Creative pitches are toxic | June 13, 2006

In a recent survey of design agencies, the BDI calculated that unpaid creative pitches cost UK agencies an average of £38,000 per year. This may sound reasonable for a large agency with plenty of resources, especially if they are going after large projects. However over half of the design agencies in the UK employ less than five people, and £38,000 is a lot of money for a small agency.

I’ve long held the belief that creative pitches are toxic, and unpaid creative pitches doubly so. This view is upheld by a number of professional design associations that actively ban their members from engaging in unpaid creative. Creative pitches are bad for the client, bad for the designer and bad for the industry as a whole, and I’m going to explain why.

The concept of creative pitches came primarily from the print and advertising worlds. To gain a competitive edge, design agencies would offer to show clients sample ideas, hoping to wow them with their creative skills. This initial outlay made lots of sense when dealing with above the line advertising campaigns that could cost hundreds of thousands of pounds to make, and the initial outlay was small by comparison. This also made sense when commissioning graphic art such as illustration, as it was possible to interpret the client’s wishes from an initial meeting or creative brief.

Sadly, as this process became more and more common, it began to be seen as an accepted part of commissioning creative work. Rather than helping some design agencies distinguish themselves from the competition, pitches began to devolve into beauty competitions. And it wasn’t confined to above the line campaigns either. As the process started to filter down, even the smallest piece of design work was subject to the creative pitch.

I said at the start that creative pitches were bad for the client, and here is why. Design is much more than just creating beautiful works of graphic art; it’s about solving problems in a creative space. However by relegating design to a mere beauty contest, designs will usually be decided on subjective rather than objective terms. People will often choose a design based on their own personal–and sometimes irrational–preferences, rather than the views of the user or the business goals of the organisation. How many times have agencies seen otherwise great designs rejected because the MD doesn’t like that particular shade of green? Or worse still, how many designs have been chosen because they look “wizzy? and “cutting edge? when they are completely inappropriate for the task at hand?

Creative pitches are intended to give clients an understanding of the creative capacity of an agency, yet this is not a fair or balanced comparison. When you hire a creative agency, they will spend time learning about you, your industry and your business. This allows them to understand the problems at hand and come up with creative solutions. In a pitch situation there is never sufficient time for discovery, so any design suggestions will be ill informed at best.

Good design takes time, understanding and plenty of client feedback. Designs will go through numerous iterations before they are complete, often looking nothing like the initial suggestions. By comparison, designs created for a pitch are usually done in a hurry, by whoever is available at the time. There is little room for iteration and the initial submission is usually the one that will be judged.

If clients insist on a creative pitch, the only way to help ensure consistency is to pay the designers for their time and design skills, otherwise the larger agencies with bigger resources will always have more time to spend on a pitch than smaller, busier agencies. Sadly, paid pitches are a relative anomaly, and the reasons are clear. Clients see pitching as a way of saving money and cutting corners. Why pay one agency to come up with a single design when you can get five agencies to create designs for free and choose your favourite? Similarly, why spend time researching agencies and examining their portfolio, when you can get them to do most of the work for you?

This logic seems to make sense on the surface, but is fatally flawed, as any design agency that engages in creative pitches will simply pad their day rate to account for the time lost on unsuccessful pitches. Sadly, in an attempt to save money, clients are costing the industry hundreds of thousands of pounds a year. That is money coming out of your pocket.

Because creative pitches are usually unpaid, clients are able to request pitches with a minimal personal outlay. This means pitches often happen far too early in the process, before a project has been properly scoped out or checked for feasibility. As such, the BDI survey found out that over 25% of projects are not awarded after a creative pitch. This is big news so I’m going to repeat it again. Over a quarter of creative pitches are never awarded! If creative pitches are such a useful tool for deciding a design partner, why do they so frequently fail? Is it because the designs presented aren’t up to scratch, or is it because the whole process of creative pitches are fatally flawed, providing too many, partially complete designs for the inexperienced client to choose from?

