Free pitching is like ordering two pizzas and only paying for the one you liked best
If you’re a designer or work within the creative industry the words “free pitch” are likely to have come up in your dealings with clients. Free pitching in a nut shell is where 2 or more designers or agencies are asked to competitively pitch their creative ideas against one another in response to a pitch brief for no or very little financial compensation in order to win the project (although this is not a given). This unfortunate practise is born from the idea that if you’re lucky enough to work as a creative then providing your ideas, time and skill set for free in the hope of winning the job and then eventually getting paid is reasonable because after all isn’t design your passion, isn’t that enough? Ah no, actually it’s not. This attitude doesn’t just persist within the graphic design industry, I have very talented friends in various sectors of the arts such as photography, acting, interior design, journalism and music that have all at one time or another been expected to provide their talents and time for free.
This mentality so rife in the arts is just so harmful to creatives but ironically is just as harmful to the client or business. Why is it so bad, and how can the client lose when essentially a product is received for free?
The reasons why this is such a loss for designers and creative agencies is obvious. Good design is based on a skilled, trained professional taking a comprehensive creative brief and problem solving the issues raised whilst visually communicating the main messaging the design is required to communicate. This problem solving is central to all good design, it’s the difference between strategic, relevant design and superficial pretty pictures on a page.
When a designer is asked to pitch for free its grossly undervalues the skill, time and creativity required to produce design that has relevance as well as impact. To formulate strategic ideas and the IP behind those ideas (the primary product for a designer or creative agency) for free is like asking a chef to cook your dinner in his restaurant but letting them know you will only pay for this service if you judge it better than his rival. No one would expect this from a professional chef so why a professional designer? It’s obvious that the designer loses out here, even if they happen to win the project they have massively undersold themselves and their ideas and have set up a precedent on the intrinsic value of their industry.
What’s less obvious is how this is also a bad situation for the client who is essentially getting a professional service and not having to pay for it. Firstly, all good design comes from a partnership between designer and client, where communication, collaboration and research to create a thorough brief is mandatory before a designer even turns on their Mac and starts the concept process. It’s only through this exchange and collaboration between client and designer that problem solving, insight and strategy in design can occur. With the free pitch this essential step is rarely executed properly and is often completely missed. Pitching is often less about strategy and rationale and more about guessing what the client is going to like subjectively so you can hopefully win them over. By its nature, free pitching is a very superficial exercise with the designs produced equally superficial. In the end the client’s design unique objectives, problems and challenges remains unsolved, and the project has failed at the very first step.
Most clients and businesses understand that strategic design is a powerful tool for their businesses but often they need the collaboration and skill set from a creative agency to understand how to really achieve and maximise this power and value of good design.
As a designer or creative agency the first step is to understand the intrinsic value of your work and time, saying no to free pitching and to educate your client on why you are taking this stand is so important to the future of all creatives and the industry we love. Yes this is risky and you could lose the project and client but only if the other agency has no issue with free pitching which then gives you very little chance when it comes to working with this client. This is where all creatives and businesses need to pull together to create change to an industry that has been long undervalued. There has to be a headspace shift when it comes to the creative arts not matter what field, free pitching is a los-lose situation for all, damaging the design industry by lowering the bar on both the quality of design and the quality of relationship between designer and client. Despite the risk in an already competitive space it’s the responsibility of all creatives to say no to giving away their ideas for free and to explain why. I hope this article can help future creatives navigate this issue in a way that helps clients allow their design team to work collaboratively with them for best results.
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