A client’s argument against free-pitching

Marketing director Tom Foulkes tells us why accepting free pitches from designers can be bad for a client’s business.


Source: torbakhopper

Recently (writes Design Business Association membership director John Scarrott), I told the story of consultancy Exesios, and how it responds to requests for free creative pitches. I thought it would be interesting to get a client’s perspective and asked Tom Foulkes, marketing director of Peter Brett Associates, about how he buys design expertise. Tom has an equally compelling argument against the value of speculative creative work. Here’s the advice he’d give to other clients:

‘Selecting and appointing a new design partner is one of the most important elements of what we do. To be effective, relationships with consultancies should be built for the long-term.  We need to be sure that the partnership will work and not just for us as the client but also for the consultancy.

We focus on five key areas to help us make this judgment, which we call The Five Cs:

• Credentials
• Capability
• Creative
• Chemistry
• Cost

We look to gather hard evidence across these five areas. The way we gather this hard evidence is through a credentials pitch. Essentially this boils down to a series of meetings with a small number of (usually no more than five) suppliers.  None of these meetings require any of the consultancies to produce any original creative work.

This differs to the traditional methodology for selecting a new design partner, which unfortunately more commonly sees clients ask consultancies to produce creative work as evidence of their ability to undertake projects: the creative pitch, as it has become known.  We believe this method leads to poor decisions and may undermine the commercial strength of our organisation. Fundamentally, we believe the free creative pitch is commercially toxic and is a tradition the marketing profession can do without.

Commercially toxic may sound a little over the top, but here are some of the potential hidden consequences of the creative pitch that can have a negative impact on a business, post-decision:

• The creative will be naïve and hastily pulled together. It will be based on a very narrow understanding of the client, its market and the true nature of what is required. Creative like this is dangerous to share within a business as it can lead to commercial decisions being made on the basis of taste rather than commercial sense. This ultimately may lead to commercial failure.

• Free creative isn’t necessarily free creative. The cost of producing this work will be recovered through the subsequent work the client does, the consultancy will likely resent giving its work away for free and this dysfunction will undermine and ultimately destroy the commercial partnership. A failure in such a vital strategic relationship may lead to commercial failure.

• The quality of any creative produced will only reflect the amount of time the consultancy has spent on the pitch. In any successful consultancy this will not be a great amount of time, unless the consultancy is struggling to win work. This will lead to poor decision-making as it is likely that the client will appoint a poor-quality consultancy with lots of time to spend on a pitch over the strongest consultancy, who was busy with fee-paying work in the lead up to the pitch. Ultimately this will affect competitiveness and may lead to commercial failure.’

Tom has some very clear views on what works well for his business as a process for appointing creative agencies. To view a comparison chart of the Credentials and Creative pitch in each of Tom’s Five Cs, visit www.dba.org.uk/blog/thepowerofyes.


John Scarrott is membership director at the Design Business Association. His DBA blog, Conversations With, is here.

Tom Foulkes is marketing director of Peter Brett Associates.

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  • John Scarrott November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    This is the first half of the article. To view the full piece including a useful comparison chart for Tom’s 5 Cs in the Credentials and Creative pitch scenario visit here: http://www.dba.org.uk/blog/thepowerofyes.asp

  • C G November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    What is it about industry and the 5 Letter Word Combo’s?

    Designers have their 5D’s
    (Discover, Define, Design, Deliver, Develop)

    And Clients have their 5C’s!

    Not saying it doesn’t make sense though:

    Creds Pitch:
    Pitch=Chemistry(+Costs) 🙂

  • D Conran November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Nice Article.

    I’ve worked with four agencies who not only use the ‘5D’s’ mentioned above but also claim to have created them (and that way of working)!

    Ironically how they were the worst four companies I have ever worked with who just:

    Dawdle, Deceive, Demean, Deprave & Damage!

  • John Scarrott November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    There’s a debate taking place in the DBA’s group on LinkedIn around the following questions:
    DESIGN BUSINESSES: How often are clients asking for free creative? How successful are you in winning business without giving away free work?

    CLIENTS: Do you agree with Tom that free creative is ‘commercially toxic’? What kind of challenges does not receiving free creative present to you?”

    If you’re interested to take part or simply read the comments feel free to join it.

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