Even if the project is awarded, there is no guarantee that the playing field will be level. Quite often companies will put projects to tender when they have already made a decision, and are simply showing due process. I have experienced both sides of this equation, having pitched for projects where we knew we’d get the work, as well as projects where the incumbent was always going to win.

I have always believed that creative pitches provide poor value for the client, and makes choosing a design partner harder rather than easier. I also believe unpaid creative pitches are bad for the designers involved and damaging to the industry as a whole. Apart from the large amount of money lost per year, unpaid pitches relegate design to a commodity, and a free commodity at that. People value things they pay for, while they place little stock in things that are free. This is why so many creative pitches go un-awarded.

To ensure that clients continue to see the value of professional design, as an industry we must stand our ground and charge for our services. If a client comes to you with a creative pitch, explain the pitfalls surrounding the process and why you don’t engage in unpaid creative If they are a reasonable client they will understand your reasoning and respect you all the more. If the client insists, politely decline and spend the time more profitably elsewhere.

I was discussing the issue of creative pitches with some colleagues a few weeks ago, and fully expected them to agree with my position. However to my surprise, these industry experts not only accepted creative pitching as a daily part of their life as a designer, they thought it was a good thing. In all honestly I was quite taken aback by this attitude, so thought it was worth putting my thoughts online.

So I ask you fellow designers, what is your view on creative pitches? Are they an inevitable–and some may say necessary–part of the design process, or a costly, archaic and counter-productive by-product of a bygone era?

Over to you.

Posted at June 13, 2006 8:47 AM


Fuzzy Orange said on June 13, 2006 9:07 AM

I’m not a designer, im a web developer, but at my company this is the one thing that really annoys me.

Every client that comes to us wants some designwork doing and sending to them before they decide to use us or someone else.

Often we will lose jobs as larger companies have the resources to make very flashy designs and we do not.

And as you said, we then have to bump our hourly rate to clients that do work with us to compensate for all the free design time we have to do for projects we don’t get.

Which means we start to become over priced and find it harder to win contracts as other companies will do work cheaper.

It’s a horrible way of working but sadly every client we speak to insists on seeing design work - it has become the industry ‘norm’

Lea de Groot said on June 13, 2006 9:10 AM

The other downside is the legal risk - and I find it is the biggest ‘selling point’ for discouraging prospective clients from asking for this.
When competing work is produced for a creative sample by several agencies only one will be selected.
The remaining agencies will see their work not used… except, will they? When an agency later sees the final product and goes ‘elements X, Y and Z’ are exactly what we offered, a law suit may well follow.
I make this clear to clients and that for their protection and mine I don’t perform this sort of … work.
I like to compare it to successful authors who never want to read fan-fiction, so they can’t be sued for stealing concepts.

Dave said on June 13, 2006 10:51 AM

A well written piece Andy..and I couldn’t agree more. I have been campaigning for years in various places of work to stop these outdated approaches. Unfortuantely it is a slow process and there is a good deal of inertia, from both clients and employers. Education and sound arguements are needed and even then everyone has their own opinion(however misguided! ;)) and noone likes to feel they are missing out or not keeping up with the I suppose it will continue for many a year.

Fortunately now where I work, visuals only get produced following the whole process including prelim questionnaires, proposals, specification, wireframes and page description diagrams (detail dependant on scope of project), and the visual design as you so rightly say is really only to reinforce all the other elements of creating a succesful website that will meet BUSINESS objectives!

Richard Jones said on June 13, 2006 11:35 AM

Unfortunately a necessary evil.

They’re certainly not part of a design process per se, but have become synonymous within the process of engaging a design/creative agency – a process inherited generally from above-the-line agencies.

It’s also interesting to note, that historically ATL agencies used the creative pitch to present potential conceptual ideas only, with the treatment explained via scamps (pen+paper roughs) – ironically enough to save both the agency & client money in exploring ideas.

We, as a industry have fallen so far down this rabbit hole that now to be placed on a roster or even considered for a brief, we must partake in an unpaid creative pitch of some type.

Firstly, whilst I completely agree with the ‘no-fee no-pitch’ standpoint, it does come across as a little too idealistic and fails take into account the myriad of complexities involved in some of today’s pitches (score sheets anyone?).

