The Speculative, or Free-Pitch.

Defining a pitch as the speculative or competitive supply of design services, either through visuals or strategic advice for a commercial client, which results in the designer receiving, or charging less than their normal professional rates for work that is intended or likely to be commercially realised is the definition loosely taken from the DIA. It also happens to re-enforce my own opinion that regardless of whether there is a fee or not, speculative pitches aren’t of any value for design, designer, or client. The use of the word free in pitch becomes largely irrelevant.

The value of design for client and designer, with or without a pitch, remains paramount. So, is the problem pitching itself, or is the problem with clients or with designers and consultancies?

Not so many years back, double, and even treble figures worth of agencies were regularly invited to pitch design services with the intention of gaining commercial return. Barely a week would pass when the printed design press wouldn’t run a pitch horror story. Under watchful scrutiny, the client would often capitulate and surrender with a rubble of words in an attempt to correct any unknowing error on their part.

However, pitching does continue, and as we have heard, it invites agencies to provide creative for an amount less than their normal professional rates in order to win a contract of any said value. They are intended to be a way of gauging a participant’s ability to see through, and a way out of a potential clients problem by design.

The trend itself is certainly derived from a legacy of the advertising world, where especially free pitching was common and was met by larger financial returns through massive media purchases – the risks of participation could be spread. The same rules can hardly apply to design. For design, the best long-term ancillary purchases will be minimal in comparison to media purchases, and advertising simply isn’t like designing.

Most pitches involve the participation of at least two participants, and from there, depending on the chancer, any number upwards are invited, with the odd wild card entry and one man band thrown in to demonstrate diversity and understanding.

What it actually demonstrates more than anything is that the client doesn’t grasp design’s value, and that working with one person or a team of people will potentially bring very different results and costs. It’s therefore impossible to gauge value or fit from such a diverse list as part of a pitch.

Naturally, for the client, the wish list of invitees receiving their request would all accept enthusiastically, but they don’t.

As a result, there is often the need for a longer list of designers to populate plans B, C or higher, should the desired previous routes not have gone according to plan. Here is where it really goes wrong for me. Beyond A, the client is immediately opting for second best or third, fourth and so on. The potential client’s original analysis based on who is best for them has ultimately failed along with any semblance of strategy that may have been in place.

For the participants invited to provide creative, their response is to be based on the company information provided, contained for reading within a couple of sides or more of an A4 sheet of paper. If you’re lucky, you’re offered a phone call to ask a few basic questions, but the client’s appetite for providing more, or even a meeting, is virtually non-existent. The client opting for the pitch route often doesn’t have the time, resources or even feel any need for this ironic waste of their time.

At this stage, asking challenging questions could actually be just be enough to alienate your chances of winning simply for being awkward before even beginning to pointlessly ideate. From the off, the pitch landing in your in-tray begins to sound more like an indictment than a relationship of fairness, warm chemistry and conversation with a client.

But what of the costs? Clearly they will vary from designer to designer, but for simplicity, if we take £500 per day as a base starting point per person, then little can be achieved in a single day for producing anything other than cosmetics. Any costs absorbed by the designer above £500 can easily be considered – it’s literally up to the agency to decide how far they go with their rouge and how much work is needed to apply it and by how many.

Producing anything other than cosmetics on a pitch without consultation and chemistry with the client isn’t possible, so it could be said that pitching generally equates to an agency spending anything from a bare minimum of time producing basic cosmetics, or it decides to spend a larger amount of time producing different shades and layers of them for still what amounts to a fact free response to design.

Especially for the agency, but also ironically the client, there naturally becomes an ever-declining rate of RODI.

The cost to the client of choosing an agency by speculative pitch leaves a design value and knowledge vacuum and explains why the winning work is often unlikely to run to completion. The process of relationship starts only now on winning/appointing, which is risky enough, and the design begins again ironically with a winning agency that has demonstrated that the true, meaningful process of design isn’t actually necessary. Rather a large contradiction.

With all the noise, you could believe that it’s the fault of the client. Well, in large part it is, of course, but when design has been watered down by designers willing to pitch their services and portray design as free, then one can hardly blame the client in full. The fault begins to shift significantly from the client to the designer, and the erosion of the value of design continues full circle.

So whilst considering why designers don’t value themselves and their work, and why then should clients, I could equally consider the same from the other angle and ask why client’s who arrange pitches don’t value themselves and their company’s brand, either. Anything short of the best surely isn’t good enough in an environment thick with competition; loss of market share and bottom line will eventually tell you that.

