Selling Design | April 12, 2011

As the managing director of a design agency, itís my job to bring in the business. That means talking to prospective clients, writing proposals and running pitches.

Iím lucky to work with some amazingly talented people and together weíve developed a strong reputation in the industry. Iíve got a huge amount of faith in our team and really believe in what we can achieve. This makes meetings prospective clients for the first time really easy. I simply channel our passion and expertise in the hope that theyíll be convinced by our experience, buy into our vision and be infected by our love of good design. This isnít a particularly sophisticated sales approach, but then again Iím not a particularly sophisticated salesman, being first and foremost a designer.

I have a good understanding of where our strengths lie, the kind of clients we work best with and the type of projects we excel at. Iím also aware of our limitations and know the type of projects and clients we should avoid. This is partly though intuition and partly though experience. Weíve resisted the urge to grow, so arenít forced to take on every project that comes our way simply to pay the bills. Weíre proud to be a lifestyle business, so itís as much about doing good work as it is making money.

This puts us in the enviable position of being able to be selective about the work we take on. So when I meet prospective clients itís as much about assessing the appropriateness of the project and the cultural fit as it is about selling our services. This may sound a little arrogant, but itís a sellers market at the moment and we want to lend our services where itís going to find most value and deliver the biggest reward. Too often have we taken on the first project that came along, only to have to turn down our ideal project two weeks later because we no longer have capacity. So one of my biggest recommendations is to be selective about the work you do and donít be afraid of turning things down. If anything weíve gained more respect and referrals by turning inappropriate work down than by taking it on and doing a half hearted job.

For a long time I assumed that all design agencies took a similar approach to sales, outlining their abilities in an open and honest manner and letting their clients choose the right company for the job. However the more clients and agencies I speak to, the more naive I realise this assumption has been.

For many people the sales process is seen as a game, and like most games the ultimate goal is to win, irrespective of whether youíre the right person for the job. So Iíve seen lots of projects won by inappropriate companies because theyíve come in with a convincing presentation and a hard to beat budget.

Iíve talked with large London agencies who apportion up to 20% of a projects potential earning to the pitch. One agency head proudly explained how they researched every person at the pitch meeting in order to find their weaknesses. For example in one instance they found that the MD of a company to which they were pitching was a fan of a particularly expensive watch, so they went out and bought the same watch for their MD so they could bond during the break. I spoke to a client handler at another big agency whose sole value seemed to be the fact that she was a member of the exclusive Ivy club where she would wine and dine prospective customers.

If you think this sounds a little ďMad MenĒ youíd be right. However cunning sales techniques arenít the preserve of the big guys. Iíve come across numerous small agencies with equally cunning strategies, like the company who insists on pitching first so they can lay ďtrapsĒ for the agencies that follow. Plenty of agencies will overstate their experience or promise things they know they canít deliver, just to win the work. It would seem that game mechanics are in full force. Whenever people are pitched in competition against each other the desire to win will often take over.

As an agency we are often asked to provide creative solutions as part of the pitching process, if only to give our potential clients an understanding of our abilities. To this I refuse, explaining that good design comes from a deep understanding of the problem and close collaboration with the client. Weíre not being difficult, we just donít work that way. Weíll happily show off previous work and explain how it solved our clientís problems, but we hate turning design into a beauty contest. It can demonstrate craft, but shows none of the underlying thinking.

We even hesitate at giving out ideas. Not because we think ideas are precious, almost the opposite in fact. A myth abounds that good design is about creativity and there is nothing more creative than a unique idea. This may be true in the advertising industry where novelty is a key factor, but it couldít be further from the truth in digital product design. The best ideas are a product of insight and understanding rather than a flash of creativity. The most appropriate solutions come from evaluating and synthesising these ideas based on a deep knowledge of the problem. By providing ideas during the pitch process you run the risk of being judged on something you know to be shallow and inappropriate. Even worse if these ideas become accepted and form the basis of your whole approach. So we feel that itís much better to resist the urge of premature ideation and focus on how we get these ideas instead. One method is explainable and repeatable, the other is magic.

The problem is that a lot of people are looking for magic and drama. The pitch is a performance after all, far removed from the skills and abilities you need to actually deliver the goods. So is it any wonder that clients prefer to see an agency creative in colourful trousers and designer glasses excite and enthuse their audience through the power of their ideas alone. That sounds a lot more exciting than an agency explaining that they donít have the answer to your problems but know how to get it. The first process sounds effortless and fun while the second feels uncertain and potentially hard work. ďHow do we know if your ideas are going to be the right ones if we canít see them in the pitch?Ē A perfectly valid question and one that can only be partially answered, thought our experience and track record.