Secondly, they will always be somebody willing to flex and show-off their ‘creative muscle’, even for free. If in the long run there is a (very slim) possibility of some work. Unfortunately standing in front of potential clients, who perhaps don’t have a creative bent, selling an ideal instead of three boards (like the previous candidate) won’t stand your agency the best possible chance of winning the business.

Thirdly, until as a society we change the fundamentally ingrained practice of choosing procurement, specifically quantity and cost over quality – until that seismic shift paid pitches will still be as rare as hen’s teeth.

Alex Farran said on June 13, 2006 11:57 AM

Only doing work you’re paid for directly is the safe option, but you don’t grow without taking risks. Free work is a form of marketing and should be evaluated as such. Look at what open sourcing rails has done for 37signals.

As for associations banning their members from offering free work, well that’s just an attempt to form a cartel.

Andy Warwick said on June 13, 2006 12:00 PM

A rallying point for all of those who feel the same way.

If you don’t want to pay me for my skills, I don’t want to work for you, whether on the promise of future work or not.

You wouldn’t dream of going into half-a-dozen restaurants and asking for free meals to see if you want to return for that special occasion with your partner at some point down the line, so why devalue our industry by doing the same?

Cliff Boobyer said on June 13, 2006 1:06 PM

Hi, I’m the creative director from the agency that authored the report with the BDI. I’ve noticed that the reports are no longer on the BDI home page, however, they can be viewed on our blog article from december last year.

Cliff Boobyer said on June 13, 2006 1:13 PM

Sorry people, I tried the textile link to no avail and this post has an untidy slug. Hopefully Andy can edit this.

setmajer said on June 13, 2006 1:19 PM

@alex: Whatever one may think about unpaid pitches, they are not in any way equivalent to Open Source Software.

When one decides to release software under an Open Source license, one is making one’s work available for use by public with the expectation of benefit, both direct (bug reports, patches, feature requests, etc.) and indirect (goodwill, enhanced reputation, publicity).

When one pitches for free, one is making one’s work available for viewing by one company with the expectation of a chance for benefit.

Moreover, with Open Source one is contributing to a community of some sort. With unpaid pitches, one is contributing to nothing but the requesting firm’s bottom line.

The two just aren’t at all equivalent.

Paul Boag said on June 13, 2006 1:24 PM

I have to say I feel really passionately about this subject. Its something I have posted on before and we often find ourselves talking it through with clients. I have to confess we havent gone cold turkey and stopped all speculative work but we have certainly managed to cut back considerably.

Dan said on June 13, 2006 1:46 PM

Amen Andy. Totally agree.

Marcus said on June 13, 2006 1:50 PM

Hi, nice article and something Paul and I (Boagworld) have discussed endlessly over the years. The only positive I can give is that this phenomenon is not as bad as it once was. Or, I guess, we are bigger now so we don’t have to grovel so much! I find that most prospective clients will understand (and then back down) when you explain about the ‘beauty contest’ idea. They don’t want to trivialise the process and more than we do.

Alex Farran said on June 13, 2006 1:57 PM

You don’t have to explain open source software to me, setmajer (or whatever your real name is). The point is that the biggest benefit in this particular case is not bug fixes etc, but marketing and reputation. Reputation is a very strong motivation in all OSS projects.

Anyway Andy’s post is not very convincing. It’s sensible to make your own calculations about the costs and benefits of free pitches, and to make your own arrangements with each client. Making them out to be it some kind of huge injustice just sounds like moaning. You have to spend some time and energy wooing clients. Especially in an industry with such low barriers to entry.

Andy Budd said on June 13, 2006 2:41 PM

Hi Alex,

Sorry if you found the post unconvincing. Maybe you could expand on this a bit?

As you know, there is a huge difference between offering your services for free on the off-chance of wining a pitch, and collaborating on an open source project. Trying to equate the two is a little absurd.

