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Free Design Pitching

Free Graphic Design & Web Design Pitching

Why it is bad for business...yours and ours


(from the Australian Graphic Design Association AGDA)

Free pitching is the practice of clients asking for unpaid design submissions from one or more studios in order to decide which studio to use. Sounds remarkable? Not as remarkable as the fact that a number of studios actually accept this way of doing business! This AGDA Practice Note explains why "AGDA is unequivocally opposed to free pitching," as stated in our Code of Ethics. Free pitching is bad for clients and bad for design businesses.

Why free pitching is bad for clients

Free pitching is bad for clients because it substantially reduces the probability of an appropriate and relevant design solution. A free pitch situation is like a beauty parade - decidedly superficial. The problem with a superficial solution is that it is not only a waste of time and money at the design stage, it also jeopardises the effectiveness of any further spend on downstream processes such as print, multimedia and distribution. Reproduction processes are always, 'garbage-in, garbage-out.'

In a 1995 survey of large UK companies, a significant proportion nominated free pitching as their appointment method of choice, but the same group also nominated 'an understanding of the company or market' as the most important criteria for consultant selection. "This is a fundamental discrepancy - clients won't get that in-depth understanding of the market in a free pitch," Nicholas Ind, The Jenkins Group, UK.

So, if good design is about solving a client's communication, marketing or business problem, then it is hard to imagine that an effective design can be developed without a reasonable application of experience, knowledge and time from both the client and the designer.

"In our experience, developing design work based on inadequate information (which usually goes hand-in-hand with a free pitch), is seldom productive or rewarding for the client or the designer." Garry Emery, Emery Vincent Design.
"Sure, we've done the occasional free pitch. But to be honest, how good is the work really going to be if you're not getting paid for it? I mean, you're just not going to put in the time." AGDA member (name withheld)

Free pitching is bad for designers

Free pitching is bad for designers not only because it economically damages the unfortunate design business that engages in it but also the entire industry by encouraging clients to continue the practice.

"Winning a job with a free submission inevitably results in not recovering your original investment, dealing with a client who will thwart your every attempt to do the job properly, frustrate you to death and then find the most ingenious reasons for not paying for the tasks performed." Ian Kidd, Ian Kidd Design

Although some studios charge production commissions, the income generated this way is not substantial or characteristic of the profession the way it is in other creative professions such as advertising. So, where other creative professions consider the creation stage as an investment cost to their main income stream, graphic designers do not. And even in advertising, the emergence of independent media buyers has forced agencies to reevaluate the sustainability of commission-based income.

Free design - graphic design advertising

Why free pitching happens

In order to fix a problem you have to identify the cause. Not all clients understand the design process or the value and depth of a good design solution that springs from a professional client-designer relationship.

"At a major financial services company we found that half of their multi-million dollar print media budget was being commissioned by marketing managers who were typically in their first or second job, with less than 3 years full time work experience and with no prior experience of working with designers. After we pointed out that printing is a 'garbage-in, garbage-out' process, the national marketing director agreed that some education on working more effectively with designers would probably be a good thing." Andrew Lam-Po-Tang, Lam-Po-Tang & Co.

an effective business process

Like any effective business process, the design process begins with a good definition of the business and/or communication objectives. Developing that definition requires the experience and knowledge of both the client and the designer, a certain amount of learning on the part of both professionals, and most definitely respect and commitment from each.

"Clients who are incapable of preparing an adequate design brief often use competitive design submissions to assist them in defining the particular project requirements, and to help them gain an understanding of the design process and in order to determine cost." Garry Emery, Emery Vincent Design
"A designer must get to know the client's business, products, aims and philosophy etc. properly before they can produce a successful solution. This initial part of any project takes serious time - and time is money!" Barrie Tucker, Tucker Design

The difference with Advertsing agencies

For some clients who have dealt with advertsing agencies, but not designers, there is a lack of understanding in the fundamental differences between advertising agencies and design studios. Agencies make their money from commissions on production and media budgets, whereas designers make their money from creating and selling design solutions.

"The difference is that with every invitation to produce spec (free) creative the advertising agency is investing in potentially several million dollars worth of business, whereas for most designers $50,000 is a "big" job. The stakes are different: so is the process" Leslie Sherr, 'Gambling For Your Fee,' Communication Arts article

Not that clients are the issues here. Naive designers with little understanding of business can be just as much at fault in responding to free pitch requests without bothering to explain the process and economics of their business to those potential clients.

"...other design studios must be doing business in a different way to us. We don't seem to come up against this 'unpaid submission' attitude all that often from our clients or our potential clients." Les Leahy, Cato Design Inc.
"The people who gain from spec work are the young, the uninitiated, those with low overheads who have nothing to lose. Established designers all agree that spec work is not good for the profession because it shortcuts the process." David Goodman, 'Gambling For Your Fee,' Communication Arts article

it's about the solution

The simple fact remains that designers make a living from developing design solutions for their clients - not from print commissions, not from royalties.

"If a client asks for a free pitch, my response is, I will do it if he/she forgoes their salary while I'm working on the job!" Warwick Cruise, Cruise Studio Graphics
"I do not expect my lawyer, accountant, doctor, dentist or Alfa mechanic to donate their skilled time for my benefit, nor would I ask them to demonstrate their skills without appropriate reward." Brian Sadgrove, Brian Sadgrove and Associates

If a designer were to consistently engage in free pitches and win say, one in every two, they would have to be building in extraordinary margins into the projects they did win just in order to survive, let alone make money! So the client loses by either not getting the most effective design solution or paying too much in the end. And if it's too good to be true, it probably is. With free design pitching it is a lose - lose situation.



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