The power of no

The DBA’s John Scarrott presents an example of how refusing free pitches can lead to more business.


Source: Dave McLear

I saw Blair Enns speak about the ‘power of no’ recently. Enns is the founder of Win Without Pitching and works with creative agencies that choose not to part with their thinking for free.

Enns believes that saying no to requests for free creative and explaining how you work puts power and control into your hands as an agency. When you win a piece of work it’s because you’ve decided that the relationship is balanced, you’re selling your expertise for it’s true value and on terms that will work for you and your client.

Nice in theory you might say. Turns out it’s nice in practice too.

Here’s a story from one of the DBA’s members, Exesios. The consultancy takes the view that a creative pitch is never in the best interests of clients or them. It has made a strategic decision on how it’s going to win work and it sticks to it. It regularly and successfully changes clients’ understanding of why free pitching won’t deliver the best results and it wins its business without creative pitches against agencies that do. It’s how they work. And it gets results.

Exesios managing director Paul Brammer says, ‘Since we stopped free pitching we’ve doubled our turnover in two years. Saying no is part of our strategy and it’s powerful. We’re more positive with how we use our time and it shows in our body language. It’s about self-confidence and belief – if we don’t make money, there’s no point in being in business. Transparency, being upfront about things, and being concrete is a big part of what makes us professional.’

To put this approach in context, Exesios was one of five consultancies, including the incumbent, invited to tender for some web design work. The client, a professional services firm (via a marketing agency intermediary that Exesios had worked with before) asked each consultancy to provide creative ideas for the website. Four of the agencies duly obliged. Exesios declined, sending a one-page letter, explaining why and including the extract:

‘As members of the Design Business Association, their Code of Conduct recommends: “Members should not take part in pitches, which require unpaid work. The level of payment for pitches should relate to the time and effort involved”.

‘We would like to explain why we are so determined not to provide you with “indicative” designs. It is not that we are lazy and cannot be bothered – it is in fact quite the opposite …  

‘An indicative design is a false indication of the capabilities of any design consultancy – when you actually need a team that is prepared to spend time getting to understand your business objectives and reflecting that in good design and web site structure.

‘Past actual work and experience is a far better indicator of a consultancy’s worth. It is also worth talking to current and past clients who have experience of the day-to-day relationship and workings of the personalities within Exesios.’

To back up the letter and its behavior, and as a mark of its professionalism, Exesios attached two documents, the DBA’s response to free pitch requests and the DBA’s Code of Conduct.

The intermediary agency backed Exesios’s approach and ethos by sending an email to the client arguing that Exesios had not had to do any speculative designs before, with the decision usually being made based on the quality of previous work, competitive price and good references.

As a result, the client came round to their point of view, indicating that they understood Exesios’s point, and withdrew the creative requirement for the other prospective company as well, thus saving time and money for all concerned. They agreed to look at past designs and take into account the different requirements of those organisations. They went ahead with the presentations and prepared carefully as to how they could probe the prospective companies abilities to meet the firm’s requirements.

And the final decision? Following the presentation pitches, Exesios was appointed to create the company’s new website.

Brammer says, ‘Since changing our approach and saying no to requests for free creative, we’re hitting figures we never thought we’d hit. We’ve got at least 5 months of work in progress for next year already and we’re 30-40% up on last year’s income. With the extra money we look after our people. Our guys are looking at better houses and transport. Our philosophy means we can pay them the right level and they have a better quality of life.’

You can’t say no to that.

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

Hide Comments (13)Show Comments (13)
  • James Marshall November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    This makes a fascinating read for someone whom runs a small to medium design agency We are constantly being asked for speculative work and have often felt that it is not in the best interests of our clients because a great deal of our creative work is based upon research and stakeholder collaboration, speculative work rarely affords the opportunity to consider that.

    For a smaller agency I would be nervous to have the same confidence Exesios did, but perhaps we should try it?

    Should we be brave? It’s the right thing to do, right?

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

    Hi James, 3 good questions. If you’d like to talk about the pros and cons of change for your business I’d be happy to listen. Drop me an email on and we’ll fix a time to talk.

  • Nicholas Bell November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    This is brilliant. Especially for us given the nature of our business.

    We have been pushing for this approach for over 3 years now, running a small network of design consultancies, who we introduce directly to brands but with a strict NO SPEC approach.

    ‘Past actual work and experience is a far better indicator of a consultancy’s worth. It is also worth talking to current and past clients who have experience of the day-to-day relationship and workings of the personalities within Exesios.’

    As an intermediary ourselves (see we have chosen to make it our job to educate and inform Clients that they cannot expect creative pitches and instead offer them a selection of ‘credential presentations’ which do exactly as Exesios did – just show quality, relevant work that you have successfully carried out for clients in the past, include some testimonials and let that do the talking.

    Speculative pitching is insidious and needs to be fought hard.

    I often use an analogy of getting an MOT carried out by a Mechanic when speaking with Clients and explaining why creative speculative pitching is unproductive.