As a programmer, if your clients expected you to build a functioning demo from scratch for every pitch, would you do so? Somehow I doubt that you would.

aj said on June 13, 2006 3:22 PM

Chasing new work / clients with unpaid pitches is pretty toxic. This past year my company pitched a rather major website redesign (by invitation), that took almost a month to evaluate, plan, wireframe and design - and then found ourselves frozen out of it. The whole thing was skewed from the beginning - apparently they only wanted us to “skin” a site being created by someone else, which is completely ass-backwards, and that’s because the client assumed we couldn’t handle the back-end work required.

I have turned this into positive attention, though; I’m just posting the roughs to Flickr and calling them unused designs. Might as well get some sort of marketing value out of them…

And recently, I’ve just been answering random calls from people looking “for Flash sites” and who want to “see our portfolio” with the answer that all the work we’ve done for our clients is custom-tailored to their needs and budget, and therefore may not be representative of what we can do for their company - and anyway, why start discussing specific technologies when we don’t even know what the business requirement is?

Keith said on June 13, 2006 8:18 PM

I agree with you Andy. Mostly. At Blue Flavor we don’t generally do spec work, however, we recognize that there could be a project or client where it made some sense to do something like spec work.

I know I’m sounding a bit wishy-washy but I feel that while in general this kind of pitch is a bad thing, there are times when an exception could be made.

One thing we’ve been doing a bit of is pitching a initial “discovery” phase that’s usually pretty short (5-15 hours usually) but where we can do a bit more discovery and begin to explore creative if that’s needed. We use this phase to “test the waters” and nail down our proposal and job orders. We usually scope out the rest of the project, but go in with the knowledge that our estimates may change and the client may leave at any time.

While some clients balk at this, many have been pleased with the result. Considering the amount of time and effort that a potential client can spend writing up an RFP (many of which are bloated wastes of time) and then choosing a creative partner this kind of trial discovery phase is actually not only attractive but useful.

So far every client that has done this has chosen to continue the engagement, so it’s worked out well for us also.

But again, it depends on the project and potential client.

Small Paul said on June 13, 2006 9:24 PM

Some folks strongly agree:

Coulda sworn Dave Shea posted a similar articlee as well a couple of years back, but I can’t find it.

Matt Carey said on June 13, 2006 9:32 PM

Well said Andy. We have a no free pitching policy and we have lost out on some nice projects through it.

I find the inconsistency across the industry annoying. It is not just the start up companies who do a lot of free work to get their foot in the door, but the big boys too.

Don Grantham said on June 13, 2006 9:34 PM

II can’t tell you how many times we’ve received an RFP asking for pre-engagement comps! They want to see what your design ideas your agency is planning for them even before any discovery process? Hmmm. Let me check my resume again, oh yea, there it is. Psychic.

I have had neither problem nor lost sleep in “respectfully declining? giving specific ideas on what we would do on any project prior to a more formal engagement. Let’s face design community; the main product of our business is ideas creative solutions to the communications problems and opportunities facing our clients. And good ideas -creativity can be tough to define, or agree upon. One person’s passion is often another’s poison. So it’s no wonder that potential clients often ask us to take a project on speculation. That is, to try out our creative product or ideas in much the same way they may try out other types of products before purchasing.

Sure and here are my check book, bank account information and personal credit history. I’m just giving it all away today.

But take hart, by turning down such projects and taking this stance, I believe it actually makes us smaller “boutique? agencies a better, more stable and reliable supplier for our clients to do business with.

Just as for most, if not all, designers who read my rant, I am very proud of my firm’s track record of helping various clients with many different challenges. In doing so, we have come to understand the crucial components in producing effective creativity.

First, outstanding creative work requires thorough input from our clients. It takes time and effort that’s tough for them to justify unless they are committed to awarding an assignment. Yet without it, we can’t show how good we really are. Or our best effort may well be misdirected; a great shot that hits the wrong target. Equally important, great creativity requires enthusiasm. We need to be excited enough to pour all our energy into a project. Frankly, that’s impossible without knowing whether we will be chosen to go all the way. And, finally, developing creativity is very labor intensive. Although we wish it were otherwise, it seldom comes in a flash of inspiration. Rather, it requires research and thinking time, then the working through of many different ideas and approaches. We have a “best practices” process of identifying and implementing a strategic creative solution.

