed once the agency is engaged. Clients mitigate this fear and uncertainty by asking the design group to begin to solve their design problem before they commit to their choice of consultancy.

Both of these reasons lead the client to ask for free pitching and both can be addressed by a consultancy. The issue of oversupply is properly tackled through narrow specialisation: the expertise of the group must be positioned narrowly enough to alter the power balance in the buy-sell relationship, although few firms are willing to make the required sacrifices. With less competition, consultancies can negotiate from a position of strength, and the second issue – of client fear – can be better addressed.

In broad terms, specialist consultancies can offer other forms of reassurance as alternatives to pitching free ideas. Actively demonstrating a defined methodology that describes a collaborative relationship with the client is one possible solution. Money-back guarantees can be another. Put enough of them together and a compelling case can be made for hiring a specialised design group.

But, back to our addiction. What is this dirty little secret that causes design consultancies to agree to give their thinking away for free, even when they know it’s bad business?

Our secret, the addiction we all share, is the adrenaline rush of ‘the big reveal’. We are addicted to presenting. We crave this precarious moment of unveiling, where in an instant we will be seen as hero or goat. We hope to hear, ‘It’s brilliant. I love it.’ We steel ourselves for the opposite – the dreaded silence, sometimes followed by, ‘Did you even read the brief?’

It is standing on this precipice of creation, with triumph on one side and humiliation on the other, that drives us to present. We crave the adrenaline rush, just like any other gambler. We love presenting our work so much that we’re willing to do it for free, even when we are fully aware of the costs. That is why we pitch.




Blair Enns is president of Enmark Performance Development

• Do you give your creative ideas away for free?
• If so, why? Are you addicted?
• Are you different enough from the rest of the pack?
• Differentiation enables you to have more control of your pricing and charging
• Time to think again?

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