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. It's bad for clients and bad for design businesses.
Why is it bad?
Free pitching 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.’
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
It’s 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.
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.
Why it 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.” 1
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.” 2
For other clients who have dealt with advertising 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 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 only issue 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.” 3
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 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.
How to choose a designer
AGDA members adhere to a code of conduct, and are expected to engage with clients in a manner that mutually benefits toward a successful outcome. We have prepared the ‘How to choose a designer’ checklist for prospective clients and design commissioners that outlines this process.
1. Andrew Lam-Po-Tang, Lam-Po-Tang & Co
2. Garry Emery, Emery Vincent Design
3. Les Leahy, Cato Design Inc