So by clients asking to speculate on how to approach a specific marketing problem makes it difficult or impossible to do good work in a compressed time frame by any agency. Speculative projects usually require cutting every creative corner. That’s hardly in anyone’s best interests.

Beyond that I think that what a smaller agency has to offer is better, more personal service. Of my pier agencies, that I have been exposed to on a personal level, I can say that they all truly value the relationships they’ve built with their clients. They’re in it for the long haul and want to be their client’s agency of choice for all of their creative needs - not just for the moment, but for as long as they have a need. Building that long term partnership. This is one of the reasons why some of us have been so successful.

Another reason for our success is that we are good business people. We know that in a business like ours, we have to watch costs carefully and can’t afford to give much away. If we weren’t careful-if we did give away our time-it is likely we wouldn’t be here next time a client called, which means they would have to start all over again bringing someone else up to speed learning their business. We doubt they would want that, and I know we wouldn’t. I believe that the client / agency partnership should both be looking to build a long-term, mutually productive and cost-conscious business relationship.

Truth is, organizations like ours can seldom afford to accept speculative projects. If you find one that will, be skeptical. They may be desperate. As for those larger organizations and agencies, yes they can afford to do speculative projects, and often do. But that’s the very point. If they do have the volume and staff that makes it a small risk for them, they’re probably too big to give their clients the personal service and outstanding creativity they are searching for.

Ok, nuf said.

Silas237 said on June 14, 2006 10:10 AM

I agree with a number of points in your article, however i think that you are potentially approaching the pitching process in the wrong manner. Instead of producing initial sketches and therefore “relegating design to a mere beauty contest” which any designer or agency concerned about the thought and ideas behind their work must be sickened by, why not approach the client with an open discussion of ideas along with presenting them with the benefits they will gain, not only financially but also credibly, from working with you or your agency. It seems to work for us.

mark rushworth said on June 14, 2006 2:56 PM

i agree, i tool the decision a few years ago that i wouldnt free pitch because i have a great portfolio of work that demonstrates my skill, and that is a reason to buy from me. Theres a campaign to abolish free pitching… but with the big boys paving the way and sme clients thinking theyre investing in ‘branding’ (which is a pale shadow of what it could be because the budget is 1% of what it needs to be) and companies like wrangler asking for free pitches that need almost 100% of the work prior to the project being awarded what can you do - agencies arent going to turn around to nike and say ‘we dont fre pitch’ are they :(

Nice Paul said on June 15, 2006 12:51 AM

In the distant past I learnt the hard way not to do free creative, although when a designer is starting out with little in the way of a portfolio it can be hard.

These days I never get involved in this kind of thing, always referring potential clients to my portfolio of diverse sites often for high-profile clients. Would your clients prefer to employ a (successful) busy designer or one who’s got lots of gaps in their diary (perhaps because they’re not as good)?

It would be like asking a builder to construct your conservatory for free on the promise of paying for a full house-extension if you like it, or taking the conservatory away again if you don’t.

Jared Christensen said on June 15, 2006 4:48 PM

If a client were to ask me for spec work to determine my ability to do what they want, I’d say “Take a look at my portfolio. Look at some of my past clients.” Spec work is despicable. No one should work for free. Not even a little bit.

George said on June 19, 2006 9:35 AM

I completely agree but fear that it is a necessary evil of the industry. Unless you have an existing relationship with a client it is very difficult to avoid. In previous jobs I’ve worked on pitches that have taken up days of a team’s time. This can result in nothing, divert attention from existing clients and shatter morale.

Sadly from my persepctive if you want the business you have to do it.