Is this gradual realisation going to change the way I present our services? Probably not! I admit that our sales strategy is incredibly simplistic and naive. I also realise that we lose more work than we could by steadfastly refusing to play the sales game. However I think designers have an obligation to their craft and a duty of care towards their clients, which goes above and beyond their desire to win work. A sort of Hippocratic oath for design. By sticking to your principles from day one I believe you attract the right projects and the right clients, while maximising your chances of success. Letís hope that Iím right os the salesmen will have won, and who wants to live in a world designed by salesmen? Not me, thatís for sure.

Posted at April 12, 2011 11:37 PM


Marcus Lillington said on April 14, 2011 8:05 AM

Don’t underestimate yourself Andy. This article is very much a part of the ‘game’ that you say you don’t understand and/or don’t want to participate in. Any potential client reading this and thinking “should I hire Clearleft?” would definitely be swayed in a positive fashion. But you know that don’t you ;-)

Ideation at proposal/pitch stage is an interesting point that we’re continually struggling with. As you say, it’s pretty hard to find the ‘winning’ argument in “we don’t know enough about you yet to provide you with any valuable ideas at this stage”. Most clients don’t believe you. And, to a certain extent they’re right.

This argument is the same one that we apply to not providing speculative design. And in that case it is right. We never do it. And, we’ve recently lost a pitch because of it where another well-known agency did. But, we’ve also recently won a job too where we refused and another (different) well-known agency did provide spec designs. I thought this had all gone away a year or two ago, but it hasn’t.

Anyway, back to ideation. We often start a project by reviewing the client’s site or sites and make initial recommendations that we can take to the table for discussion. Doing a condensed version of this sort of review as part of a proposal that can then create a discussion at a pitch is no bad thing. It does take some extra effort, but it’s your effort not one of the design team’s who is always on paid work.

Anonymous said on April 14, 2011 1:55 PM

Good read. I also wish there were fewer salesmen who try to “game the system” and overpromise, and more that just tried to give value honestly. It’s nice to see that there are still some out there. I can’t tell you how many hours, weeks, or even months of overtime I’ve had to work because some salesman promised a feature we didn’t have yet in order to give himself a slight edge at closing the deal, and the company I worked for (understandably) wouldn’t go back on the salesman’s word in order to save face.

Marc Nischan said on April 14, 2011 3:47 PM

Great post Andy! I think that you have a terrific advantage in that you understand thoroughly that which you are selling.

As a designer I have been the repeated victim of sales staff who habitually over-promise and under-bid. Sometimes the sales person, the client, and the project manager had exchanged preliminary designs done in Power Point for hand-off to the designers (not IA, but designs!?).

At one place that comes to mind, almost every job required hours and days of wasted work and churn due to uninformed promises, and ritually went over budget. The company lost out on so much because they wouldn’t let themselves rely on their experts.

So my question is: why aren’t more sales teams in the arena of web design including designers from the point of client contact onward? Or encouraging their sales force and designers to exchange ideas and collaborate? Doing so could reduce enough churn to achieve a legitimately lower price, or additional features.

Alex Farran said on April 15, 2011 1:21 PM

It’s reassuring to hear that your straightforward approach has not impeded your success. A nice counterexample to the cynical viewpoint that Machiavellian cunning is necessary to succeed in this world.

David Horn said on April 19, 2011 4:48 PM

The whole process of pitching needs to be re-evaluated … there was a good article from ‘How To Be A Client’ here:

earlier this year about how evaluating a design agency should be more akin to the employment process - evaluating an agencies experience and suitability for the task in hand, rather than getting them to do the ideation dance on the spot.

Thanks for the article.

Andy Budd said on April 21, 2011 11:47 AM

Hey Alex,

Don’t get me wrong. I suspect that we win a lot less projects than we could do with this approach. Many of them are project we’d love to work on. So it really galls me to see good projects go to average agencies. We just have to stick to our principles and hope that an even better project with a more enlightened client is just around the corner. So far they have been, but that may not always be the case.

Laurence McCahill said on April 28, 2011 10:40 AM

Totally agree. It seems to me that too many prospective clients no longer like making decisions for the right reasons (based on suitability for the job, approach and past experience); rather a myriad of factors from creative ideas presented in a pitch, to schmoozing, or even (a common one for smaller organisations) what IT think is the right choice (usually based purely on a preferred technology).

If there’s no cultural fit or mutual respect then the project is set for trouble. I think asking for designs up front shows a lack of respect and understanding. There’s something to said for saying ‘this is us, take it or leave it’. However we’ve found that being too honest can work against us. Unfortunately some people believe everything they’re told by persuasive sales people. There’s not much you can do about that, other than donning a suit and trying to play that game. We also stick to our principles but as you said, there’s always that nagging feeling that someone has been sold a lemon.

Anthony said on May 3, 2011 8:03 PM

This is an amazing outlook on pitching, we try to do the same thing - I think it’s the passion for the subject and stories of success that sell our services.

My colleague often comments that I’m on the edge of my seat, obviously overly excited about the prospect - not a great sales tactic!

Enjoying the blog, thanks.