A client choosing this route has to weigh up what a pitch can actually ever achieve in the first place. One could firstly assume that the very best agencies, those with an effective moral compass and a strong sense of principals applied to true design, will likely not even participate in the first place, even if invited to do so.

There are of course some potential clients, mainly in the public sector, who, largely bound by rules drafted in an attempt to avoid corruption, are sadly compelled to wander down this route. With current legislation, it can almost be justified.

But It doesn’t hide the fact that there are a large number who are unaware of the exact rules they are even bound by, resulting in an unnecessary, lazy and worthless process. Either way, this may still partly explain the reason why public sector and government agencies rank highly amongst those accused of transgressing fair process, bypassing relationships, chemistry and the value of design.

Interestingly, of understanding, relationships & chemistry, 73% of design consultancies believe that understanding client needs is important to winning new business, and 60% highlighted relationship and chemistry as necessary, none of which can be provided by any creative within this type of a pitch. More interesting is the opposites of opinions. For the client, seeing something tangible would appear to be necessary, thereby justifying their requests. However, when asking agencies how important creativity actually is, the figure drops to just 40%-44%.

Regardless of these results, design teams do pitch, which is only fuel to clients. Stranger still, then, and looking to the same survey conducted by the Design Council, only 2% of design consultancies consisting of 1-19 people actually reported making successful pitches. Freelances, incidentally, were only slightly higher at 3%.

As you would imagine, larger consultancies fared slightly better but still with only 15% of agencies sized 20-39 and 28% for agencies sized 40-59 reporting success. It then drops back down again. With figures like this, who on earth would pitch?

We’re all aware that trust for a designer can be destroyed in an instant in everyday relationships with clients. Being too cheap on one hand is as dangerous as being too expensive on the other. It’s promising gold for the price of tin, or worse, attempting to sell tin for the price of gold.

By its very nature, the only guaranteed result from a pitch is the seeding of distrust. The relationship with design is eroded immediately.

Like any business, a large barrier for success is from a lack of trust, differentiation and good brand building. The design profession is not immune to any of these. If designers and agencies maintain a strong sense of differentiation and new business acquisition and relationship building, there may be far less need to write about the pitch.

Being a good [visual] designer is simply not enough and can’t make a freelance or design consultancy. All designers need to be thinkers, and challenge the details to provide good design. In addition, successful practitioners in a world of business and numbers won’t base their success on looks alone, as appealing, tidy and fresh, as they may be.

Most agree that the valuable strength of thinking behind the right message is not something that can easily be delivered in a pitch, if at all.
But the temptation to do so remains there partly because of a general lack of skills and partly due to it being seen as the norm. As a result, that lack of skills will ensure that design will remain fairly unique in its position that it gravitates designers towards a pitch, unlike other professional bodies like dentists, lawyers, accountants etc.

Could the issue here be that design is not a profession? It is after all, labelled a sector or industry. Despite contributing a significant proportion of the £60BN to the economy each year by the creative industries, design, remaining completely unregulated, continues to reside with a lame definition that is actually pulling it down. It’s partly no wonder that the value of design is failing to be heard.

With the make-up of many agencies not being business led, going hand-in-hand with a generic approach to new business, combined with a large percentage of design consultancies employing fewer than five designers; new business, marketing, sales and success is likely to suffer. Pitching will inevitably be seen as a necessary cost of generating new business, for some.

With the teaching of design failing to cover business at any where near good depth, and with little incentive given to cross discipline, design school leavers are less likely to set up a business with people other than designers. This trend continues with the notion of t-shirts and suits, where for some reason designers must opt for one only to be forced to look elsewhere for another.

So where we go from here is largely up to individuals to decide. You can’t force an unregulated market, but when almost four in ten designers think their colleagues do not communicate the value of design well, it would seem to suggest we must collectively head away from the free for all and steer closer toward a form of regulation.

But perhaps sooner, Universities and designers could move design along themselves from the often-perceived wooly operation that it actually isn’t, and to command and demonstrate the true value of design as a major part of their business. Only then will there be a chance that clients will follow.

On conclusion, for me, speculative pitching is akin to being invited to the casino, by the casino, to knowingly gamble with other people’s money. Yes, you put in your own time and money as well, but the larger stake being gambled by those who decide to take up the offer is the reputation to the wider community and to design itself.