The truth about who causes free pitching

The DBA’s John Scarrott looks at how designers can take control of free-pitching and kick it out for good. 

Free pitching

I have proof that designers can be their own worst enemy; that those who undertake free pitching create the expectation of just that. And unless they stop doing it, it won’t stop.

This is of course good news: killing off speculative creative is in the hands of agencies, not clients. All they have to do is stop agreeing to do it, offering to do it or talking about it. And replace it with something else.

Ah, but I hear you cry, where is my proof? Here follows a real life example of a client-agency interaction on email.  It was volunteered to me by DBA member, Kevin Robson of Wonder Stuff Studio in Gosforth.

Kevin responded to a free pitch request using the DBA member template letter and DBA backing to support their argument. Here is the response he received from the client.

Email from client to DBA member:

“Thanks for your email earlier in the week.

 I totally understand your viewpoint (against) free pitching. I had the same feedback from another agency quite recently too.

At the moment we work with several agencies who are willing to submit speculative designs. I appreciate that this represents a significant investment from the agencies and I’m very grateful for it as for our project, we are mainly looking for clear, attractive layouts and seeing these before we appoint an agency is really helpful for us.

I am grateful for your email as it does give us something to think about with regards to our tender process. I really like your work so will bear you in mind if we move away from tenders involving speculative design.

So what can be taken from this situation?

– The agency community has more influence than they realise.

This client has indicated that they may well change their approach if the other agencies decided not to free pitch.

Free pitching is interpreted as charitable giving on the part of the agency. That’s how the client sees it.They believe that agencies that free pitch wantto do this because they agree to it. The client recognises that this is a significant investment from the agencies and believe this is fine and quite frankly, who’s to blame them if the majority of agencies go with it?

– The agency sets the pace for the relationship

The agency behaviour conditions the client behaviour which conditions the agency behaviour and so it goes on. If the client has had free pitches before and they behave as if that’s the norm and they’re not challenged on it, they will continue to request it, thinking it’s the norm. If agencies have done free pitches before, grumble but continues to do them nothing changes.

– Real change is possible if three things happen:

1. Agencies act together as one. When one or two designers refuse a free pitch there is a chance for change. But the chances of a move away from speculative design are increased significantly when more designers adopt this behaviour.

2. Agencies adopt strong principles. Each agency has to have a culture that says no to speculative creative. They have to set themselves up to win business differently. Forget how they got here and why. Forget what everyone else is doing. Concentrate on what they are doing and why.

3. Agencies want to change. If agencies want to continue to free pitch then there will not be any objection from clients to this. So the only people standing in their way are the agencies themselves.

If the latter two points happen, then the first point will inevitably result

There will be a bell curve to change and the industry will reach a tipping point where more people will not be free pitching than those doing it. The practice of free pitching will then gradually lose traction.

 –You have no chance of changing minds if you don’t aim and fire.

You have to believe you can change things for the better. Some you’ll win and some you’ll lose. But the biggest single impact of giving up the free pitch are:

You’ll feel better about what you do.

You won’t get those nagging feelings that you wasted your time. That you’re working for nothing. You’ll feel like a design professional someone who sells their expertise for money, not someone who draws pictures for free.

So come on. What’s stopping you? Let’s change the design industry, let’s kick free pitching out.  If you’re curious to know what to replace free pitching with, give me a call on 020 7251 9229 or email me on

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  • Maxine Horn November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    A valiant brothers-in-arms rally cry John, and one that has been made before you and doubtless will be made many more times long after you’ve hung up your bugle.

    Having made the same call myself more than once in my career, I completely agree with your argument.

    Will designers in the majority required to make the difference take action?
    I hope so but I doubt it, as they have always had the power to stamp it out but fear doing so.

    That fear is palpable even if pitching most often results in a financial loss to the agency which can also be the result even if they did win the business.

    It’s a tough one and I wish you all the best.

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

    Maxine, thanks for your support. What we need is a plan, and the will of the industry to make it so. One of these is easy, the other is tougher. But just because they’ve not yet been achieved does not mean to say they won’t be or can’t be. It’s not about forcing a change that the industry does not want. It’s about enabling a change for those who choose it, in a way that they can get behind and implement to see a real and measurable difference in outcome. This is key. Whatever the answer is, for it to be accepted it’s got to be easier and more effective than a free pitch. A change that creates better outcomes for designers, their clients and the business of design as a whole. Come to think of it, it might not be so tough after all…..

  • Caroline Norman November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    John, yes, a valiant cry and as Maxine points out, one we have heard many times.

    Given designers work in a market of over supply (too many designers and not enough work), I suspect a ‘no pitching’ policy is likely to last as long as it takes for the first opportunist designer to break rank. If we worked within a regulatory framework then this would be different, but we don’t.

    As designers, we need to look at the value we put on our work, if we treat it as a commodity and the prospective client’s decision is simply based on what they ‘like’ most, then we only have ourselves to blame.

    Whilst dealing with calls for free work it is important to distinguish between doing the whole job for free and hoping to get paid, and offering a ‘free sample’ (apologies if this sounds a bit too much like retail) that allows a prospective client to be sure they are going to be working with the right people. And of course as design businesses we should keep track of and limit the proportion of time we spend on speculative work.

    Most importantly, we need to differentiate ourselves, to make it crystal clear to prospective clients why they should work with us, and not anyone else. If we don’t know how to distinguish ourselves form the competition, how do we expect to help our clients do this? So it isn’t a case of offering up some nice design work and hoping a client will like it. It’s a case of articulating how our work will help our clients achieve their goals, and deliver a good return on their investment in design. A credentials presentation that offers evidence of achievement on behalf of clients, presented in terms that clients understand, should go a long way to achieving this.

  • Maxine Horn November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Well said Caroline.

    And John, again I admire your confidence – you’re spot on when you say whatever the plan is, its got to be easier and more effective than a free pitch.

    Easy, time and cost efficient – then you’ll get support around the flag pole – until that is some decide they win less than they did when they free-pitched or the cost (if indeed there is one) excludes or the wrong badges are deemed to be on the plan, blah de blah de blah

    You know what the design sector is like – speak with one voice, so long as it is their voice

    But again, sincerely, I wish you well with both the plan and gaining the support of the sector.

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

    Hi Caroline, yes, aware that this one has been kicking around for a while. That’s because it’s a tricky problem to solve. Which to me, is what makes it interesting and worth tackling. I agree with what you say about differentiation. However, I think before differentiation, the challenge is about getting to the table in the first place. In a buoyant market where projects are flying around then it’s about differentiation. BUT when we’re just about crawling out of a dip and work is still sparse, demand for design needs to be created through superlative and considerate influential communications by the agency. I speak with many design principals who have identified that the ‘word of mouth tap’ has stopped delivering H2O and are discovering new ways to create new business. Out of these new behaviours will emerge a stronger and truly professional industry. It has to be truly professional as an industry before it is treated as such, not as a result of it.

  • John Scarrott November 30, 2014 at 11:17 am

    My question is, does the industry really want to be professional? And is it prepared to work really hard and be clever and real and authentic to get there? If it does, if it really wants all of the benefits of professionalism, then it has to embrace the challenges on the road to getting there, to see them as learning and development not constraint or barrier. That’s what exists at the moment for some. Design is unfortunately not in a place where it will wake up one day and find ‘professional status’ under its pillow. There’s no professionalism fairy, only the collective will of the industry to make it so 🙂 Who’s up for that? Be nice to hear what some of the design business owners reading this piece think. If it all sounds like hard work, do let me know… or if it sounds like a goal worth striving for, likewise tell me… me if you’d prefer to be confidential about it…..

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