Free pitches are bad for business - and here’s why


“Please supply visuals or mockups as part of your pitch” - ten words that creative businesses see far too often when pitching for new work and ones make us shudder in horror - but not for the reasons you might think.

Of course it’s a lot of work and additional time on top of the fee-paying client work. But as a busy technology agency we’re more than used to juggling multiple projects and deadlines. If we want the job we’ll put the work in.

But doing the creative work for free before you’ve even won the job?

As an agency that is committed to delivering excellence for its clients, this goes against all of our robust processes and everything we stand for creatively for two reasons.

  • It doesn’t deliver the best solution for the client
  • It’s an unsustainable practice for us as a creative business

Let me give you a bit of background to explain...

Tech Isn’t Mad Men

Creative pitching, as it is often referred to, evolved out of the advertising industry, where suave Don Draper-style ad men and women waltzed into the offices of blue chip firms, bowled them over with big ideas and then danced out with a five-year account worth millions of pounds.

The fact is that this kind of scenario only really happens in advertising and, crucially, advertising agencies are frequently paid to pitch.

In technology and digital specifically, the work we pitch for is predominantly project-based with budgets in the thousands rather than millions, so putting hours of agency time into creative for pitches can end up being a serious loss maker.

It’s not that we think that clients are trying to get all the ideas and work for free. We’re not being precious and getting our creative knickers in a twist. We just want to be able to deliver the very best work and there seems to a lack of understanding from clients as to how they should be selecting the right agency for the job.

“But we need something to judge”

This is what we’re often told by clients when we challenge a request to provide visuals as part of a pitch. It’s easy to forget that often the client you’re speaking to has to pitch ideas internally to get budgets signed off or agreement on the supplier selected, often to senior board members with far less understanding of how creative work should be delivered.

A visual is tangible, where as a credentials based pitch, by far the most appropriate route businesses should be taking and which I’ll talk about shortly, is not. This is where education comes in, both on the part of the agency to client contact and then on the part of the client contact to internal stakeholders and decision makers.

Shallow Response

The biggest danger in creative pitching is that even if the designs an agency creates are loved by the client by pure fluke, they might not actually be the best solution for the business problem being addressed.

You see websites, apps and software products need to do more than look nice. They have to work too. They need to be something that people will use and you just can’t create that without delving into the inner workings of the business or organisation, user behaviour and pain points, workshops and brand guidelines - information that can only really be garnered once the working relationship has begun.

A pre-pitch design isn’t going to be good work, it will be shallow, naive and based on assumption. What’s worse is that if the designs are liked and you’re appointed, you could find that you end up creating a piece of work that doesn’t deliver the best solution, just because a particular design or direction has been agreed even before any investigations have been done.

So what is the solution?

Credentials Pitching

Credentials pitching is when a company provides background to its business, shares its approach to a particular project and gives evidence of previous work in the field, which often includes case studies, live sites or previously created artwork.

There’s also clear arguments for other elements of the processes, such as client research into agencies ahead of putting out the tender or brief, chemistry meetings to see if the relationships work and a joined up and well constructed brief.

Clients beware: The false economy of free pitching

Free/creative pitching is toxic to the design and technology industry, there’s no doubt about it. It devalues the skill as it doesn’t respect the creative process and inevitably leads to poor outcomes. You wouldn’t ask a lawyer to represent you without any background information would you?

But the biggest risk to clients is the beautiful pitch that is submitted, visuals and all. This may lead you to believe that agency responsible is far more creative, talented and committed than those who refuse. To the contrary, it’s usually the case that they have more time on their hands as they have less paid work to be dealing with, they’re willing to forego proper processes in pursuit of a sale, even if it means the outcome doesn’t work best for clients.

Quite often the best agencies just don’t have the time to deliver visuals at pitch. Even if they did they would be reticent to do so as it will be without business insight and it won’t reflect their best work.

How to select a design or technology agency

Clients, we know that you value design and often you understand the creative process, or you wouldn’t be looking for external expertise to support your project, right?

So, we need you to educate those internal stakeholders that want to see something ‘tangible’ at pitch. As well as sharing this blog, we find this article on the ‘Free Pitching Debate’ from the Design Business Association (DBA) is a useful educational tool, along with this document, also from the DBA, which explains the benefits of credentials pitching vs creative pitching.

And agencies? Stop giving in! As an industry we need to pull together on this one, so our art, skills and expertise are not devalued and so our businesses and teams can thrive. And, most importantly, so our work showcases exactly what brilliant, insightful and creative work can deliver for businesses and organisations.

Are you looking for a agency that delivers creative that makes an impact? Do you need support identifying what your business needs or how to manage the pitch process? Contact us today.