Birmingham Library tender reignites free-pitching debate

Birmingham City Council is the latest public-sector client to come under fire for asking for unpaid creative work in a tender.

The council is seeking a consultancy to create a ‘worldclass’ identity for the Library of Birmingham, due to open in 2013, as part of a contract worth £30 000.

But concerns have been raised about the amount of free creative work asked for at the initial stage. Consultancies are asked to provide logo and identity design proposals, rationale for logo and identity, conceptual derivatives of the identity as a sub-brand, application of design in context, and a proposal for a photographic style and language.

Maria Bez, business development manager at Bath-based Northbank Design, says, ‘We won’t be able to go for it – it’s so much work. It’s a very one-dimensional approach for the council to take.’

Ashley Goodall, managing director of Saatchi & Saatchi Design, which produced the brand guidelines document that was sent to interested consultancies, says the consultancy was not involved in formulating the tender, adding, ‘We are in the same boat as every other consultancy, and we will be responding to the brief in the same way as everyone else.’

A spokesman for Birmingham City Council says, ‘It is not unusual with a contract of this size and high profile for us to ask for initial concept ideas to be presented as part of the initial tender submissions.’

The Birmingham tender comes a month after the Greater London Authority was criticised for asking for unpaid creative work in the first round of a competition to find new branding for London (DW 3 September).

Speaking in the wake of the London identity furore, Design Business Association chief executive Deborah Dawton said, ‘There is no point in gunning for one organisation, because the practice of free-pitching is rife. We should draw alongside Government to find a process that works for both.’

Dawton is working with the Associate Parliamentary Group for Design and Innovation, which will launch a report on public-sector design procurement on 11 November.

The report’s synopsis says, ‘Perhaps the clearest and least surprising discovery was that, in general, throughout the public sector, there is still a relatively limited understanding of what design means and what its value is.’


  • The new library will be situated on Centenary Square, between the Birmingham Repertory Theatre and Baskerville House
  • Design concepts by Dutch architect Mecanoo were unveiledin April (pictured)
  • Birmingham City Council is seeking a visual identity for the library. It expects to appoint a consultancy in December, and hopes to launch the new identity early in 2010
Hide Comments (13)Show Comments (13)
  • Lydia Thornley November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    It’s up to us to decline free pitches – and explain why we’re declining. Until clients understand that they get better value from partnership than supply and until it becomes impossible to find a design practice of any quality that will participate, this practice will continue.

  • gareth November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Free pitching for work is not unusual and is not just the design industry which has to jump through the hoops to win a contract. The thing that does annoy me is that only the big agencies can afford the manpower and time to respond to such briefs. This is enough to put any small design agency off even trying.

    Nice of the government for trying to include small business in on the deal!

    On another note… I wonder how much will be tipped in the favour of Scraatchi and Itttchi when the final choice is made!

  • Femi Adetunji November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    There is time, intellect and years of seasoned creative experience called on in this study case. I do understand that plumbers or electricians would ask to be and get paid for call-out charges by the same said client.

    In the stream of economic cash flow, I sniff a black-hole in this scenario.

  • RitaSue Siegel November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    I would say to the City Council that the next time there is an election that all new council persons will be expected to serve for 6 months without compensation and if at the end of the period their constituency thinks they should be paid, they will be. Otherwise they must serve w/out pay.

  • carolyn watts November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Anyone bidding for this job should do it purely for the money and not the prestige. Library of Birmingham has been a disaster from the start, everything about it is flawed, from the design to its position, to breaches in planning regulations. The city council is broke and can’t deliver basic services and the fact that it already has an iconic library and doesnt actually need a new one is being conveniently ignored. Anyone who cares for their companys reputation should keep a million miles away. You will be able to read all about it in the scandal sheets as the project evolves.

  • bill November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    unpaid work aside, how horrible is that design. What’s wrong with the horrible building the library occupies now, for it to be replaced with a different horrible looking building.
    Seriously, design competitions are just a cleverer version of playing ‘soggy biscuit’

  • Andrew November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Why don’t we expose the agencies that free pitch rather than the clients who ask for it? They are just trying to get the best value from their budgets. Why don’t these agencies put their hands up and state their case? Why do they do it if it’s so bad? If all agencies refused to participate, then clients wouldn’t be able to get away with this. Until then, it’s just a fact of life in the industry.

  • mike November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    This free pitching debate will never go away so the best bet is to either shut up or put. I’m not a huge fan of free pitching as it degrades our abilities but the only way to stop clients from pursuing this tactic is to stop accepting the dangled carrot in the first place.

  • m November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    In response to the writer who draws a comparison between a council person being expected to work for six months without pay. Sounds like an internship to me… There is a real sense of double standards when it comes down to the free pitch vs. unpaid internship debate.

  • guy November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    When the press release is issued announcing the winner we’ll then know at least one agency that subscribe’s to free pitching. Will they be a member of the DBA? Watch this space!!

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

    I don’t agree with free pitching at all. I think it really devalues the design and creative process. But I find particularly annoying that a client should ask for such a progressed level of work for nothing, they clearly have no concept or care for the amount of time and knowledge required to develop a working brand.

    30k is not a large budget, when free pitching first raised its head, it was to manage accounts for 2 or more years of work, while now we seemed to be asked to pitch for every single job from public sector clients.

    As a creatives we spend many hours every week working for free on pitches like this, most free pitches equate to at least 100hrs work, with the larger ones, maybe taking double or triple that amount of time, most of which comes from unpaid overtime worked by creatives at the blunt end of the stick. As a business model it is completely unsustainable, especially if clients cannot be bothered or are too full of their own self importance to invite a limited number of agencies to pitch based on their portfolios. I imagine the agencies pitching for this work will accumulatively present well over 30k worth of free work to Birmingham City Council.

  • Michael November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    It is disgraceful that the Council are expecting so much for nothing. More fool the agencies that respond I would say.

    I would like to know if Saatchi & Saatchi Design were paid for producing the brand guidelines document. They clearly have the inside track on the project so don’t be surprised if they win it.

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