British Design Initiative has launched Professional Pitch - a guide and series of templates designed to significantly reduce or eradicate the need for clients to ask for free creative concepts prior to appointment. Here, Maxine J Horn (BDI, CEO) discusses the origin of the free pitch.
In 2002, turnover in the UK commercial design consultancy sector
fell by an estimated GBP 800,000 and fee income fell by GBP 1.1 billion
(1); in 2003 it fell even further. Not only does this indicate that
agencies are dropping their prices, but also that competition for work
is fierce. In this climate, free pitching rears its ugly head with a
But in a competitive environment where design buyers have seen their budgets slashed, is it unreasonable to shop around and try to get as many ideas as possible for free?
And if buyers meet with little resistance from hungry and sometimes desperate design agencies with no established rules to protect them, does the industry have anyone to blame for its predicament but itself?
Over the past 11 years BDI has heard the anti-free pitch argument countless times. Moreover, it is evident that some of the loudest voices are regular free-pitchers. Despite the passions raised by the subject, only a handful of agencies maintain their 'no free pitching' stance when times get tough.
But before they are condemned, we have to examine why the problem persists. It has often been said that if every agency just said 'no' the issue would simply go away. It wouldn't - the problem would change to who will pitch for the lowest amount. 10 Euro's paid is a paid pitch.
Origin of the Free Pitch
To put free pitching into its historical context, let's go back twenty years or so and look at the advertising industry. Business was awarded for the right 'creative idea' that won the client's favour. The biggest earner to the agency was not creative fees but media buying commission.
The same client personnel (or their team) responsible for appointing the advertising agency were also responsible for buying other creative services including design, sales promotion, direct mail. Those departments followed the same procurement pattern - for want of any alternative guidelines - even though the financial rewards were/are disproportionately lower.
Times have changed. The advertising industry has spawned hundreds of media buying agencies that offer a better deal. Today, above-the-line advertising, has to be supplemented by below- and through-the-line, as well as new media offers. Yet advertising agencies have adapted and survived the changes - why? I would argue it is because they are largely run by business, sales or marketing people - not by 'creatives'.
Creative or Business-led?
The commercial design sector is predominantly run by creatives. Those that aren't (including some of the most influential and successful players such as Wolff Olins, Johnson Banks, Fishburn Hedges, Seymour Powell) have figure heads with their roots in advertising or PR, not design.
This is not to say that designers are incapable of running a business or have no business acumen. Creative insights make a crucial difference to a business. But characteristically, designers are emotionally driven; they are not cold negotiators. They are often so personally attached to the value of the work presented that negotiation can feel like an insult.
In addition, many buyers have no true understanding of how to value design or buy it effectively. Faced with the perceived under-valuing of their services, many designers lose the pragmatism to take a balanced view.
As professionals, designers have to accept - passion aside - that a balance between healthy competition and fair trading has to be achieved if the industry is to improve its professional standing.
In order to balance creativity and commercial reality, the design industry requires a legal framework for pitching that recognizes client need as much as it does agency protection. And that requires the design industry to pull together; put passion aside and take a balanced, logical view to create a professional pitching environment.
Many Guises of the Free Pitch
Free pitching takes on many guises and varies not only by design discipline but also by level of strategic offer. For some, free pitching is about spending time on visuals. For others it means giving strategic advice. I personally feel that agencies' willingness to give away their expertise is the single greatest obstacle to the design sector's attainment of 'professional status'.
Which begs the question: Are we an industry or a profession?
Accepted professions include legal, accountancy, management consultancy. Do they 'pitch' and give their advice and expertise for free? No. And the only criteria for appointing these services are track record, client list, client referrals, specialism, and cost.
Granted, some agencies sell strategy and others rely on the client to present them with the strategy, research and a well-defined brief. At times a design agency's role is to create a brochure, for example, from material provided and to implement a non-strategic solution. But sometimes an accountant's role is just to produce a set of accounts without strategic or tax advice and a solicitor's role is sometimes just to deal with legal paperwork. But they manage to differentiate between a strategic and non-strategic role without pitching. Why can't the design profession achieve the same?
I would suggest that it is because non-creatives describe themselves as and are recognized as professionals. Their established qualifications inspire respect and trust; clients and advisors alike are protected by a legal framework, and practitioners are expected to adhere to a code of conduct and meet certain standards.
The design industry / profession does not. The nearest it comes is the Chartered Society of Designers, which some would say, has failed the industry by concentrating on academia rather than dealing with the profession's business status.
The design sector can only move forward if it can put emotion aside and treat pitching in a pragmatic and balanced manner. And client organizations need a better way to evaluate an agency's suitability based on credentials, previous experience, and personality. All clients should be aware that they have no claim over IP or Copyright on any work produced free of charge by an agency prior to, during or post pitch.
(1) Source: The British Design Industry Survey 2002 and 2003, produced jointly by British Design Initiative and the Design Council
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The Launch of Professional Pitch
Creating a Professional Pitch environment is the main objective of an initiative driven by the British Design Initiative (BDI) in partnership with Anti-Copying in Design (ACID) and endorsed by ISBA, and IPA. Professional Pitch (PP) is a set of consultancy appointment Guidelines and Self Help tools such as a briefing template, an evaluation tool, a pitch assessment tool and IP Agreements. The guidelines, templates and tools are designed to recognise the needs of both buyer and seller and thereby assist design buyers and design consultancies to undertake a 'professional pitch' process and equally to safeguard and value creative input appropriately prior, during and after a pitch.
Working closely with the BDI, Anti Copying in Design (ACID) has provided the intellectual property legal framework and practical self-help tools such as confidentiality and intellectual property agreements to accompany these guidelines.
About Maxine J. Horn
Maxine J Horn is CEO of the British Design Initiative, a company she founded in 1993. Over the past 11 years she has forged deep relationships with the UK's design agencies, industry bodies, government and media.
She plays a pivotal role in facilitating business opportunities and the two-way flow of information between design agencies and design buyers, design-driven organizations, the media, government and influential individuals and bodies in the UK and overseas. She is a founding member of Design Partners, set up by UK Trade & Investment. Design Partners aims to increase the level of international design business by co-ordinating the activities of design industry bodies and government agencies and departments.