    Imagine taking a car for an MOT and visiting 5 different garages with that car, getting them all to carry out the MOT, reviewing their performance once completed, and then only paying the garage you think did the best job .

    You’d be laughed out of every garage you approached – they are offering a service, as are the design consultancies, and that service should be paid for.

    The other issue is that the work produced (by the garage and/or the the agency) is never productive. It is simply a polished version of what the supplier thinks the client wants to see in order to win the business, in the mechanics case, a freshly waxed car, and in the agencies case, “a false indication of their capabilities”. As you say, what “you actually need a team that is prepared to spend time getting to understand your business objectives and reflecting that in good design” – It’s whats under the bonnet that matters.

    Nice work John.

  • Sara Johnson November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Brilliant response. Furthermore, how about an agency pact to not deliver full solutions to a brief when only a roadmap and/or initial thinking has been requested. This not only promotes the use of thinking and executions without the necessary robustness to be truly effective, but encourages a client focus on cost (in terms of both time and money) over value.

  • M H November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    It’s nice to read that not only does a company stand by its values – it also values itself and those involved with the business.

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

    Hello MH, agreed. Being open about these things seems to be growing in importance. I see it as a way of expressing how a business works and as a diviner to lead it to the types of client that will share their values, increasing the likelihood of a successful relationship.

  • Donald Preddy November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Good article, John, and much-needed. And great examples of design forms taking a strong no-pitch stance. So good to see them being shared.

    Free pitching is a poison, and it will eventually kill the UK design sector. The trouble is .. it’s entirely self-administered. It’s design firms which need to act, and act now, to stop taking it.

    If anyone hasn’t yet read it, you can download Blair Enns’ excellent ‘Win Without Pitching Manifesto’ here

    And there’s a lively no-pitch discussion going on in the LinkedIn DBA Group page here Join in!

  • Chris Michaeloudis November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    In response to James Marshall about whether or not small agencies should be nervous about refusing free pitches, the simple answer is NO. I work with a small design agency and we decided a few years ago to not undertake free pitches & won 3 new projects last year by saying NO to free pitching. I explain to prospects why we don’t do free pitches and how our approach is about collaboration and mutual respect. I then explain that we like to meet everyone who shows an interest in working with us to show them our previous work but also to get an understanding of their exact needs. Some prospects are a bit surprised but most appreciate our honesty & approach. There are so many challenges to running a small agency & we must think about the value we place on our work, our staff & how best to apply our creative thinking & free pitching should not be on your to do list!

  • scott dixon November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Great article John, I wanted to air my thoughts from a client perspective but also to point out that the ‘free pitch’ issue is by no means limited to the service industry.

    We’re a small/medium sized family-run food manufacturer and receive numerous speculative briefs per week. A pitch for us consists of creating and presenting up to 15-20 bespoke products for a customer (often the major retailers) complete with market/trend rationale. Unless the end product is successfully launched we see nothing from this process.

    Two things I’d like to hear your thoughts on: firstly, I’d love to charge for all of our experienced teams hard work and creativity but I fear our commercial team would be laughed out of the door and our prospective customers would head straight to our sizeable competitors, have you any ways in which to mitigate this? As James mentioned how brav can you be in reality?

    Secondly: (and I know we’re not alone amongst medium-size businesses in thinking this) because this is how we are being forced to do business, when it does come to seeking out a creative agency partner it becomes extremely difficult for the powers that be to justify investing significant funds into an agency with very little by way of assurance that working with them will prove profitable (ie no tangible idea of what their work for us may look like).

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

    Hi Scott, I would be interested to hear more about and dig into the areas you raise here. Do drop me a note and we can set up a time to talk,

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

    We took the decision to stop free creative pitches some years ago. Admittedly it is difficult when you are asked by a potentially lucrative client to submit ideas and refuse. You have to be brave, but we have never regretted the decision. The benefits it brings in terms of saving wasted time, money and ideas are obvious, but far more important is the confidence it gives you in your dealings with potential clients. You may lose some work, but do you really want to work with clients who put so little value on your expertise in the first place? Far better to kick the relationship off with the right balance rather than being in the position of having to try and recover the cost of the pitch in the subsequent work, which clients will resist. When you have proved yourself time and time again with other clients that should be evidence enough of your capability and the strength of your ideas.

  • Komal Parvez November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    I totally agree , I’ve lost free pitch projects AND my ideas . This makes sense !

  • Douglas Reed November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    This absolutely works. It is also quite rare for someone to have the self-confidence and discipline to implement.

    When I joined a firm 15 years ago I was told I could be elected shareholder if I could bring in $2 million of business in a year. I did it, and quite easily without submitting a single proposal. It was all pre-selling and relationship building. Then, a principal of the firm started doing free brownbags for prospects. Zero business. Then, at my direction, he started charging $500. Suddenly many persons stopped asking for it. They were the ones who had no intention on hiring anyone at all. Those who did pay the $500 most always become a client.

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