13 June 2006
Running an agency

Creative pitches are toxic

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.