BingoJackson said on June 20, 2006 4:43 PM

Although I agree that doing anything for free can’t be a good thing, when you are just starting out, as I am, I can’t see a way around it. How do you get that elusive first commision if you aren’t willing to do some free stuff to build a portfolio in the first place?

dantroberts said on June 20, 2006 9:51 PM

I’ve been doing creative pitches for nearly eight years, I’m not a designer by qualification, but by graft. I see a lot of my friends put their heart and soul into their work, not to mention the hours and painstaking detail and attention they give. I really hope that the attitudes and support everyone has illustrated in these posts does not go unnoticed. I agree that unpaid pitches should be frowned upon, especially those proposed by ‘larger, more affluent clients’ but there are instances where smaller companies sending work out to tender need genuine help, and I think it is a designers duty to find those more rewarding and more freely creative-owned opportunities. They are the more appreciated and rewarding jobs, and although not necessarily highly paid, are more satisfying and will ineveitably make the world go around better to mutual advantage.

Lee said on June 21, 2006 12:17 PM

Having been a designer for nearly ten years, I’ve worked at various agencies, all with a differing standpoint on creative pitching - personally I see them as a necessary evil.

Andy is quite right to point out that creative pitches often lead to ill thought out and/or ill conceived end products; mainly due to
limited time and limited access to essential information that we as ‘designers’ need in order to craft the right solution. Also this (possibly) below-par work can often form the basis for further design work. And that’s just plain wrong! We are also often asked to put style over content in order to ‘wow’ the client and this, again is wrong for all sorts of reasons.

I have also been involved in pitches where the client has used said pitch as an ideas gathering exercise, with (it seemed)
little or no intention of actually commissioning the work - often motivated by internal political pressures.

In an ideal world, pedigree and word of mouth would be king! However, we as designers don’t live in an ideal world…the debate rages on…

a Bit Gone said on June 26, 2006 8:05 AM

About 6 years ago, when I used to work for a web design agency, it was a part of life there too. I remember countless times we would spend time - often after normal working hours had long finished - on this type of work.

I think the single most annoying thing was that the management at the place didn’t realise that they were just throwing money down the drain - don’t get me wrong here, the work that me and my colleagues put together would always be of our highest standards, but in almost every case, we wouldn’t get the job.

I’d agree with you that it’s damaging, I’d agree with you that it hurts both sides of the table, but I’d also historically agree with many of the comments here that say it’s a necessary evil.

I now work for an in-house marketing department and head up their Internet department, so - thankfully - I don’t need to put up with it anymore.

simon r jones said on June 28, 2006 8:18 AM

in the past we used to do free creative pitches and almost always found them to be a very unfufilling experience. Without the necessary development and client dialogue, which is impossible in a pitching stage, creative pitches are really a stab in the dark.

For the past year or so we’ve refused politely to do creative pitches, with reasons much as Andy has explained. While we’ve lost the odd job we’ve often won work while other competing agencies still delivered their creative pitches.

Interesting to note Keith’s comment of the initial discovery phase. We do a similar thing for more complex projects (usually development stuff here than just design) and tend to encourage the client to pay us for a couple of days work (which often takes a little more in practise) to scope the project out in more detail. This process has been widely accepted by our prospective clients. We also use this phase to help us accurately quote for a job, which I realise is another point entirely.

I agree sometimes you have to take risks to win clients, though creative pitches just don’t seem to be a very constructive way to do so.

The Constant Gardener said on July 7, 2006 11:02 AM

A company I used to work would often win pitches based upon preferential rate and history with a client rather than quality of work.

I’d often have the client passing me the other competing agencies work and saying “Take this from there and this from that” - so in essence we would end up stealing creative ideas from other people’s pitches.

It was great for us in many ways… but not particularly ethical.

Eddie said on July 20, 2006 9:20 PM

I think you make some valid points, however, I believe that creative pitches are here to stay. To make them more efficent, maybe suggest to the potential client a topic from left field … meaning, instead of pitching a concept for the project they are looking to hire for, you pitch an imaginary project or one from a different industry. Something you have experience with so that they can get an idea of your skills, your personality, etc.

Because I agree, pitching for a idea that you haven’t had proper time to explore is useless. Not only do you have to design based on a shot in the dark, the client has baggage around the issue that is clouding their judgement … so pitch something outside their current problem.

Just a thought …